When Sarah Markey ran for the school board in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, in 2018, the area’s right wing paid little attention. That changed when she and three other progressive women won seats on the board. Among their first acts was declaring that the school system would not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They also put a moratorium on school suspensions to address the system’s disproportionate impact on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) students and instituted Indigenous People’s Day to replace Columbus Day.
The response was swift. “The right created a Facebook page to attack us,” Markey told Truthout. “They came at us all day, every day.”
Markey, who also works at the National Education Association, was called a “union thug” on the Parents United Against Indoctrination Facebook page (at different points, the group has called itself Rhode Island Parents Against Indoctrination and Parents Against Indoctrination), and was accused of pushing “critical race theory” (CRT) — the examination of the racist and genocidal foundation on which the U.S. was built — into South Kingstown schools, something that was never done. One anonymous poster called Markey an “America Hating Lowlife DemoRat Vermin Communist Scum.” Another prayed for her demise and the demise of her supporters: “May each and every one of you white liberal Karen racists catch COVID and drop dead before rotting in the fiery depths of Hell,” it read.
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Eventually, the barrage of messages got to Markey and took a physical and emotional toll. “I had a fight or flight response every single day,” she says. “My sons saw the messages and noticed that to these critics, I am not a human being who lives in their town. The opposition sees me as a monster.”
Markey resigned from the board in June 2021 after serving for two and a half years. Another progressive board member, Emily Cummiskey, also resigned that month. “They drove out two people who wanted to do what was best for kids, and it didn’t matter to them how hard we’d worked. We were replaced by people I consider Democrat-lite, folks who say things like, ‘I’m a Democrat, but … I hate unions.’ They don’t rock the boat. They avoid conflict,” Markey told Truthout.
In nearby North Kingstown, Rhode Island, anti-racist school board member Jennifer Lima, elected in 2020, has also been subjected to a slew of attacks. Although a recall petition to unseat her in the fall of 2021 was unsuccessful, Parents United Against Indoctrination, joined by the Gaspee Project — named for the 1772 dynamiting of a British ship called the Gaspee by Rhode Island settlers — has continued to lambaste her as “un-American.”
“Anything that is good is twisted into something that is bad,” Lima says. “There is a deliberate, ongoing misrepresentation of our district-wide diversity, equity and inclusion work in an effort to undermine it.”
A National Campaign
Both Lima and Markey stress that what is happening in their state is happening throughout the country and note that in 2021, similar efforts to unseat or replace progressive school board members took place in 76 districts in 22 states.
And it’s about to get worse.
Election watchers from a host of government watchdog groups, Lima and Markey say, are looking at 2021 as a trial run; they expect a groundswell of conservative school board campaigns to kick into high gear this summer, several months before the November 2022 elections.
There are many reasons for this.
By all accounts, the right wing is fired up about mask and vaccination mandates, as well as curricula that stress racial and gender inclusivity — which they refer to as “CRT.” They’re also worried about anticipated demographic changes that will eventually make white people a minority in the U.S., a change the far right calls the “Great Replacement.”
Denisha Jones, a member of the organizing committee of Uniting to Save Our Schools and co-editor of Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, told Truthout that we cannot lose sight of this context. “We have to remember what was happening in the summer of 2020,” she says. “In addition to a global pandemic, the murder of George Floyd led to demonstrations in every major city in the U.S., with progressives pushing back against systems of police oppression. In response, Trump launched the 1776 Commission and attacked diversity, equity and inclusion training in schools. This, in turn, led his supporters to react to attempts to address the foundational racism at the heart of U.S. history.”
A massive backlash movement resulted.
Steve Bannon, chief White House strategist under Trump — a man who advocated many overtly racist policies and practices — saw right-wing anger at anti-racist efforts as a potent opportunity and urged those who feared a racial reckoning to get involved at the local level. “The path to save the nation is very simple,” he told the 74 million people who voted for Trump. “It’s going to go through school boards.”
The idea quickly caught fire on the right, with several national groups — the Family Research Council and the Leadership Institute among the most prominent — offering training, funding and technical assistance to candidates wishing to campaign for local office.
Frederick Clarkson is a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, a 40-year-old Somerville, Massachusetts-based think tank that monitors the religious and secular right wing. He told Truthout that while the current attempt to control public education has to be taken seriously, it is not unprecedented. Furthermore, he says that what is unfolding essentially puts a new spin on an old agenda. “These efforts have deep roots,” Clarkson says. “MAGA goals and ideology go back to the Barry Goldwater for president campaign of 1964. Then, in the 1980s, the Christian Coalition worked to elect people to school boards. What’s new here is the overt alliance between Christian right groups and groups that are part of the ‘patriot’ or militia movements. What’s new is the scale of the mobilization that is happening and the fact that the threat to public education is ramping up.”
