Online Knowledge Production in Polarized Political Memes: The Tools of CRT Meme Productionby@memeology
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Online Knowledge Production in Polarized Political Memes: The Tools of CRT Meme Production

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In this study, we analyze the top-circulated Facebook memes relating to critical race theory (CRT) to investigate their visual and textual appeals.
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This paper is available on arxiv under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DEED license.


(1) Alyvia Walters, Rutgers University, USA;

(2) Tawfiq Ammaris, Rutgers University, USA;

(3) Kiran Garimella, Rutgers University, USA;

(4) Shagun Jhaver, Rutgers University, USA.

The Tools of CRT Meme Production

After iteratively coding each meme, we were left with 21 unique codes which could be subsumed under one or more of the following major rhetorical tactics: 1) struggles over definition, or how the meme makes sense of what critical race theory is; 2) constructing “antiracism,” or the ways in which the meme’s ideologies are coded as definitively not-racist to its intended audience; and 3) appeals to authority, or the ways in which the meme uses people or symbols to appear correct. These strategies, then, appear to be the most salient paths through which both pro- and anti-CRT arguments within these memes are built.

Defining CRT

With two exceptions, neither the pro- nor anti-CRT memes analyzed appear to be concerned with the “real” critical legal studies definition of critical race theory. Because CRT was not generally circulated within public discourse prior to the early 2020s, as mentioned above, there was a wide berth for political and epistemological work to be done in the construction of this definition in the public consciousness. Our analysis reveals that these memes do just that: while both proand anti-CRT memes provide a technically incorrect definition of what CRT actually is, the politics of sensemaking unfolds within these memes. Their consumers are left with bifurcating definitions of the bounds, risks, and benefits of critical race theory that ultimately serve to re-define the bounds and values of the communities in which these memes circulate.

Within pro-CRT memes, the aggregated definition reads something like this: critical race theory means teaching history accurately and not being a racist and/or a Republican. These memes went to far fewer lengths than anti-CRT memes to define what CRT actually is, and relied instead upon defining it against other things: racism, Republicans, and/or the erasure of history. The top-circulated meme in our analysis is a prime example of this. In this meme, artist Jonathan Harris stands alongside his now-viral artwork entitled “Critical Race Theory,” which depicts the literal whitewashing of Black history (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Pro-CRT meme of artist Jonathan Harris with his painting entitled "Critical Race Theory"

While this does nothing to define critical race theory, it certainly defines what it is not: the erasure of America’s violent, racist past. Similarly, image cluster 4 (Figure 2) is a computer-generated text-heavy meme that reads, “Republicans are not afraid of critical race theory. They don’t even know what it is. They’re afraid of theories critical of racists. They know who they are.” The irony, of course, is that this meme also does not indicate a real definition of CRT, or an indication of “knowing what it is”–it simply defines CRT against racists and Republicans, both of which believers in CRT cannot be.

Figure 2. Pro-CRT meme accusing Republicans of being racist and ignorant

In contrast to this strategy, anti-CRT memes often utilize quite specific points of definition. Take, for instance, cluster 22 (Figure 3):

Figure 3. Anti-CRT meme outlining CRT’s alleged values

Figure 4. Anti-CRT meme connecting CRT to Marxism

Figure 5. Anti-CRT meme suggesting a connection between “wokeness” and school shootings

In providing a six-point bulleted list, this meme lays out, in no uncertain terms, how its consumers are meant to understand CRT. These definitional strategies, however, are not always so concrete as a bulleted list. Whereas proCRT memes defined CRT against other ideas, anti-CRT memes sometimes worked to define it by conflating it with other “anti-American” ideas, such as Marxism (Figure 4) and straying from Christianity (Figure 5). In other words, antiCRT memes often tied CRT to other “woke” ideologies in order to define it, even as “wokeness,” in and of itself, lacks definitive boundaries.

In all, anti-CRT memes essentially define critical race theory in the following way: CRT is a racist idea that makes people believe that race matters more than it should, and it is yet another way that “wokeness” is destroying America. This conceptualization is starkly different than that of the pro-CRT memes, and both are far from the “real” legal studies definition, as outlined above. As such, there is obvious political struggle in the fight to win the hegemonic, accepted definition of critical race theory — a definition which has little to do with its origins in critical theory and law.

Metadiscourse on the Stakes of Defining CRT In this discussion on the political struggle over defining CRT, one particularly interesting meme to highlight is that of Cluster 27 (Figure 6).

