Not another CRT panic
Public records give an insider’s view of the ‘critical race theory’ censorship campaign in S.C.
In the weeks after South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman put out a statement condemning “critical race theory” on June 3, 2021, educators, parents, and historians began sending her office careful, footnoted critiques of her position.
Based on the available public records, it appears that the superintendent and her staff disregarded messages that were critical of her stance. Requests for meetings with the Republican schools chief went unanswered, and Spearman neither walked back her statement nor publicly defined the phrase “critical race theory.” In the absence of clarity on what, exactly, CRT is, conservatives flooded her inbox with baseless accusations of covert indoctrination via First Steps programs, school district office posters, and elementary school reading assignments.
Today’s newsletter is based on the results of a public records request that I co-signed with 20 South Carolina educators, librarians, and researchers, seeking emails sent or received by the superintendent’s office containing the words “critical race theory” or the acronym “CRT” between May 20, 2021, and Feb. 16, 2022. I have uploaded all of those emails in a searchable PDF on DocumentCloud.1 I’ve annotated those emails and will be linking to the relevant sections throughout this issue.
Here are some patterns I noticed:
Spearman’s office pushed back against some of the spurious attacks that came to her office under the umbrella of “critical race theory,” including complaints about Social Emotional Learning, a common method for teaching social skills. “SEL is not rooted in nor does it have any tie to CRT,” Spearman’s spokesman wrote to one complainant on June 25, 2021.
Spearman’s office caved to other pressure campaigns from the right wing of her party. In one instance in July 2021, her office investigated allegations of CRT being taught in a Richland School District 2 classroom based on a report on the Canadian conservative website The Post Millennial. Later that month, her office removed a link to the organization Learning for Justice (formerly known as Teaching Tolerance) from a state Department of Education website after one person complained it was promoting a “hidden” CRT agenda. Another complaint was based on a tweet from the since-suspended Twitter account @MythInformedMKE, alleging CRT was being secretly taught in Richland District 1; Spearman’s office pulled up a teacher’s employment history as a result. It’s not clear from the emails what disciplinary or employment actions her office took.
The superintendent’s office received critiques, open letters, one petition, and multiple requests for meetings from educators, historians, and at least one billionaire education philanthropist who believed Spearman’s anti-CRT stance was misguided. From what I can tell based on the emails themselves and the letter writers I’ve reached out to, she did not respond to them and did not incorporate their critiques into her public statements.
Today’s newsletter is a followup to a piece I wrote in August 2021, “Blueprint for a race panic.” In that piece, I used the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act to check Spearman’s assertion to local media that she had received “countless messages from South Carolinians opposed to critical race theory” before putting out her initial anti-CRT statement2 in June 2021. She had in fact received 10 emails on the subject before her spokesman wrote a draft of the statement.
That wasn’t the last we’d hear of the anti-CRT panic.3 When South Carolina Republicans attempted to ban “critical race theory” from schools via legislation this year, Spearman testified in favor of codifying a CRT ban at a Feb. 16, 2022, meeting of the S.C. House Education and Public Works Committee. At that hearing, she told lawmakers she had received “several hundred” complaints in the previous year about CRT in classrooms.
I can now say that she did not receive that many complaints via email. When I asked for clarification on the number this week, a spokesperson said Spearman’s office also received complaints “via phone, social media, and at community events.”4
Molly Spearman has chosen a side on this issue. So have I.
As I write this, Spearman’s time in office is drawing to a close. She has declined to run for re-election after her term ends this year and has endorsed the Republican candidate Ellen Weaver, a school privatization advocate.
Weaver, for her part, shows no sign of moderating Spearman’s stance if she wins. Her campaign website calls for “total transparency for all materials and resources used with students” and declares, “Ideologies like Critical Race Theory, under any name or guise are wrong.”
Weaver faces Democratic candidate and current public school teacher Lisa Ellis in the Nov. 8 statewide election.
Spearman had ample reasons and opportunities to change her position on banning CRT over the past year-and-a-half. She received no shortage of constructive criticism.
