At Netroots Nation 2021, the largest annual gathering of progressive activists in the nation, Jeff Bryant led a panel reveling the truth behind the radical right-wing’s attack on public schools that are teaching about the history of race and racism in America. Bryant’s fellow panelist included:
- Beth Glenn. Beth is a visiting scholar at the New York University Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. She is also a policy and strategy consultant with Journey for Justice, a network of grassroots organizations in over 30 cities opposing zero tolerance policies and the privatization of public schools.
- Katherine Dunn. Katherine is the Director of the Advancement Project’s Opportunity to Learn program, which supports campaigns across the country to fight for quality education and end the school-to-prison pipeline. Prior to joining the Advancement Project, Katherine served as the Regional Policy Analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where she led that organization’s children’s rights policy work.
- Jesse Hagopian. Jesse teaches ethnic studies at Garfield High School in Seattle. He is an organizer with Black Lives Matter at School. Jesse is the co-editor of the book Teaching for Black Lives and editor of the book More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. He is also a recipient of the 2013 “Secondary School Teacher of Year” award.
Watch the video:
TRANSCRIPT OF JEFF BRYANT’S REMARKS:
Good afternoon. Welcome to the panel on The Truth about the Attacks on Teaching Critical Race Theory in Public Schools. Thank you for dropping into our presentation today.
I also want to thank the staff at Netroots Nation. This is my eleventh Netroots Nation, and I’m always impressed with the people who throw this event.
I also want to thank our sponsor The Progressive magazine for supporting this panel. Since 1909, The Progressive has been a prominent platform for amplifying the progressive grassroots and those who are under-represented.
My name is Jeff Bryant. I am a Writing Fellow at the Independent Media Institute and the Chief Correspondent for Our Schools, which is IMI’s education project. I’m also Managing Editor for Public Schools Advocate which is the education project of The Progressive magazine.
I’m here today with three distinguished panelists who I’ll introduce later to talk about these news stories we’re seeing across the nation about enraged mobs swarming school board meetings, threatening educators, and alleging that public school teachers are indoctrinating students in Marxist ideology and teaching them to discriminate against white people.
Along with these heated attacks on public schools and teachers, lawmakers in at least 28 states and in the U.S. Congress have considered or enacted new laws that disrupt or block schools and teachers from teaching about issues of race and gender in American history and society.
What’s going on here and why should progressives care?
Before I turn to our three panelists to delve into the details, I want to outline five key understandings about these attacks.
First, we should consider these attacks in light of what happened on January 6 in Washington DC.
When enraged Trump supporters stormed the nation’s capital to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election, many observers correctly labeled the event as domestic terrorism and an assault on democracy.
Like the assault on the nation’s capital, the storming of school boards by enraged conservatives and new laws targeting school teachers are also acts of political extremism. They are attacks on democracy.
Instead of seeking to undermine an election, the goal is to undermine an institution that is fundamental to our democracy—public schools.
In a recent letter to President Joe Biden, the National School Boards Association, a group representing local school boards, asked the federal government to review violence and threats against schools to see if they violate federal statutes about domestic terrorism and hate crimes.
The Biden administration seems to be complying. Earlier this week, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said that the FBI will work on countering threats against educators and school board members.
Also, the U.S. Department of Justice will create a task force to consider how to address individuals and groups that harass and attack educators and school officials.
Second, enraged groups showing up at school board meetings and accusing teachers of indoctrination may have the appearance of being grassroots and parent-led, but they are not.
They are actually highly organized and extremely well-funded.
According to an analysis by NBC News, at least 165 local and national groups provide organizational support and financial backing for the protestors.
Most of these groups are connected to well-funded think tanks and political organizations of the radical rightwing, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC), the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Koch family foundations, and the Manhattan Institute.
Rightwing advocacy groups that appear to be organized from the ground-up—such as Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, No Left Turns in Education, the Independent Women’s Network, and the Legal Insurrection Foundation—are actually funded by billionaires.
Third, a common refrain in these protests is that schools are indoctrinating students in the concept known as critical race theory (or CRT). That charge is absurd on its face.
CRT, a legal concept from academia, is not being taught in k-12 schools. And the organizers of these outraged mobs offer no critique of the actual substance of CRT.
Instead, CRT is being cast as a symbol to activate long-standing fears related to the country’s increasing racial and gender diversity. And CRT is being wielded as a codeword meant to frighten people of the prospect of marginalized citizens participating more openly in society.
It’s no coincidence, for instance, that districts where there have been some of the most combative debates over diversity and inclusion—such as Gwinnett County, Georgia, and Loudoun County, Virginia—are places that have had a steady increase in students of color attending their schools, according to an analysis by NBC News.
It’s also telling that the people enraged at schools for teaching children to be critical thinkers and engaged learners are the same people opposing efforts to vaccinate people against covid and require school staff and students to wear masks. They are the same cabal attacking election officials who want to make it easier for marginalized communities to vote.
This confluence of anti-masking with efforts to rid schools of teaching the truth about structural racism is where American libertarianism meets white supremacy. It seeks to deny people the chance to be active participants in civic life, including the ability to vote.
Fourth, the short-term political objectives of these attacks on public schools and school teachers are clearly to mobilize a partisan base for the 2022 and 2024 elections.
Rightwing radicals such as Breitbart founder and Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon have branded campaigns against schools and teachers as “the Tea Party to the 10th power.”
But there’s a longer-term goal that must be understood.
As Duke University professor Nancy MacLean explains in her book Democracy in Chains, the rightwing movement has been trying to dismantle public education—or at least cripple it to the point of dysfunction—for a generation.
They perceive a public school system that allows people from different backgrounds to come together and share varying points of view to be a threat to white patriarchal rule.
Public schools are, after all, one of the few, if not the only, places where people are brought together in a common space that reveals their differences and engages them in sharing these differences and coming to mutual understandings about them.
If that can somehow be framed as something negative—by attacking what schools do to accommodate differences—then the right wing is one step closer to achieving its goal to hasten the demise of public education.
Finally, this current state of affairs will likely inflict deep and lasting harm to school children.
When students see grown adults—sometimes their own parents—hurling insults at school boards and threatening teachers, they are learning a dangerous lesson about how to engage in civic discourse.
When education officials are being pressured to remove certain topics and subjects from school curricula, students are getting a narrower and less engaging learning experience.
When teachers are being intimidated from acknowledging the diversity of their students and the community that surrounds them, marginalized students feel less welcome and nurtured in their classrooms.
When conflicting points of view are purged from public education, those conflicts will spill over into other arenas for students later in their lives, when they have become adults whose views have become more resistant to change because they never experienced real diversity of thought during their formative years.