Blueprint for a race panic
South Carolina’s schools chief helped stoke a critical race theory frenzy
The people who flooded South Carolina Education Superintendent Molly Spearman’s email inbox in the spring were worried about critical race theory, but they were confused about what it might be.
Spearman’s office failed to clarify the matter. Instead, a review of emails sent and received by her office shows that the state’s elected chief education official added fuel to the fire as conservatives grew more confused and angry.
Critical race theory is a body of legal scholarship that developed after the civil rights era to analyze the role of race and racism in the U.S. legal system. It has been around since the 1970s.
This past year within the feedback loop of conservative media, the term “critical race theory” took on a separate meaning as a catch-all for ideas that make white people uncomfortable.
Media Matters for America, a watchdog group that tracks right-wing messaging campaigns, summed up the strategy this way:
This movement’s strategy is to identify, exaggerate, or fabricate discrete local instances of alleged left-wing excesses in discussions of race; dishonestly brand them all as “critical race theory”; nationalize coverage of those stories as part of the broader culture war; and polarize the debate for political gain, at times using the issue as justification for changing laws or policies.
The institutions pushing this latest conservative panic line are not subtle about their tactics. Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and frequent Fox News on-air guest, has stated publicly that his goal is “to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ ”
Here in South Carolina, the superintendent’s office put out a blanket condemnation of critical race theory on June 3 without pausing to define the term. The statement only identified CRT as an “ideology” that “has no place in South Carolina schools and classrooms.”
I wanted to know which version of critical race theory Spearman meant to condemn, and I wanted to know what prompted her to put out the statement. So I submitted a public records request to Spearman’s office asking for emails she sent or received this year containing the words “critical race theory.” 1
I’ve read all 125 emails that Spearman’s office provided to me (you can read them all at this link and this link if you want), but none made it clear what she meant by “critical race theory'' or how a classroom teacher might run afoul of her wishes on the matter. Followup questions by journalists and educators have yielded similarly un-enlightening results.
The emails Spearman received about CRT, both from Republican leaders and the general public, had little to do with the actual legal discipline of critical race theory, which is a graduate-level concept not taught as part of K-12 curricula.
Instead, the emails were peppered with references to Marxism (9 references), the New York Times’ 1619 Project (8), COVID vaccine and mask requirements (7), LGBTQ-inclusive education (7), communism (3), Black Lives Matter (2), and Common Core education standards (2). They mentioned or quoted Martin Luther King (you know the quote) 4 times.
“Recently I have become aware of something called ‘critical race theory’ that is being taught in schools throughout the country,” one person wrote to Spearman March 31. “I believe it is very damaging to children and should not be taught to children in schools.”
Some emails appeared in days-long bursts and repeated similar phrases and concepts, possibly as part of a letter-writing campaign. Eight emails in all came from people who identified themselves as parents of current students. One came from a teacher.
Here is a partial list of phenomena that senders identified as evidence of CRT in schools:
Social Emotional Learning surveys
The Harvard Implicit Association Test
Teacher training seminars on “Teaching for Equity”
Cultural competency and sensitivity training
An anti-racist reading list put out by the teacher advocacy group SC for Ed
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a disciplinary model that has been used in schools since the 1980s
The tone of the emails ranged from worried to unhinged.
“Critical race theory is already in our schools. It is absurd that it even exist,” one sender wrote on May 22, later adding: “It’s time to stand and do what we are paying you to do. LETS DO IT TOGETHER AND RALLY PARENTS UP TO BACK US ON IT!!!!!! FIRE ALL PRINCIPALS AND TEACHERS THAT BELIEVE IN ALL THIS CRAP!! FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE THEM ALL FIRE THEM ALL NOW MAKE THEM WORK IN A BLUE STATE FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE THEM ALL!!!!! NOW!!!!!!”
When questioned by a reporter from Columbia news station WLTX, Spearman’s spokesman Ryan Brown said the superintendent had put the statement out after receiving “countless messages from South Carolinians opposed to critical race theory.”
In fact, when Brown emailed himself a draft of the statement on May 21, Spearman’s office had received a total of 10 emails from people concerned about critical race theory, including one who claimed to be a parent. 2 Most came through a contact form on Spearman’s campaign website.
The most substantive messages on the matter had not come from South Carolina parents, teachers, or community members. They had come from the state’s Republican congressional delegation and Republican attorney general.
On May 19, South Carolina Republican Congressmen Joe Wilson, Tom Rice, William Timmons, and Ralph Norman sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona accusing the Biden administration of using ESSA grants to promote critical race theory and the 1619 Project in school curricula.
