CRITICAL RACE theory (CRT) is the Republican Party’s new bogey. As with Democratic calls to “defund the police” in the wake of George Floyd’s death last year, the party believes it has found an unpopular notion that can be used for electoral gain. Last month the Republican-led state legislature in Texas passed a bill limiting how teachers can discuss race and current events. It banned teachers from designing coursework around the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which examines the country’s history from the date when enslaved people first arrived on American soil. The Florida State Board of Education also banned the teaching of CRT, which it defined reasonably accurately as “the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons”.

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New polling data from The Economist and YouGov reveal that most Americans are unfamiliar with CRT. Only 26% of Americans say they have heard “a lot” about the movement, with an additional 38% saying they have heard “a little”. Of this 64%, 54% say they have a good idea of what critical race theory is. (YouGov did not test whether they actually did.) Of those, the majority rated it unfavourably. Many think it is “bad for America”.

Yet a majority of Americans hold attitudes that chime with the theory. More than 70% of adults think racism is somewhat of a problem or a big problem in society (see chart), including 57% who believe racism is a sign of broader problems that exist in the country’s organisational, societal and legal structures. Sixty-two percent of all Americans think the police sometimes operate in racist ways (compared with 25% who don’t); 56% think Congress can be racist; 48% spy racism within banks and financial institutions; and 58% reckon corporations can be racist, too.

Moreover, 30% of people who had an unfavourable opinion of CRT also said the police act in systematically racist ways. Republican leaders may have been successful in turning many of their followers against critical race theory as a term. But they have yet to persuade many Americans that racism does not pervade their society.