Spearman received a letter of opposition from the Indigenize SC Education Task Force, a group of educators and Indigenous leaders based at Coastal Carolina University, on June 10, 2021: “Honest history matters … Such curricular inhibitions amount to state-sponsored censorship and racially motivated indoctrination, and there is no place for either in South Carolina or anywhere in the United States of America.”
The South Carolina African American Heritage Commission wrote Spearman a letter in defense of CRT on June 24, 2021. “We strongly encourage you to reject any policies or legislation that would restrict the factual and inclusive presentation of South Carolina’s history to students,” the Commission wrote.
On June 28, 2021, Spearman received a group letter from parents, educators, historians, and community members raising their concerns about her statement and requesting a meeting to discuss the matter. They wrote: “We believe that CRT, a concept that has been around for over 30 years, simply examines how institutional racism came to exist in U.S. life and law and how it endures and impacts the lives of Black and Brown people even today. It is glaringly evident that nowhere is there a greater need for an examination of how institutional racism came to exist in life and law and how it endures than in South Carolina.”
Immediately after receiving the June 28 letter, Spearman spokesman Ryan Brown emailed a colleague: “Can you research the individuals who signed the attached letter? I don’t need anything in depth just need to know who I am dealing with.”
The letter writers included prominent Black community leaders, educators, and academics. The emails do not show Spearman or her spokesman responding. There is no record in the scope of the FOIA request showing her office’s response to the S.C. African American Heritage Commission or Indigenize SC, either. An online petition with 900+ signers in defense of history teachers also went unanswered.
“My position has not changed,” Spearman told state lawmakers in her Feb. 16 testimony.
As Spearman’s office kept critics at arm’s length, she prepared talking points and held meetings with Republican Party leaders who wanted to talk to her about CRT, from York County to Newberry County to Dorchester County.
I reached out this week to people who attempted to set up meetings with the superintendent and voice their concerns about her stance. So far, I haven’t found one who got a response from her office.
“No, to my knowledge, Ms. Spearman did not respond to our letter,” wrote Dr. Sara Rich, an assistant professor at Coastal Carolina University and member of Indigenize SC.
Even people who can traditionally bend the ear of politicians went ignored by the superintendent. The Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative (TCCC), which holds some sway in South Carolina politics, wrote in a position statement that those who sought to ban CRT “overlooked the obvious chilling effect of any law that penalizes First Amendment activities.” Then-CEO Phyllis Martin tried on June 14, 2021, to set up a meeting between the superintendent and her group’s board chair Anita Zucker, a prominent Charleston-area billionaire and education philanthropist.
I emailed Martin last week to see if Zucker ever got to have that meeting with the superintendent.
“The meeting with Molly Spearman and TCCC did not occur,” Martin replied.
In a rare fit of optimism, I predicted in my August 2021 piece “Blueprint for a race panic” that U.S. conservatives would move on from the “critical race theory” talking point within the following 3 months and pick something new to frighten their base about.
How wrong I was.
I was not able to attend any legislative hearings in the state capital about the various bills seeking to restrict teachers’ speech and curricula, but I wrote my own letter to state lawmakers opposing their anti-CRT bills in February:
Spearman made it clear in her February testimony that her office was enforcing its anti-CRT rhetoric under the provisions of an obscure state budget proviso prohibiting “partisanship curriculum.”5 She said:
We have conducted a thorough, painstaking review of our state-funded instructional materials to ensure that they align with our standards and do not contain CRT concepts or biases. We have rejected federal grants that we feel try to place a one-sided agenda in South Carolina’s classrooms, and our professional development offered to educators is aligned with our standards and free from outside influences.
I asked Spearman’s office this week what substantive actions she had taken to enforce her anti-CRT stance and the budget proviso. Chief Communications Officer Katrina Goggins wrote back:
The South Carolina Department of Education receives and investigates all allegations of violations of state law for which the agency has authority. Any disciplinary action taken against a certified educator is done in accordance with applicable state law and State Board of Education regulation(s).