“Race should not be used as [a] political weapon to divide and conquer,” wrote the four white congressmen, who routinely engage in racist demagoguery while representing districts that were made securely white and Republican via explicit racial gerrymandering and the GOP’s racist Southern Strategy.
The same day, May 19, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson joined 19 of his Republican counterparts from other states in writing a letter to Cardona making the same complaint. Some local news outlets bought the line: “Joe Biden administration backs away from the teaching of critical race theory following attorneys general letter,” declared a headline from SCNow.com.
Brown forwarded the letters to Spearman and other South Carolina Department of Education officials on the morning of May 21. That afternoon, he emailed himself a draft of what would eventually be Spearman’s official statement on the matter. (In a followup email when I asked Brown about the timing, he said his office had drafted the statement earlier and revised it May 20 after a meeting with the Council of Chief State School Officers.)
Spearman’s statement echoed the attorneys general and Congressmen's crusade against public funds promoting "critical race theory":
“The South Carolina Department of Education has no current or proposed standards that include CRT concepts and will not be adopting any CRT standards nor applying for or accepting any funding that requires or incentivizes the adoption of these concepts in our classrooms."
After Spearman put out her statement on Facebook and Twitter June 3, some conservatives were satisfied. Others were not. Most seemed not to understand the text of the statement itself.
On June 3 at 3:06 p.m., an hour after Spearman put her statement on Facebook, Spearman’s office received an email from the South Carolina Department of Education’s ombudsman, an official whose job is to field and resolve public complaints.
Ombudsman Wanda A. Davis wrote:
“Parents are happy about Molly’s position on this but they want to know what the penalty is for schools that are currently teaching this.”
At 3:27 p.m., the ombudsman wrote again to say she had spoken to a parent in Oconee who claimed that their district superintendent had instructed IT staff to block a “website that was being allowed in their classrooms via BrainPOP videos about BLM and CRT.”
“She was calling to ensure we get districts to stop giving access to this information,” Davis wrote.
Later that evening, someone wrote to the superintendent to thank her for her statement and demand that she fire a middle school teacher who was a “full blown, radical leftist, activist liberal whom still forces his opinions upon our children and is teaching God is not real and science is God.”
“SET EXAMPLES WITH HIM BY FIRING HIS DISRESPECTFUL ASS,” the sender wrote. “PLEASE!!!!!”
On June 4 the ombudsman wrote to Spearman’s spokesman again: “Can schools give students testing on Diversity also can districts require teachers to go through Diversity training as well[?]”
Spearman’s office did not reply to the ombudsman’s questions by email.
Emails poured in from people who conflated CRT with their outrage du jour.
“CRT is simply relabeled as Cultural Competency/Sensitivity Training and SC teachers are being inundated with it … There is no reason that we as taxpayers should continue paying into a system that does not serve us or represent our values,” one Lowcountry resident wrote on June 5.
A parent in the wealthy, majority-white coastal enclave of Mount Pleasant wrote the superintendent claiming that middle school teachers were bombarding her child with rainbow sneakers, “Trans/Pedo flags,” “muzzles,” and critical race theory.
Another Mount Pleasant parent forwarded Spearman a lengthy back-and-forth in which she threatened legal action because school officials were making her children wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The subject of the email was “Proof of CRT being used,” and she went on to complain about a muralist who had done a painting of a “BLM fist” at the school.
The emails were illuminating, but they didn’t answer my initial question: Which version of “critical race theory” did Superintendent Spearman mean to condemn?
So I emailed her office and asked: What is critical race theory?
Spearman’s chief communications officer Ryan Brown wrote back: “The [South Carolina Department of Education] has not adopted a uniform definition of Critical Race Theory as, like all theories, it has a variety of interpretations and meanings amongst its authors and followers.” He then provided a link to an overview of critical race theory from the Purdue Online Writing Lab, a website that children use for help writing papers.
He continued: “While not explicitly linked to Critical Race Theory, the SCDE has been charged by the General Assembly with enforcing Proviso 1.105 which contains language prohibiting the teaching of partisanship curriculum that most families associate with Critical Race Theory.”
I’ve read Proviso 1.105 of the General Appropriations Bill. The proviso is inscrutably titled “Partisanship Curriculum.” It does not mention critical race theory, but it does prohibit schools from using state funds to teach the following concepts:
“an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously”
“an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his race or sex”
“meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race”
No piece of forbidden knowledge listed in the proviso is a component of critical race theory, which tends to focus more on the construction of race within the legal system than on individual guilt. The proviso items sound more like a sloppily written book report on Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, a corporate-friendly self-help book that conservatives frequently conflate with CRT.
