Conservative activist who ‘invented’ clash over ‘critical race theory’ leads Senate hearing

Bill would dock funding for school districts that teach concept

By: - October 5, 2021 4:30 pm

Christopher Rufo | Screenshot

A conservative activist from Washington described as someone who “invented the conflict over critical race theory” was at Tuesday’s state Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee hearing supporting a bill banning Michigan schools from teaching a decades-old theory examining systemic racism.

Christopher Rufo, who the New Yorker wrote “invented” the arguments over “critical race theory,” an academic concept focused on the history and ongoing effects of white supremacy in the United States, testified in favor of Senate Bill 460. Sponsored by Chair Lana Theis (R-Brighton), the bill would block public schools from teaching critical race theory and “its derivatives,” such as the “1619 Project.” The 1619 Project is a Pulitzer Prize-winning series from the New York Times exploring slavery and its continued impact in the United States.

No vote was taken on the bill Tuesday. 

If signed into law, the legislation would result in school districts being financially penalized for teaching critical race theory or its “derivatives.” According to the bill’s current language, the state would withhold 5% of a district’s funds if it was determined a district educator was teaching critical race theory or concepts related to it. 

“It’s an ideology that’s explicitly opposed to key American principles,” Rufo said of critical race theory, which has recently become something of a cultural lightning rod for conservatives enraged over how racism is taught in schools. 

A House Education panel last week passed another bill that essentially bans critical race theory from being taught in Michigan schools.

Called an “in-demand activist” by the Washington Post, Rufo described on Twitter how he intentionally attempts to conflate a number of progressive ideas in an effort to confuse the public over what critical race theory actually is.

“We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions,” Rufo wrote. “We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”

Sen. Lana Theis | Screenshot

While educators who have long taught critical race theory emphasize the concept is rooted in an exploration of the role race and racism played in the country’s history — such as white European settlers stealing land from Indigenous communities or hundreds of years of enslaving Black people — and how racism continues to shape inequities our society, Theis argued it is an “invention of the extremist political left that has manipulated academia for decades and is now targeting private businesses, public institutions and, sadly, our K-12 classrooms …”

“Its ‘woke’ proponents reject our country’s true history and our founding principles in favor of an identity-based cultural Marxist ideology that seeks nothing more than victimization, envy, division, discrimination, and ultimately the destruction of our country and way of life,” Theis said in a prepared statement. “This radical world view has no place in education and my bill will make sure it never will.”

Mary Graybar, the author of “Debunking the 1619 Project: Exposing the Plan to Divide America,” also testified in favor of Theis’ legislation. Graybar said she is opposed to the 1619 Project being taught in schools because of its “historical inaccuracies,” one of which she cited as being that “it claimed Thomas Jefferson never wanted to abolish slavery.”

Jefferson, the third U.S. president, did at points in his life call for an end to slavery. Historians also note he enslaved people and enslaved and repeatedly raped a Black woman, Sally Hemings, who gave birth to six children fathered by Jefferson.

It is both those atrocities of slavery and racism, as well as the accomplishments of Black Americans, that Michigan Board of Education Vice President Pamela Pugh said are necessary to teach in schools. Pugh testified against the legislation.

“This bill is not a healthy way to deal with truth,” said Pugh, who is African American. “… To deny this country’s true history be taught to our children — a history of strength, resilience, survival and countless contributions of our ancestors — that denial of truth is a violent act.”

Pugh, who emphasized that “critical race theory is not taught in [K-12] schools [in Michigan],” said the legislation would result in “confusing educators so they give up on teaching true American history.” The threat that districts would have funding withheld if critical race theory, or ideas related to it, are taught in its schools would result in educators being dangerously silenced on issues of race and racism, Pugh said.

“I oppose and I take offense to the belief that discussion of historical facts that involve slavery, this country’s current or past racism, consequences of past discriminatory acts and institutional racism, or how we or I arrived here are unpatriotic or un-American,” Pugh said. “And I’d go further to call on this body to embrace critical race theory as a framework for you to better understand educational inequality and structural racism so as to find solutions that lead to justice for all.”

Rema Reynolds Vassar, an assistant professor at Eastern Michigan University, also testified against the bill, noting her own experiences of racism as one of the few Black children growing up in Sturgis. 

“On the first day of Kindergarten, I was called the N-word by recess and was in a physical altercation,” Vassar said. 

Despite the fact that she repeatedly faced racial epithets, teachers would not intervene, she said. If people were provided more in-depth education around race and racism, that likely would not have been the case, Vassar explained.

“Having a real honest conversation about the multiple truths of our country would keep people safer,” she said. “… We had a cross burned in our yard; I was chased home [by white people]. It is the responsibility of educators to let people know these are still experiences people are having.”

The two lawmakers who spoke against the legislation during the hearing were state Sens. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) and  Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia). 

During the hearing, Geiss said the 1619 Project raises crucial concepts that are often ignored or not explored in depth in schools, such as the ongoing impact of slavery on the country.

Sen. Erika Geiss | Screenshot

“The 1619 Project asks us to look at the very histories and stories we’ve all been told from a very specific lens and asks us to shift that lens to understand it not from the victors who usually write the histories but from people like me — literally the only person of color on this committee — who experienced history and experienced the various consequences of different things that occurred in history,” Geiss said. 

Polehanki, a former teacher, said the legislation would have a “chilling effect” on education because teachers will not want to approach issues around race or racism for fear that their district will lose funding.

“I would be terrified something I said about slavery or Jim Crow or redlining would cause my school district to have 5% of its funding withheld,” Polehanki said. 

State Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) disagreed. 

“There’s been a lot of confusion about this bill, a lot of misinformation about this bil l— allegations that this bill would not permit discussions about slavery or Jim Crow or segregation,” he said. “When you read [the bill], it says that you can’t propagandize that one race is inherently superior or inferior to another race. Does that mean you cannot teach there was slavery? Of course you can teach that. … What you cannot do is tell the students you are inherently superior or inferior to other students. “

Vassar, however, disagreed, saying it would lead to a kind of “McCarthyism” in which educators would be targeted for exploring racism in the classroom.

“We have the power to abolish racism only if we do not ignore it,” she said.

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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