The right-wing campaign to stifle teaching and discussion about racism in U.S. history and institutions is fearmongering about critical race theory to mobilize right-wing activists and conservative voters to take over local school boards.
The Leadership Institute, which has trained generations of right-wing activists, is promoting a 20-hour online course to train conservatives how to run for their local school boards in order to “stop the teaching of Critical Race Theory before it destroys the fabric of our nation.” Critical race theory is an academic analytical framework for exploring the existence and impact of systemic racism. Over the past year, the term has been aggressively deployed as a right-wing culture-war weapon that is being used to smear educators and social justice activists. Campaigns against efforts to examine racism in school settings are often combined with attacks on other initiatives to promote inclusion, such as anti-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Right Wing Watch previously reported that Intercessors for America and the Center for Renewing America, the latter run by former Trump administration official Russ Vought, are distributing a toolkit that encourages conservatives to “reclaim” their schools by taking over local school boards through campaigns focused on opposition to critical race theory. The Leadership Institute, with its new course, appears to be following their lead.
An email promoting an online presentation about the Leadership Institute’s new training sessions, which begin on Aug. 9, declares that “conservatives are preparing a school board takeover and you can get involved.” The presentation was made by the Leadership Institute’s director of international trainings Ron Nehring, a protégé of anti-tax activist Grover Norquist who ran as a Republican candidate for Lt. Gov. of California in 2014 and served as a spokesman for Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“The left has spent many years and vast funding to stack local school boards,” the Leadership Institute’s website claims. “America’s children suffer the effects of this liberal domination every day.” The group adds, “Patriotic Americans must take back the schools.”
“The best way to fight Critical Race Theory and leftist indoctrination in America’s schools is to elect more conservatives to local school boards across the country,” says a Leadership Institute fundraising pitch for the project.
As part of its campaign, the Leadership Institute is promoting an e-book, “Critical Race Theory: What It Is and How to Fight Back.” A promotion for the book promises that it “will show you just how far the left has already taken their ‘cultural revolution.’ But it will also give you hope that together Americans can rise up to defeat this dangerous foe.”
The “e-book” is actually a transcript of a speech made by James Lindsay to Leadership Institute supporters in May. Lindsay is a mathematician who was part of a team of hoaxers who wrote fake journal articles as a way of mocking academic fields that they derided as “grievance studies.” Lindsay told Leadership Institute supporters that “the energy around this right now is white hot,” urging them to organize friends and neighbors. He encouraged his audience by telling them that if they take a leap of faith and step out in leadership, “the crowd is going to come up underneath you and catch you.”
In Lindsay’s telling, critical race theory is part of a many-headed monster that includes queer theory, postmodernism, post-colonial theory, Black feminism, and social justice. He calls it the culmination of “a 100-year-long project to develop this kind of cultural super weapon that’s now ripping America apart.”
Lindsay referenced a recent election in Southlake, Texas, where school board candidates running on an anti-critical race theory platform won landslide victories with the help of right-wing media personality Dana Loesch. That campaign was spurred by conservative backlash against a diversity and inclusion initiative that the town created after a video of white local high school students chanting the N-word went viral and other students came forward with their own stories of racist insults. Among the winning school board candidates was Hannah Smith, a lawyer who clerked for hard-right Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Maurice Cunningham, a political scientist who studies dark money’s influence on education policy, wrote on about groups pushing attacks on critical race theory on education activist Diane Ravitch’s July 31 blog. Cunningham examined the creation, funding, and promotion of supposedly grassroots parents’ groups like Parents Defending Education, No Left Turn in Education, and Moms for Liberty, which count on right-wing media outlets to amplify their allegations. The groups are targeting K-12 educators with tactics honed by attacks on college professors. Parents Defending Education, for example, encourages activists to create websites designed to encourage anonymous complaints about “woke” educators.
The Leadership Institute, which is offering trainings on taking over school boards, runs a project called Campus Reform, which encourages conservative students to “expose the leftist abuses on your campus.” Campus Reform’s website currently features a map tracking state-level efforts to “purge their education systems of critical race theory.”
The Leadership Institute’s funders include a who’s who of deep-pocketed foundations that have helped build the nation’s massive right-wing political and policy infrastructure at state and local levels, including the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation and the Bradley Foundation.
Religious-right activists and other right-wing groups have long viewed public schools and colleges as culture-war battlegrounds. This year’s campaign to mobilize school board takeovers is reminiscent of school board wars that raged during the 1990s, when religious-right groups made a determined effort to take over school boards across the country to combat what they claimed was liberal indoctrination in schools.