I pointed out that the people who emailed Spearman’s office about critical race theory thought the term meant a lot of things that it does not. I asked what the superintendent’s office had done to clarify its June 3 statement. Brown wrote back:
The SCDE has fielded and responded to numerous questions from citizens, parents, partisan and non-partisan organizations, school and district leaders, and news media surrounding the agency’s stance on critical race theory and the proviso adopted by the South Carolina General Assembly. The agency has investigated allegations of instruction that runs contrary to the proviso and provided guidance to the aforementioned groups and individuals regarding the proviso and critical race theory.
If Spearman or Brown did provide such guidance, they did not do it via email within the scope of my records request.
I used to have a job as an education reporter in South Carolina. During that time I met a lot of politically active teachers who respected Spearman’s professionalism and experience, even if they disagreed with her Republican beliefs. She worked for 18 years as a school music teacher and administrator, and teachers trusted that she would at least hear them out when they raised concerns.
That rapport started to fray in 2019 when the superintendent distanced herself from the Red for Ed teacher movement. In 2020, Spearman went along with the governor’s push to keep schools open during the pandemic at nearly all costs. Whatever goodwill she once enjoyed went out the window.
In late summer 2021, Spearman toed the party line as the governor and attorney general waged a legal battle against local school boards and municipalities that wanted to mandate masks during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “Where’s Molly?” was a common refrain among activist teachers.
With 10,000 South Carolinians dead of the virus, teachers quitting the profession in record-setting droves, and the delta variant poised to run rampant in schools during the fall, Spearman finally broke with the governor on Aug. 17. She held a press conference and called for the legislature to reconvene and revisit the budget proviso that prohibited mask mandates at the local level. (They have not done this yet.)
Up until that point, Spearman’s long silence on mask mandates had stood in marked contrast to her vehement and early denunciation of critical race theory — a bogeyman that even she said did not exist in South Carolina schools.
Steve Nuzum, a high school English teacher in Columbia and legislative director for SC for Ed, said Spearman’s out-of-the-blue condemnation on June 3 was the first time most teachers had heard the phrase “critical race theory” at all.
Because the term is widely misapplied and Spearman never publicly clarified her stance, he worries that her statement will have a chilling effect on necessary classroom conversations about timely subjects like systemic racism, implicit biases, and police brutality.
“Very few teachers were introducing the concept of Critical Race Theory to K-12 public school students and there were almost certainly no teachers who were actually teaching the complicated legal theories of authors like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell. So what Spearman's statement did was needlessly stoke the fires of anti-public school rhetoric that has often put teachers across the country in real danger,” Nuzum said.
“Critical race theory” is the latest in a long line of culture-war freakouts stoked by right-wing media and politicians across the U.S.
One way to track the usefulness of conservative buzzwords is via a Google Trends analysis. The phrase “cancel culture” saw a small spike in U.S. Google searches in July 2020, followed by a gradual decline. This was followed by a spike in interest in the phrase “1619 Project” in September 2020 and another for “Dr. Seuss” (remember the Dr. Seuss censorship panic?) in late February 2021.
Google searches for “critical race theory” peaked during the week of June 20-26, 2021, and have fallen off slowly, showing a bit more staying power than the last few scare words. Right-wing pundit Mark Levin dedicated a chapter to critical race theory in his latest bestselling book, American Marxism, pulling the concept into the broader web of neo-McCarthyite anticommunist frenzy.
“Critical race theory” has soaked into the carpet of the American reactionary mind. Recently, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even blamed the fall of Afghanistan on the Biden administration’s supposed embrace of CRT, telling Fox News on Aug. 16, “They've been focused on critical race theory while the embassy is at risk."
I give it three more months before they pick a new panic. This one is running out of juice.
I’m a parent of three children in South Carolina public schools, and I support SC for Ed.
Because the records I received from Spearman’s office are public property, I’ve arranged them chronologically and posted them online as PDFs.
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Spearman’s office engaged in some hilarious price gouging when I submitted my initial Freedom of Information Act request. Her office wanted to charge $616 for an email search. For more about this, see my previous newsletter issue, “Playing with FOIA.”
The actual number of emails may be higher. My initial FOIA request sought emails from Spearman’s official email account dating back to Jan. 1, which might have netted more results. To save money, I narrowed my request parameters to just May 20 through June 9. Spearman then voluntarily sent me a PDF of redacted emails as far back as February that she received via a contact form on her campaign website. The final price for the public records was $79.50, for which several friends pitched in the money. Thank you again to all who helped out!