Divisive or Descriptive? How Americans Understand Critical Race Theory

Alauna Safarpour*, Kristin Lunz Trujillo, Jon Green, Caroline High Pippert, Jennifer Lin, James N. Druckman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become a flashpoint of elite political discord, yet how Americans actually perceive CRT is unclear. We theorize that Republican elites utilized a strong framing strategy to re-define CRT as an "empty signifier"representing broader racial and cultural grievances. Using a survey and a pre-registered experiment among U.S. adults (N = 19,060), we find that this strategy worked. Republicans exhibit more familiarity with CRT and hold more negatively valenced (and wide ranging) sentiments toward CRT, relative to Democrats. Moreover, compared to teaching the legacy of racism in schools, Republicans are significantly more opposed to teaching CRT while Democrats express greater uncertainty. Our findings suggest that by framing CRT as a broad term that envelopes many grievances (including those beyond the scope of CRT), Republican elites have shaped a subset of Americans' understanding of and attitudes toward CRT.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics
StateAccepted/In press - 2024


  • CRT
  • Critical race theory
  • elite cues
  • empty signifier
  • framing
  • race
  • racism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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