Interview: The Folk Devil Made Me Do It

A large building at dusk is obscrured by trees and darkness. A lit sign says: PANIC

I’ve been interviewed by NPR’s Code Switch on the growing political backlash about critical race theory. I discuss my research on moral panics about race. A moral panic is a situation or group positioned as a threat to social values. On the surface, it may seem nonsensical to ban critical race theory from schools, as it’s only taught at specialist university courses. Dig deeper: moral panics have always mobilised against a specific issue, and then moves to scale back other civic rights from minorities or marginalised groups.

Below is an excerpt of my comments.


ZULEYKA ZEVALLOS: Moral panics are hooking into something that seems new or novel or something that’s topical, but it’s hooking into old debates, an idea that this new thing that’s happening could spell the end to our society to the way in which we live…

GENE DEMBY: ….Moral panics are a sociological phenomenon. And it turns out there are quite a few academics who study them and how they work, like Zuleyka Zevallos. She’s a sociologist and a policy researcher in Sydney, Australia. And relevant to our interests here on CODE SWITCH, Zuleyka studies moral panics and what they have to do with race. And she told me that moral panics tend to have some broad things in common.

ZEVALLOS: So there are effectively three components to a moral panic. The first is that the threat is perceived as new, but it’s been linked to old notions of other things that society has been afraid of in the past…

DEMBY: The second component of a moral panic, Zuleyka told me, is that whatever the current thing that people are freaking out about is seen as both damaging by itself, right? But also, it is seen as a harbinger of some deeper, potentially more dangerous societal problem. So go back to video games again. Video games were thought to represent a new permissiveness around violence. You know, so many games focus on fighting and shooting and Mario Karting. People will blame video games for things like school shooting and rising violent crime. There was even a congressional hearing about the specific dangerous posed by video games in the 1990s.

ZEVALLOS: And then the third component is that it needs to be an issue that lots of people can see, but the threat seems difficult. It seems opaque.

DEMBY: So it has to be something that people can point to, like something that exists in the world, again, but that if you’re on the outside of it, you can’t quite make sense of it – at least not on your own.

ZEVALLOS: It means that the general public are relying on experts to explain what’s happening to them.

DEMBY: And sometimes, these so-called experts are just people who are themselves freaking out, like a parent seeing their kid play Grand Theft Auto and saying, oh, my God, my child is going to be out here stealing cars. Other times, these experts are, like, cynics. They’re capitalising on the freakout for some reason. But either way, these experts are saying the same thing; this is bad, but let me tell you why it’s actually way worse than you think.

ZEVALLOS: And unfortunately, the experts that come to the forefront then feed into that panic and explain it in a way that seems very threatening. So in the case of – whether it’s video games, social media, other technologies, it’s, you know, they’re corrupting our young people…

DEMBY: And I know you’re asking, OK, OK, so what does this have to do with race, Gene? This is CODE SWITCH, baby. I didn’t come here for all this. Well (laughter), Zuleyka said it’s important to understand that many of the inflection points in America’s racial history – you know, the moment when race becomes stratified, when that gets entrenched – they come directly out of moral panics.

ZEVALLOS: Racism is malleable. Like, it changes. It morphs. And it no longer relies on those overt examples of racial hatred. And instead, it’s much more reliant nowadays on moral appeals. It’s a threat to our values. It’s a threat to who we are as a people. And so a moral panic is feeding into this idea that at any moment, society could just unfold.

DEMBY: Because during moral panics, there is more room for everyone to be scared and everyone to be very worked up. And so people say things and they do things that might be frowned upon or even just out of bounds during other relatively calmer political moments. And so Zuleyka says these panics can carve out a kind of conceptual space for more discrimination – not just the informal kind between individuals, but official discrimination – new laws, new policies. Like, this is an emergency. We have to fix it.


Listen to learn what’s currently at stake with legislation in the USA, which is targeting critical race theory, for a broader aim: to claw back other forms of education on racial injustice and social inequality. Featuring Historians Adam Laats and Gillian Frank, and professor of law, Khiara Bridges.