May 6, 2021
By Barbara Weber-Floyd reprinted from “The Resistance and Me“
This is the story of how our inability to confront our racist history is fueling a right-wing misinformation campaign against our schools, resulting in contentious, partisan school board elections in district after district around the country.
School board elections tend to be low turnout, non-partisan events. But for many districts, this year is different. On Long Island where I live, one of those races is taking place in the Smithtown Central School District. Three challengers are trying to unseat the incumbents who are up for reelection on May 18th in a campaign unlike any school board election Smithtown has ever seen.
As in other districts, the opposition to the Smithtown school board began last year because of COVID. In some districts, parent protests were sparked by opposition to mask mandates. In Smithtown, it was opposition to a hybrid COVID modification plan of part in-classroom and part remote learning for the 2020-21 school year that set off protests. Under the slogan, “5 Days to Thrive”, meaning that all children needed to be back in school five days a week to thrive, a group of parents protested against the hybrid model. https://longisland.news12.com/smithtown-parents-continue-to-demand-their-kids-be-allowed-to-return-to-school-5-days-a-week-42529542
This was before vaccines and when the CDC was still recommending six feet between desks. The only way to achieve that was to have half the usual number of children in the classroom at any given time. The schools had moved from all remote learning at the beginning of the lockdown to the hybrid model last fall, just like the vast majority of schools in Suffolk County, but these protesting parents claimed that the board wasn’t trying hard enough to bring their children back full time. They did not view the decision as being in good faith. They claimed it was a conspiracy between the board and the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) to favor teachers over students.
This past spring, all students came back full time, with almost all teachers and staff being vaccinated and new CDC guidelines. But that did not quiet the protests or the spread of misinformation. They evolved from COVID to the right’s newest boogeyman, critical race theory (CRT). If you are not a consumer of Fox News and other right-wing media, where it has been a major focus for years, you probably never heard of CRT until recently. I know I had not.
Last month, Newsweek focused on states, such as Idaho, passing laws banning CRT from their schools. Below is an excerpt from that article:
Kendall Thomas, a law professor at Columbia University and co-editor of Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, told Newsweek: “CRT maps the nature and workings of ‘institutional racism.’ CRT challenges us to see that racial injustice in America is not, and has never been, just a problem of isolated instances of individual bias and private prejudice which we can solve by enacting ‘color-blind’ laws and policies.”
He added, “The right-wing weaponization of CRT aims to shut down a difficult but necessary conversation about race, racism and the future of democracy in America. The architects of these anti-CRT laws want Americans to stop talking about institutional racism, even if it means trafficking in the reckless politics of racial division they say they oppose.”
The Washington Post published a lengthy article this week about the CRT controversy under the headline, “As schools expand racial equity work, conservatives see a new threat in critical race theory.” It opens with the following sentence: “The nation’s reckoning over race has reached thousands of U.S. schools, and so, too, has a conservative backlash.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/05/03/critical-race-theory-backlash/
Michelle Goldberg, in a May 3rd column in The New York Times, entitled, “Why the Right Loves Public School Culture Wars,” wrote, “The Christian Coalition took off during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when the religious right engaged locally because it felt shut out of national power. Clearly some conservatives think that opposition to critical race theory could be the seed of something similar. Telling parents that liberals want to make their kids hate their country and feel guilty for being white might be absurd and cynical. It also looks like it might be effective.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/03/opinion/public-school-culture-wars.html
I read all the articles. I understood what the right hoped to gain from weaponizing the fears of their base. But I still did not understand why CRT, in and of itself, was controversial. The country was founded on protecting slavery, a Civil War was fought over it and Jim Crow was a Supreme Court sanctioned system of apartheid. Of course, we have systemic racism. Is it better than it was? No one is claiming it isn’t. But to deny that systemic racism still exists in our institutions seems, to me, to require a willful blindness.
As Charles Blow, columnist for The New York Times explained in a column this week, entitled,” Is America Racist?”, “Some will concede the historical point and insist on the progress point, arguing that was then and this is now, that racism simply doesn’t exist now as it did then. I would agree. American racism has evolved and become less blunt, but it has not become less effective. The knife has simply been sharpened. Now systems do the work that once required the overt actions of masses of individual racists.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/02/opinion/america-racism.html
One sign of just how charged this issue has become was my inability to convince anyone I spoke to about the Smithtown school board race to go on the record. People supporting the incumbent school board members only felt comfortable speaking to me on background. They were too afraid of being targeted if their names were used. People aligned with the challengers refused to speak to me at all.
