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The GOP-led hysteria over antiracist education has arrived in Massachusetts

In May, a man held up a sign against Critical Race Theory during a protest outside a Washoe County School District board meeting in Reno, Nev.
In May, a man held up a sign against Critical Race Theory during a protest outside a Washoe County School District board meeting in Reno, Nev.Andy Barron/Associated Press/File

I’d hoped to avoid writing about the manufactured crisis over so-called Critical Race Theory, the catchall term that off-the-deep-end, policy-bereft Republicans are throwing around in their latest attempt to scare voters back into their arms.

Why give oxygen to yet another of their performative distortions?

But now this ugliness has come alarmingly close to where we live.

So, here we go. Critical Race Theory is a decades-old framework created by legal scholars that essentially says racism is entwined with our legal institutions. This fact of American life, if it wasn’t obvious before, has been plain since Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd last year.

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As they so often do, Republicans have severed the phrase from its actual meaning and used “critical race theory” to describe any antiracist teaching, diversity and inclusion efforts, and discussions of racism, period. They decry such teachings as unpatriotic, antithetical to critical thinking, and designed to make white children feel bad about themselves.

Across the country, including in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine (mercifully, not Massachusetts, so far), Republican legislators are trying to shut down the long overdue reckoning on race that followed last year’s awakening, pushing, and in some cases passing, laws designed to prohibit or chill discussions of race and racism in classrooms and workplaces, feeding a backlash that casts white people as victims in the fight for racial equity.

They live in a zero sum world, where saying Black Lives Matter means white ones don’t; where antiracist means antiwhite. And they’re betting Republicans can win elections if they get enough voters to buy this line.

A fund-raising appeal from this state’s embattled Trumpist GOP chair this week sums up the pitch: “What do you call a curriculum that teaches children that their skin color automatically makes them inherently bad people? The left calls it Critical Race Theory. I call it blatant racism.”

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Look, these are challenging times for some people: It is uncomfortable to be confronted with the notion that the country you believed was living up to its ideals of equality and justice has been failing miserably in that work. And reasonable people can disagree on how best to explain this moment, and grow from it, including in schools.

But make no mistake: Republican politicians and Fox News personalities aren’t interested in moving forward together. Attacking antiracism and terrifying white voters is their chosen route to electoral victory in 2022 and beyond. They are leveraging fear to claw back voters who would otherwise reject them.

Where does Parents United fit into all of this? Is this new, Boston-based group of private school parents part, in its own quiet way, of the cynical electoral gambit taking on antiracist teaching, or are they well-intentioned and genuinely afraid schools are being unfair to white kids?

So far, it’s hard to tell. Like similar groups around the country formed as a reaction to what they see as excessive “wokeness” and indoctrination of their kids, the group formed to fight for what its members call “true diversity of thought” in schools.

Executive director Ashley Jacobs, a private school parent with a Harvard MBA, declined to say who is funding the group’s work, but its website offers some clues. Despite the fact that she says her group is not political, its advisory board skews conservative: It includes wealthy GOP donors Jean and Christopher F. Egan; Beth Feeley, who is a contributor to The Federalist and donated to Donald Trump; and David Keating, former executive director of the antitax Club for Growth, to name a few. On its resources page are articles decrying the end of free speech on college campuses, on the BPS exam schools admissions debate, and on the Wuhan lab leak theory — the possibility that the coronavirus emerged from a Chinese lab, which has been embraced by conservatives.

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Jacobs said she and two other parents formed their group because “people are scared to speak out about anything, or even ask questions, because you might be shamed or made to believe your opinion is the wrong one.”

She takes pains to point out that her group has no connection to those who decry Critical Race Theory. And she acknowledges that there aren’t always two sides on some issues. She insists her group’s goal is merely to make sure the agencies overseeing private schools put in place guidelines to make sure all points of view are respected.

But she declined to provide actual examples of kids being shamed for expressing unpopular opinions in the schools to which she and other members of her group send their children, saying, “Parents don’t want to come forward publicly because ... they feel they will be retaliated against and shamed, and that is real.”

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Nor have her own children been shamed for expressing themselves, she said.

“I do not have children this has directly happened to, but I have been very lucky,” she said. “But I also think it may have happened to them, in very subtle ways. And we have an honest and open conversation and I know how to talk to them about this stuff.”

Which is what most parents would do if their kids encounter uncomfortable experiences in the classroom. They might also talk to their kids’ educators. But Parents United is asking for a formal, systemwide mandate that opposing viewpoints be represented and respected when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

She offered a few hypothetical examples, including one of an elementary school child who can barely read but who might be asked to understand gender pronouns, or another of a child who might be afraid to raise questions about the origins of COVID-19.

When I pressed her, Jacobs said real life examples are “not important to what we’re doing. ... Everybody is looking for that angle to sensationalize and get the headline.” She pointed instead to the website of the Association of Independent Schools in New England, which is offering teachers workshops this summer on “emotional equity,” empowering all students to honor and learn from their feelings, and to the website of the Rivers School in Weston, on which its diversity and inclusion initiatives figure prominently.

“There is an opportunity cost with all of this,” Jacobs said. “If you are spending time working on equity of feelings, whatever that is, maybe that’s an hour less of math you get, and a lot of parents are saying we want the math.”

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There’s that zero sum thing again.

It remains to be seen whether Parents United is on the level, or whether it’s another manifestation of the morally bankrupt electoral strategy we see elsewhere. Either way, this concocted culture war has well and truly arrived in Massachusetts. And that can’t be good.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.