In this meme, a screenshot of a quoted tweet, two people are explicitly naming this struggle and pointing to its risks. By indicating that The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank known for their right-wing ideologies, is a top hit in searching for information on critical race theory, the original tweet author is pointing out that knowledge acquisition via the internet is deeply politicized, and without careful, critical consumption habits, people can be easily misled by seemingly authoritative information. The quote tweet, agreeing with this view, further interpolates into an ongoing debate in U.S. culture on whose “job” it is to educate on topics surrounding race and racism: people of color, who are exhausted by confronting this responsibility every day, but are also the people who have actual experience with racism; or white people, who are the ones who should be expending energy into acquiring knowledge to better educate themselves, without needing to further exploit the time and energy of people of color to do so (see, for example, Zheng (2021)).

Figure 6. Pro-CRT meme which indicates issues around defining CRT

Both Twitter users, “naima, an improvisation,” and “Ramy” land in the same place: passing this responsibility to educate over to the internet is dangerous territory in a politicized information environment. If “some reactionary think tank” such as The Heritage Foundation is where people are gaining their knowledge because “Google is free” and no one else is providing this information, the struggle over defining these words–words which have actual policy impact, as seen through Youngkin’s Executive Order 1–is of utmost importance, and it appears that memes are one avenue in which this epistemological struggle occurs.

Defining “Antiracism”

These pro- and anti-CRT battles over definition, and the recognition in the metadiscourse that this is, indeed, a battle, is almost exclusively fought on the same grounds: that of antiracism. While there are some other nods to bigotry in its various forms, for example, transphobia as displayed in Figure 5, race and racism are unsurprisingly the main sites upon which definitions of critical race theory and its risks and/or benefits, are built. However, in a similar fashion to how “critical race theory” was defined to meet community needs rather than to reflect a “real” definition of the term, “antiracism,” too, is made into a fungible ideal constructed to meet the dire need of both sides of this argument to appear not-racist: a near necessity in 2023 America.

According to Ferguson (2022), antiracism has suffered from a lack of coherent and accessible academic definition. Thus, she proposes a paraphrase of Black author and activist Ijeoma Oluo’s tweeted definition: “the commitment to eradicate racism in all its forms,” with a noted special interest in recognizing the difference between systemic and interpersonal racism. However, the tension we encounter in the analysis of these images is that, under this definition, both overt racism and a quieter “not-racism,” a term we will more clearly define below, is easily able to masquerade as antiracism to the undiscerning eye. In this way, the memes’ constructed definitions of antiracism become a technology through which racism is perpetuated.

Bonilla-Silva (1997)’s oft-cited definition of racism demands recognition of both structural and interpersonal forms of racism, and it also demands acknowledgment of the difference between the two. Because these pro-CRT memes often fail to address structural racism, they fall short of forwarding truly antiracist ideologies even as they consistently present themselves as performing antiracism. These failures come through in what we are deeming “not-racism,” or essentially a focus on the interpersonal aspects of racism only, rather than on the structural ones. For instance, in Cluster 4 (Figure 2), the deflective “they” indicates several things all at once: first, that “we,” those who identify with this meme, are not like “them,” the racist Republicans; and second, that the stakes of this argument on critical race theory reside at the individual, interpersonal level. Each of these two implications constructs racism as something that happens within the hearts and minds of individuals, rather than at the structural level, and further, it absolves those who resonate with the meme from racism: “I am not a racist, because I support critical race theory.” This is not-racism in practice: a positionality that is not reflective of true antiracism, which is an ideology and practice that requires recognition of and action toward dismantling systems of racism, interpersonal racism, and the implicit bias that each of us holds.

This is not to say that pro-CRT memes always failed at performing antiracism, either. There certainly were instances of successful acknowledgement of structural racism, such as in Cluster 7, which reads “If people attacked White Supremacy like they are attacking critical race theory, there would be no need for critical race theory.” However, the failures were all failing in the same way: by framing themselves and their ideologies as not-racist, and falsely equating that with doing antiracist work.

On the other hand, anti-CRT memes wholly fail at performing true anti-racism, and they fail in many different ways: through rhetorics of racial neoliberalism, colorblind racism, and not-racism. Importantly, each of these tools of racism are constructed as antiracism, and sold to audiences as such. While not-racism presents a bit differently on this side of the aisle, the main takeaway is meant to be rhetorically the same: “we” are not the racists, “they” are. For instance, Figure 3 reads, in part, “What does critical race theory teach?...The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” This swiftly both dismisses racism as in the “past,” thus ignoring its structural persistence and constructs those that support critical race theory as the racists.

