As Republicans ramp up their straw man attacks on the purported invasion of K-12 classrooms by critical race theory, a just-released report from the D.C.-based watchdog organization Accountable US explores the connections these groups and their funders have with organizations pushing anti–civil rights and anti–voting rights policies.
The report details the role that Koch operatives have played in setting up organizations such as Parents Defending Education and the behind-the-scenes influence that those pushing voter suppression laws have in such groups. On PDE’s board, for example, sits Edward Blum, an attorney who litigated the 2013 case that ultimately led to the Supreme Court’s gutting the Voting Rights Act. Two other groups, Fight for Schools and Parents Against Critical Theory, are, according to Accountable US, run by a former Trump DOJ official named Ian Prior.
And Moms for Liberty, set up by Tiffany Justice—a onetime school board member in Indian River County, Fla., who made a name for herself opposing an NAACP lawsuit requiring the district to implement desegregation measures—fights the teaching of CRT, but has also gone to bat against mask mandates, LGBTQ rights, and the teaching of civil rights history in school.
To date, according to Catrell Brown, vice president of communications for Accountable US, these groups have convinced local officials, legislators, and governors in 36 states to either adopt anti-CRT orders (some statewide, others local) or to legislate against the teaching of CRT. Many of those states, she says, are also passing, or about to pass, restrictions on voting rights. “You’re seeing this overlap of misinformation,” she argues. “It’s something most Americans don’t know about.”
While most of the anti-CRT and anti–voting rights overlap is coming from the South and the Midwest, astroturf parents’ groups bankrolled by conservative donors and foundations are increasingly making efforts to roil Western states with anti-CRT messages as well.
Moms for Liberty now has 11 chapters on the West Coast, most of them in California, and several additional chapters in the Southwest. Sometimes they push against CRT in schools; at others, they pivot into anti–mask mandate politics. In San Luis Obispo, for example, the group set up shop in May 2021. A month later, parents launched a recall effort against several school board members for supporting mask mandates in classrooms.
Meanwhile, No Left Turn has set up a page for parental complaints about the supposed left-wing ideological hijacking of classrooms. Many of the comments are flooding in from California and Oregon, where parents have lambasted curricula that force students to learn about “white privilege,” and have organized against the teaching of social justice themes in classrooms. Those organizing efforts are, increasingly, driving conservatives to the polls, to flex their muscles in local elections.
Right-wing organizers regard schools both as epicenters of political battles and as arenas that draw more people into the wider conservative orbit. At times, so-called progressives have made life much easier for the conservatives in this task; witness the blithering stupid actions of the San Francisco school board over the past couple of years: debating name changes to several dozen schools instead of working to get students safely back into classrooms during the pandemic, and, with only a minimum of public comment and input, gutting the school system’s gifted program by introducing a lottery for entry into those supposedly selective schools—which resulted in this week’s recall of three school board members. In one of the country’s most liberal cities, the result wasn’t close: 70 percent of those who cast ballots voted yes on the recall question.
Which brings me to a larger point: Right-wing organizers are showing themselves to be rather talented at harvesting popular resentment and/or fears to tarnish the entire progressive agenda. And, unfortunately, at times these days progressives are giving them ample fodder. Yes, the anti-CRT effort is both disingenuous and often laced with racist undertones; but when San Francisco school board members behave like caricatures, they provide grist to the conservative mill.
A similar dynamic seems to be unfolding around crime and punishment. Yes, it was long past time to reform the criminal justice system, to massively curtail the numbers going to jail and prison, and to restructure economically discriminatory systems such as cash bail. But it’s one thing to rethink broken systems; it’s another thing entirely to turn a blind eye to violent repeat offenders (or to be perceived to be turning a blind eye); or to simply hope against hope that seriously mentally ill people with a history of violence won’t do harm if left to their own devices on the streets.
More than a quarter-century ago, a series of shocking crimes, such as the kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas, in Petaluma, Calif., provided rocket fuel for the burgeoning tough-on-crime movement. Today, a series of equally horrific murders threatens to undo a decade of progressive criminal justice reform and usher in another tough-on-crime era. Take, for example, the extraordinarily brutal killing last week of Christina Lee, in New York’s Chinatown; or the equally monstrous murder, in late January, of Emma Roark, in a suburb of Sacramento.
Both murders appear to have been carried out by homeless men with a long history both of serious mental illness and involvement with the criminal justice system. Both men were, apparently, living in homeless encampments, rather than being consigned to treatment. Both men would, in different eras, likely have been either incarcerated for longer, or institutionalized for their mental illness.
The right has gotten criminal justice wrong for decades. They have preached punishment over rehabilitation, and promoted violent, coercive institutions as a default response to all the societal problems that lead to crime. Their solutions tend to be nonsolutions, but they do come across as “tough”—and thus viable—to a scared public.
Progressives can’t afford to ignore the rising fear that accompanies rising crime; nor can they, or should they, wash their hands of the problem of a bloated criminal justice system simply by releasing thousands of people onto the streets and into homeless encampments without wraparound, and, if need be, mandatory, services.
Yes, I’m glad that California and New York have finally embraced a slightly more progressive vision of criminal justice. Yes, I’m glad that voters have, in many cities, elected progressive DAs. Yes, I’m glad that fewer people are being locked up for decades for penny-ante crimes. But, no, I’m not even remotely happy about the fact that cities, especially out West, are increasingly speckled with shanties and encampments, often populated by seriously mentally ill, addicted, and formerly incarcerated individuals, on a scale unseen anywhere else in the First World. There’s nothing progressive, or politically sensible, in letting these shanties take root.
Posturing, as the San Francisco school board members did, does nobody any good. And talking the talk on criminal justice reform without working out how to build supportive housing and other support systems, and without getting a meaningful handle on the homelessness crisis, is, at the end of the day, merely shunting a problem from the inside of prisons and jails to the violence and dilapidation of the encampments. That’s a gift to conservatives that they will, I fear, be only too happy to exploit.