Last week, U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn issued an all-points-bulletin "Special Report" email, warning that school districts were taking steps to teach critical race theory.

The Republican congressman did not cite a single district that was doing so. And he declined to be interviewed or respond to questions seeking specific examples where CRT is taught.

Still, it was good politics.

RELATED: Crowd protests 'government speech,' critical race theory at Rochester School Board meeting

Critical race theory has joined the list of contentious cultural issues, such as abortion and gender identity, that sharply divides activists in both parties, says political analyst Steven Schier. Hagedorn's goal was two-fold: To mobilize his base, and to brand the other side as propagators of a nefarious theory.

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"The polling I've seen is that when people learn some aspects of CRT, it's pretty unpopular," Schier said. "So politically, it's a fat target."

Schools are finding themselves at the epicenter of this debate. Rochester was one of the early flashpoints, but it hasn't been the only one in Minnesota.

The issue is also resonating and inflaming debate statewide, as work proceeds on a new set of social studies standards for public schools that seeks to include a more diverse, racially and gender-inclusive perspective.

CRT takes as its guiding premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature, but a social construct used to oppress and exploit people of color. Critical race theorists maintain that the law and legal institutions in the U.S. are racist insofar as they create social, economic and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites.

On one level, it's not surprising that the clash is so supercharged, given that it pits different interpretations and narratives about what it means to be an American.

But on another, it begs the question: How did we get to this point? Less than a year ago, no one knew what critical race theory was.

The Hagedorn Report was sent out on Aug. 12, 2021.
The Hagedorn Report was sent out on Aug. 12, 2021.

It hasn't mattered that officials for Rochester Public Schools have emphatically denied that CRT is taught in its classrooms. And there are no plans to do so.

Nor has it mattered to eagle-eyed CRT critics who dismiss claims from Minnesota Department of Education officials that CRT is not part of the recent draft of social studies standards. They say elements of CRT are part of the draft, and they want them rooted out.

"The theme of oppression, marginalization, group identity and absent narratives drives the second draft standards and benchmarks," the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative Minnesota think tank, said in a statement this week. "Students will learn that their concept centers around their racial/gender group identity, and that limiting oppression, not facts, is the lens through which all social studies content should be viewed."

Matt Carlstrom, one of the co-chairs of the state social studies committee, said there is "zero" critical race theory in the draft. He argues that CRT is being used as a stalking horse to eliminate discussion of topics that broaden understanding of U.S. history.

"Many people don't know what (critical race theory) is," he said. "And when school districts start to talk about equity and ethnic studies and indigenous history, that is not critical race theory at all."

Carlstrom has been a social studies teacher for 29 years, and notes that before last May, he had never heard of the theory. He began researching it, wondering if it was a subject he should be incorporating in his classroom. He discovered it was an upper-level legal theory that examines how the legal system contributed to oppression and racism.

"The thing about CRT is that even the people who teach it and do research work don't necessarily agree on exactly what it is," he said about a subject that has become such a bugaboo, it has now been banned in several Republican-dominated states.

Carlstrom said the proposed draft standards are different from the ones taught today. The more inclusive historical approach outlined in the draft was in response to a survey sent out last year, seeking input from parents, teachers and community members on what changes needed to be made to the state's standards.

One response came back loud and clear: That the standards need to do a better job presenting a perspective that reflects the diversity of the state and its history.

"That was abundantly clear across the state," Carlstrom said.

He said this broadening of perspective is critical if schools are to improve their ability to engage students of color at a time when the state is become less white and more multiracial.

He recalled that when he attended a high school that enrolled a large percentage of minority students in the 1970s, those students "never saw themselves in their education." And when he went to college, it was "white, Western Hemisphere."

"If kids are going to engage in education, they must see themselves in that education," he said.

And that lack of connection, he said, is a major factor driving the state's "huge" achievement gap between white and minority students.

Meanwhile, high school social studies teachers find themselves in the crosshairs of this debate.

"The last four or five years have been freakishly hard to teach civics," said one area social studies teacher who asked not to be identified. "Very little grace or benefit of the doubt is given to teachers these days."

A recent MinnPost article highlighted how community members have made data requests to identify teachers who have received equity training. They wanted to make sure that their kids didn't have those teachers. Some kindergarten teachers worry about the books they read to students, for fear of offending their parents.

The article quoted Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union, as saying some parents are sharing forms for students to hand to their teachers on the first day of school. The forms ask teachers to see their lesson plans every week and to review the books, worksheets and chapters used in class, MinnPost reported.

"If there is something that they object to," she said, "they plan on taking on the teacher, talking to the principal and people in the district."