In this way, both pro- and anti-CRT memes variably fail at performing antiracism, often forwarding what Blake et al. (2019) call “antiracist appropriation,” or a strategy that is “primarily concerned with deciphering who is a racist and who is not, rather than working to dismantle racism’s socially shared institutional and affective structures” (p. 23). By forwarding this claim, we do not mean to engage in an uncritical false balance (Rietdijk and Archer 2021) analysis here, as there is clearly one group that is getting closer to actual antiracism than the other: pro-CRT memes. It is important to note, however, that even pro-CRT memes are not actually accomplishing an antiracist agenda, as they are rather uncritical of the structural aspects of racism and choose to focus, instead, on interpersonal-level issues.

Figure 7. Anti-CRT meme which depicts Professor Carol Swain as a Black woman critical of CRT

Appeals to Black Authority Though using appeals to authority is not a groundbreaking rhetorical strategy and is, in fact, one of the pillars of Aristotelian rhetorical philosophy, the ways in which this ethos appears within these memes present an interesting finding: equally often, both pro-and anti-CRT memes deployed the imagery and/or quotes of Black people. Through circulating these images widely, those captured in these memes essentially stand in as Black spokespeople for each side of the argument, lending credence to the meme’s ideology–no matter the side of the argument–through the color of their skin.

Anti-CRT memes that used this rhetorical strategy–all of which, notably, were produced and originally disseminated by the conservative Media Research Center (MRC)†–constructed these Black spokespeople as both authoritative in their experience and authoritative in their Blackness. Alveda King, Civil Rights Leader; Dr. Ben Carson, M.D. and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; and Dr. Carol Swain, Ph.D. and professor of political science and law appeared in these memes, each in visage and in quote (see Figure 7 for an example of these memes, each of which followed this aesthetic template). The embodied Black professional positionalities which these people inhabit make it difficult for pro-CRT advocates to argue against their claims—claims which invariably speak to the sure pitfalls of socioculturally adopting critical race theory—and thus a comfortable space of disseminating racism through the rhetorics of not-racism opens up.

Using Black spokespeople to deliver implicitly or explicitly racist information has been a tactic used for decades to make news reporting (Entman and Rojecki 2007), campaign strategy, and political policy (Mendelberg 2001) appear notracist. The implicit suggestion is that if a Black person indicates something is not racist, it must not be. This, then, “bolsters [whites’] denials that racism still impedes the lives of African Americans” (Entman and Rojecki 2007, p. 106) and invites a level of assurance that they, too, are notracist. In the context of the memes analyzed for this study, these Black spokespeople are consistently reflecting a well-established space of Black conservative thought which taps into individualism, self-help, and egalitarianism as answers to discussions on racism (Lewis 2005).

Figure 8. Pro-CRT meme of critical race scholar Michael Eric Dyson’s tweet

Figure 9. Pro-CRT meme which depicts singer/songwriter John Legend advocating for Black parents to fight back against anti-CRT policy

Critical race theory–the “real,” institutional one–actually warns against this very scenario: CRT argues that constructing Black spokespeople as people who can speak for the entire race is both essentialist and ignorant to the importance of intersectionality (Delgado and Stefancic 2023). While it is true that Black Democrats far outweigh Black Republicans in the electorate (Cox 2022), and thus pro-CRT memes that deploy Black spokespeople likely reflect a larger share of Black thought, it is still unproductive to count any single person as representative of a race of people. Despite this, however, constructing Black spokespeople through memes–Black spokespeople who are made to appear as the reasonable “Black voice”–was a way of building authority and “assurances” for those against CRT that they were not thinking in a racist way.

While their Blackness operates, rhetorically, as an appeal to authority in a conversation about race, the idea of the “Black spokesperson” takes on a different function and meaning in these pro-CRT memes. Whereas anti-CRT memes were curating quotes from a very specific set of Black spokespeople, seeking out those who have said something condemning CRT, overlaying these quotes on an image of the Black orator, and circulating that image, those on the pro-side of the issue are more often amplifying already-existing media that Black people created. For example, the image of artist Jonathan Harris (Figure 1) was an organic, pre-existing photograph of the artist posing with his work–not a computer-generated, curated message that was created without his knowledge or consent. Similarly, the meme featuring Michael Eric Dyson’s thoughts (Figure 4) is simply a screenshot of a tweet he chose to write and publish on the internet–again, not something that an outside entity needed to create. The only exception is the meme featuring John Legend (Figure 9). This meme has a similar aesthetic to the anti-CRT memes in that it is a computer-generated image of Legend alongside a quote about Black parents needing to get involved in conversations around the banning of critical race theory. This meme represents just one way that anti- and pro-CRT memes perform “not-racism” in rhetorically similar ways, even if they have different end goals.

[†] The Media Research Center (MRC) is more than simply a Facebook page, which is where many of these other memes are sourced. To the contrary, MRC is an entire conservative media network that self-describes its mission as being in accordance with "America’s founding principles and Judeo-Christian values." For more, see