August 30, 2021
After 90 minutes I had had enough.
That’s how long I could tolerate watching an angry audience attack the Commack School Board, and its Superintendent. They were hell-bent on ridding their schools of the evils of diversity and eradicating Critical Race Theory (CRT). This was not a discussion about different educational theories or opinions about the best way to teach history and mutual respect. It was a loud and organized protest with no interest in how others felt or what they thought. The audience/protestors both women and men shouting, heckling, interrupting and all playing from the same script.
And it was not an anomaly.
Those 90 minutes were a snapshot of actions taking place across the nation, from the halls of Congress to State Houses to school board meetings that are all reading from the same script. This “movement”, In just a few months, has emerged from the grassroots with a desire to protect the nation’s “core values.” Critical Race Theory has become the cause celebre. Outraged parents are seemingly just defending their children, telling policymakers, as one woman in Commack put it, “Children don’t see that they’re different unless they’re taught that they’re different. Stop pushing diversity on innocent babies.”
So, who are these voices? Are they “just” members of our communities with who we disagree with?
That bottom-up protest is not in reality so bottom-up.
They have been egged on by media voices like Tucker Carlson who stated, “What’s happening in our schools and our military and our government is both simpler and easier to recognize than that. It’s not critical race theory. It’s racism, not neo-racism, or reverse racism. Those are meaningless terms. It is race hate. It is peddled by the people in charge in the hope that it will make them more powerful. That’s all that it is.”
The protests have their roots in a well-funded nonprofit infrastructure of conservative organizations that find the perspective, recently described in a New York Times perspective, of Mari Matsuda, a law professor at the University of Hawaii and an early developer of critical race theory, as an existential threat to the status quo and to those who hold power. “We have a serious problem that requires big, structural changes; otherwise, we are dooming future generations to catastrophe. Our inability to think structurally, with a sense of mutual care, is dooming us — whether the problem is racism, or climate disaster, or world peace.”
The list of organizations that combined to light this supposedly “grassroots” fire are the newly formed America First Policy Institute and the venerable Heritage Foundation/Heritage Action for America. The lists of organizations that have been doing research and developing position papers challenging the reality of structural racism includes The Goldwater Institute for Public Policy Research and Ethics and Public Policy Center. Together these organizations have report annual donations of more than $144 million to fuel their work including their efforts to gin up the anti-CRT protest movement.
Organizations like Media Bias/Fact Check have done the hard work of finding who are the funding wizards (of Oz) behind these organizational curtains. The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a 501(c)(3) non-profit American think tank which has been part of this anti-CRT network fomenting this wave of anti-CRT protest has received significant funding from other non-profits that are stalwarts of the Conservative political scene: “Foundations that have contributed over $1 million to the Manhattan Institute include the John M. Olin Foundation, Bradley Foundation, Sarah Scaife Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust, Smith Richardson Foundation, William E. Simon Foundation, the Claude Lambe Foundation, the Gilder Foundation, the Curry Foundation, and the Jaquelin Hume Foundation.”
The direction of their work as nonprofits is clearly that it is in the public interest to oppose efforts to transform schools and the nation and confront the problems that Professor Matsuda highlighted. Another nonprofit, Alliance for Free Citizens is advocating for state legislation, “The Teaching Racial and Universal Equality (“TRUE”) Act AN ACT prohibiting use of state funds to teach or communicate theories that promote one race over another or one sex over another, and preventing government entities and contractors from communicating or forcing upon employees a racist or sexist concept.”
Citizens for Renewing America and its affiliated Center for Renewing America have helped to “rebrand” CRT: “Among these threats is a radical philosophy, rooted in Marxism, known as Critical Race Theory. This framework views all of society through a racialized prism of identity groups, with minorities being the oppressed and white people serving as the oppressor. Where Karl Marx separated society into the capitalist bourgeoisie and the oppressed proletariat, adherents of Critical Race Theory have substituted race for Marx’s class and economic distinctions….Proponents of Critical Race Theory use our university campuses to radicalize our own children, transforming them into angry “successor ideology” activists. They use their control of HR departments and boardrooms of corporate America to impose this radicalism in all private workplaces. Their organized mobs terrorize private citizens with a “cancel culture” that seeks to erase the people and ideas who refuse to adopt their totalitarian mindset. Ultimately, these radicals seek to erase the American ideal that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
This infrastructure of Conservative nonprofits is quickly able to move from conference presentations and op-eds to organizing. New advocacy groups emerged to move theory into action. These are organizations with missions like that of the newly formed Parents Defending Education: a “grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists imposing harmful agendas.”
These are groups that, like No Left Turn for Education which, having learned to wrap their protest in the opposite of what they wish to accomplish, proclaims “MLK not BLM” and cite Dr. King’s words as their proof text: “The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”
The goal of hiding their true objectives becomes clearer when you discover that these were indeed MLK’s words, carefully pulled from a short piece he published in the Stanford Crimson in 1947. Conveniently omitted was Dr. King’s goal in writing that piece – confronting systemic racism. They conveniently omitted these words, words that if spoken by the Commack Superintendent would have been greeted by their boos and threats: “The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals. The late Eugene Talmadge, in my opinion, possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America. Moreover, he wore the Phi Beta Kappa key. By all measuring rods, Mr. Talmadge could think critically and intensively; yet he contends that I am an inferior being. Are those the types of men we call educated?”
The well-funded conservative infrastructure can shift its financial and human resources to quickly move from words to action. It can rely on staff with experience and background. For example, Parents Defending Education president and founder, Nicole Neily, is not just a mother upset about her children’s classroom experience. “She is also the president of Speech First, a national campus free speech organization…” and has worked for another conservative foundation, The Cato Institute.
The men and women I watched in their Commack evening of protest did not get so heated and angry because of events in their school district. They have grown angry in a carefully nurtured environment, one structured to build on the fears and worries of a changing time. It is, unfortunately, a tried-and-true strategy that has built on the same fear of change to create powerful forces behind efforts to limit women’s access to reproductive health choices, efforts to restrict voting rights, and the heart and soul of Trump’s MAGA movement.
And now that the effort has been set in motion, like a snowball rolling downhill, it is hard to stop. For elected policymakers it does not matter where the effort began, nor if the facts are correct. It is their voters who have been mobilized, who have had their emotions played upon, and that is what they must satisfy. In the fact-free world that we are now live in, it is these beliefs that become reality. Those behind the curtains have proven to be masters in manipulating beliefs and then standing back as the spontaneous manipulated voice of the people explodes.
There may be a discussion needed about what we are teaching our children and how we are going about teaching it. But in the world this network has created, that discussion has become difficult, perhaps impossible. Even pulling back the curtain may not be enough.