Meanwhile right-wing groups across the state have taken the anti-CRT campaign into their own hands.
Book-banning activists have been hollering about CRT in the works of Ibram X. Kendi, Jason Reynolds, and Nikole Hannah-Jones, seeking (sometimes successfully) to have their books pulled from school library shelves.
South Carolina Parents Involved in Education, a group founded by gun-toting anti-sex-education crusader Sheri Few, has been hosting workshops across the state on how to identify and “eradicate” CRT in schools. They recently accused the state’s current teacher of the year of being a covert CRT supporter, citing no evidence.
Our most prominent reactionary politicians at the state level are getting in on the game, too. The South Carolina Freedom Caucus, a group of arch-conservative lawmakers, recently circulated a context-free covert recording of a nonprofit worker in Lexington County, uploaded it to YouTube over spooky ambient music, and claimed it was evidence of secret CRT indoctrination in schools. After Fox News picked up the story, Caucus leaders admitted to the Post and Courier this week that they had doctored the audio.
As the CRT panic approaches its third year of circulation in right-wing media, we need to look clearly at the tactics of its biggest boosters. They aren’t going anywhere.
One group pushing back against censorship in South Carolina is Freedom to Read SC, which is led by some tough-as-nails librarians and members of the ACLU-SC. They’ve been showing up at book ban meetings across the state to counteract the Moms for Liberty crowd, and they’ve had some wins lately!
If you’d like to get involved, follow them at facebook.com/free2readSC and look for signup information in the coming weeks. We don’t have to sit back and watch as reactionaries dismantle our public institutions. Dum spiro spero, y’all.
Brutal South is a free weekly newsletter about class struggle and education in the American South. If you would like to support my work and get access to the complete archive of subscriber-only content, paid subscriptions are $5 a month.
If you are interested in the results of my previous FOIA request from last year, click here to read emails via Spearman’s official email account and click here to read emails via Spearman’s campaign account. They’re all public records, and I want to put them out there for journalists to use in future reporting.
Here is the full text of Spearman’s statement, which she published on Facebook and Twitter:
“Throughout the past year there have been many events and practices that have sought to divide our state, country, and our system of public education. It is imperative that in the face of this adversity, we remain committed to making the tough decisions that provide the best education possible for our students and that model the type of citizens we want them to become.
“The choices we make, the selection of our education standards, and the setting of the curriculum used in our classrooms have no business being handed down from Washington D.C., Los Angeles, or New York. These decisions should be made at the state and the community level by South Carolinians.
“The Critical Race Theory (CRT) ideology has no place in South Carolina schools and classrooms. 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. We will not provide professional development opportunities or training that seeks to promote CRT amongst South Carolina educators.
“Instead, we will focus on South Carolina’s and our nation’s storied history and teach the truth, the good and the bad, to our students so that they have a deep appreciation of what it means to be a South Carolinian and an American. We will help train educators so that they can identify with and support students from diverse backgrounds so that demographics do not dictate educational outcomes.
“Now more than ever, we must remain focused on our mission to ensure every graduate is prepared for success in college, career, and citizenship and not be hindered by any ideologies or agendas that seek to distract us.”
In this essay I’ll often refer to “critical race theory” not in the sense intended by legal scholars, but in the vernacular sense invented by conservative pundits in the year 2020. My working definition of the latter is “concepts that make white parents feel uncomfortable.” For more on the real and imagined concepts of CRT, check out my conversation with AJ Davis and Dr. Davíd G. Martínez on Podcast Episode 27.
Former Spearman press secretary Ryan Brown was a little more pointed. In May 2022, responding to skepticism about the figure on Twitter, he wrote, “100s of complaints was an understatement. Go to a moms for liberty meeting and you will understand.” This is a little like going to a John Birch Society meeting and coming away with hundreds of complaints about Dwight Eisenhower being a secret communist, but I don’t doubt he was telling the truth.
Proviso 1.105 of the General Appropriations Bill 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”