BROOKFIELD, WIS. — At an Elmbrook Board of Education meeting May 11, three residents took the floor for an unscheduled agenda point. Claiming they represent hundreds of community members, they warned of a nefarious force propagating discrimination and prejudice in suburban Elmbrook Schools: critical race theory, or CRT. One speaker called it “anti-civil rights.”
In short order, parents in the affluent, majority-white school district west of Milwaukee circulated a petition calling CRT “anti-faith” and “anti-family,” and alleging that the district “embedded CRT without the consent of parents.” On June 8, the school board voted to drop all “equity principles” from its annual strategic plan, including a commitment to hire a diverse workforce and provide bias training for staff.
In reality, of course, CRT is the practice of investigating race and racism, especially in U.S. law and policy. Nonetheless, the academic concept has become kindling for a right-wing funded, fullblown moral panic, with parents flooding school board meetings in opposition. Amid the furor, educators are feeling the pressure.
“Black educators, in particular, that teach in suburban schools or that teach in private schools, are becoming very concerned about what their next school year is going to look like,” says Angela Harris, who chairs the Black Educators Caucus of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, the union that represents Milwaukee’s public school teachers. Harris says that, after appearing on the local news in support of history and social studies teachers, her social media filled with “the most horrible things I’ve ever read in my life.”
For educators and school staff around the country, the backlash has generated a host of issues. One teacher in Tennessee was fired after sharing a lecture by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A Florida teacher was removed from the classroom for displaying a Black Lives Matter sign. Others, facing a sudden wave of violent threats for their racial justice work, have simply resigned. As of mid-July, 27 states had proposed legislation limiting discussions of oppression, discrimination and privilege in public classrooms.
To build solidarity in the face of the legal threats, the Black Educators Caucus in Milwaukee has organized a series of rallies decrying the censorship of U.S. racial history. The first Teach the Truth rallies, coordinated by the Zinn Education Project and the National Black Lives Matter Week of Action, were held June 12, one at the site of the 1861 lynching of George Marshall Clark, the other at the site of a school founded by the American Indian Movement. Teachers say they hoped the locations would highlight the importance of uncensored history.
Parents may be the face of the anti-CRT push, but their outrage is encouraged by a complicated web of right-wing interest groups. By June 15, NBC News had identified “at least 165” conservative organizations providing funding, talking points and legal aid to parents objecting to racism-related curriculum. The petition in Brookfield featured a video from conservative media website PragerU, which is funded in part by the far-right Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the force behind the anti-union Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME. In the video, a PragerU commentator compares the CRT “social movement” to Nazism and apartheid, a move emblematic of right-wing talking points that equate racial justice advocates with racists.
Another example comes from the so-called Equality Under the Law Project from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), which purports to “challenge unconstitutional race discrimination, quotas, and Critical Race Theory.” It also claims the “principle of equality” pursued during the civil rights movement is “under attack” by critical race theorists. Since the project started this year, it has taken on 34 clients in 15 states. The project’s most prominent lawsuit, filed on behalf of five white, male restaurant owners, claims the federal government discriminated against the men by prioritizing women and minority restaurateurs in its disbursement of Covid-19 relief funds. It has also filed suit against the Higher Educational Aids Board for funding an undergraduate scholarship for minority students.
In addition to the lawsuits, proponents of the project have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, various Wisconsin media outlets and on Tucker Carlson Tonight.
WILL itself, meanwhile, has received millions of dollars from the Walton Family Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Charles Koch Institute and the Bradley Foundation. The legal outfit is also a member of the right-wing litigation and policy consortium known as the State Policy Network, which is tied to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a primary source of right-wing “model” legislation adopted by states around the country.
Milwaukee teachers are preparing for the anti-CRT wave to grow, with another day of action October 14, the birthday of George Floyd. “I think the hope is that you have people connecting across [the district] and you build a sense of solidarity,” says teacher Lukas Wierer, who has taught geography, U.S. history and ethnic studies for over 14 years. In the event he comes under scrutiny for his anti-racist curriculum, Wierer says, “I would never worry, because I know the union would have my back.”
Alice Herman is a 2020-2021 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting Fellow with In These Times.