Indeed, the recruitment and training of right-wing candidates is being orchestrated by several large, well-funded national entities. The Leadership Institute, for example, has created a 20-hour online course to teach conservatives how to run for their local school board — even if they don’t have children enrolled in the public schools — in order “to stop the teaching of CRT before it destroys the fabric of our nation.”
Not to be outdone, the Family Research Council coordinated a four-hour School Board Boot Camp in June 2021. The curriculum? Everything “you need to know about running for school board or supporting the people who answer the call to public service.” Speakers from the right-wing Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council slammed CRT, Planned Parenthood, the Southern Poverty Law Center and teachers’ unions throughout the training.
Supplementing this effort, Citizens for Renewing America, founded by Russell Vought, Trump’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget, created a 34-page “A-Z Guide to Combat Critical Race Theory and Reclaim Your Local School Board.” Citizens for Renewing America’s mission is “to renew an American consensus of a nation under God with unique interests worthy of defending.” The guide — which begins with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. — includes commentary meant to swell conservative outrage: “According to Critical Social Justice, straight white people (especially men) are the oppressors and have systematically rigged society for their own benefit…. [They believe] everything that makes up American society is racist. This includes Christianity, free markets, traditional marriage, rule of law, traditional family structures, and a representative form of government.”
Other conservative outlets, such as the Truth and Liberty Coalition run by pastor Andrew Wommack, compiled a Christian Voter Guide in 2021 that was published by WallBuilders, a Christian dominionist group that seeks to win Christian domination over every aspect of human life and eliminate church-state separation.
(The Leadership Institute, WallBuilders and Citizens for Renewing America did not respond to Truthout’s request for an interview.)
In addition to these national organizations, a spate of additional groups has popped up to carry the electoral work forward. Most purport to be grassroots efforts organized by parents concerned about what children are learning about U.S. history and social policy: Moms for Liberty; Parents Defending Education; No Left Turn in Education; and Intercessors for America, among them. (They, too, failed to respond to Truthout’s request for an interview.)
But not everyone buys the claim that these groups reflect an outpouring of spontaneous outrage. “The moral panic we are seeing over ‘CRT’ was created by a group of think tanks that are funded by Koch Industries,” Jasmine Banks, executive director of UnKoch my Campus, told Truthout. “The Koch network has always made undercutting public education part of their plan. During the Obama administration, they opposed social and emotional learning programs, and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.”
Now, she says, the focus is CRT, or what the right mistakenly believes to be CRT. UnKoch analyzed the output of just 28 of the many think tanks the Koch network funds and saw that their echo chamber made CRT a household phrase. “Between June 2020 and June 2021, Banks says, “these organizations produced 79 articles, podcasts, reports and videos critical of ‘CRT.’ The Manhattan Institute alone published 43 articles on the topic.” Add in the scads of denunciations on Fox News, One America News Network, Newsmax and smaller right-wing media outlets, and the impact is obvious.
So, how to respond?
Political Research Associates staffers Steven Gardiner and Tarso Luís Ramos, in a January 2022 report entitled, “Capitol Offenses: January 6, 2021 and the Ongoing Insurrection,” conclude that, “the Left, broadly speaking, has to recognize that the fight against far-right authoritarians and ultra-nationalists cannot be won without a broad coalition.” They call for the formation of an inclusive, diverse, united front against the right wing that is threatening to topple democracy by destroying public education while simultaneously smashing unions, denying history, curtailing voting rights, overturning protections for LGBTQIA+ people, ending legal abortion and sidestepping efforts to protect the environment.
Both Gardiner and Ramos know that this is a tall order. But they also argue that it is the only way forward. Anti-racism, they write, is but one element of the fight “for structural reforms in the current system” that will create “a more fundamental social transformation,” and they urge this as yet unformed assembly to “reject neoliberalism, militarism, and compromise with ethno-nationalists.”
Denisha Jones of Uniting to Save Our Schools, agrees, but adds that this progressive coalition has to be flexible and operate at the local, national and international levels. This, she says, is imperative if we want to both transform schools and shift the social and economic milieu to make society more equitable.
“We need to keep our eyes on the ground,” Jones says, “and listen and observe to leverage up.”