When was the moment that the Smithtown parent protests morphed from focusing on COVID to the school board race and CRT? The earliest sign I found was a website called Save Our Schools that went online the end of last year. You might remember the Save Our Schools phrase from a movement a few years ago that supported higher pay for teachers and more equity in public education. This new SOS website had nothing to do with that movement, other than appropriating the name. It was filled with inflammatory rhetoric and accusations that sounded a lot like McCarthy-era fearmongering:
Critical Race Theory was polished in the 1950s and by the time the counterculture phenomena exploded in the 1960s with postmodernism’s entrance into the world’s philosophical framework in the 1970s, it had become a guiding manifesto for action by radical elements like the terrorists at the Black Panther Movement. Today, its contemporary offspring, Black Lives Matter (BLM) along with its symbiotic associate, Antifa, continue the “war of liberation”. https://saveourschools.me/knowledge-is-power/
It was in the downloadable newsletter on the website that I first saw this issue tied to the police. The newsletter is organized under the following section titles: “HOW DO WE SHIELD STUDENTS AGAINST CRT? PROTECTING THE BLUE SO THEY CAN PROTECT YOU. HOW BOE RACES TURNED INTO DO OR DIE ELECTIONS.” https://saveourschools.me/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Save-Our-Schools-April_2021_v2.pdf
I came across an earlier newsletter that was circulating on social media, but was no longer on the website. This one specifically tied the three school board challengers to the SOS website. One of the challengers, Stacy Murphy, is the parent who spoke during the 5 Days to Thrive protests. Below are screenshots of that three-page earlier newsletter.
The website and the newsletter were not the only sources online. Partisan groups started posting about it on social media, all of them spreading the same misinformation about CRT and the school district. They included: Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin, who represents Smithtown, and has announced he is running for governor of New York next year; a fringe group of the Smithtown Republican Party; and the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the police union.
It was highly unusual for any organization, other than NYSUT, to endorse school board candidates. It was particularly upsetting for some residents to see the police union get involved. One Suffolk PBA post went so far as to name a Smithtown teacher and labeled him anti-police because he had signed an online Black Lives Matter petition against having armed policemen, as opposed to security guards, in the school. The PBA used this one teacher as their example of the school’s war on police, which could be stopped only by voting for the three challengers.
I called up the Suffolk PBA and asked for the press office. I stated that I am a journalist with an online blog and I was working on an article about the Smithtown School Board election. I had two questions. Why was the police union getting involved and could you please take down the post that named the teacher? Given the climate, it felt dangerous to me. I was told that the teacher’s social media post was public and therefore fair game. He then said he had no comment for my article and hung up the phone.
I reached out to the three challengers’ campaign through their Facebook page and asked them for an interview. I posed the same question, asking why was the police union getting involved? They did not respond.
The Smithtown BOE tried to remain positive and stick with an upbeat campaign for the three incumbents running for reelection. I shared their virtual postcard on Facebook. The postcard features the incumbents’ accomplishments and the text that accompanied it reminded residents to vote on May 18th for a board that had shown their support for public education.
But by this time, the anti-CRT messages were going viral on social media. In public and private Facebook groups, heated discussions were taking place for and against CRT, even though there was no evidence that critical race theory was even taught in the Smithtown schools. At the recent school board meetings, the challengers’ supporters were loud and confrontative. It seemed to take the board, which had only just come back to in-person meetings, by surprise. Recordings of the meetings are on the BOE website. http://www.smithtown.k12.ny.us/boardofeducation/board_meeting_audio.
It became clear that the board needed to address the misinformation powering the challengers’ campaign head on. They released the following letter to all Smithtown residents, in both an email and on the district’s public Facebook page.
How astonishing that a school board needed to publicly explain what they were not doing. Will the letter be enough? There is one more school board meeting, on May 11th, for them to make their case to the public and for parents to ask more questions. The more people understand what is driving this challenge, the more they can make an informed decision. While Smithtown is a conservative-leaning community, a Republican stronghold, I highly doubt they want school board members influenced by misinformation and conspiracies making decisions about the welfare of the teachers and students in their school system.
And for the rest of us, we need to keep a close eye on this new right-wing dog whistle and how it is being employed. In 2009, the Tea Party ran a racially charged misinformation campaign against the first African American president and the passing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Then, their dog whistles were “birtherism” “death panels” and “socialism.” They successfully rode that campaign back to power, taking back the House in the 2010, the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016. I have no doubt that is the intent here.