Who Controls Education in Washington State? Part 2; This is not a “Culture War.”

Liberals and progressives who tell you this is a Culture War are co-opting and virtue signaling for their own personal gain.

In part 2 of the series we’ll be looking at who controls education by controlling the narrative around anti-CRT movements. Some have tried to change the narrative by calling it a “Republican war on teachers,” but Republicans aren’t the only antagonists. In a blue state, passive progressive liberals reign supreme.

Culture War” has been used as a rhetorical weapon in American political discourse since the 1920s. Its emergence in the heightened inequality following the Gilded Age is no coincidence, as liberals and conservatives had to respond to the growing momentum of multiracial working class communities calling for racial and economic liberation. In a 21st Century America riddled with under-funded schools, unsupported educators, and austerity budgets closing schools in cities like in Oakland, you might wonder, “Why we are still using a term like ‘culture wars’?”

Diving deeper into the CRT “Culture War” debate, we are able to see how the duopoly of our political discourse between liberals and conservatives limits and shapes what we think of as possible changes to our education system. Conservatives, on the one hand, scream “Communists!” while liberals repeat, “Nothing to see here. We don’t teach CRT.” Each reaction to CRT is a side on the same coin. That is why we are here to unpack how the liberal and conservative framing of CRT as a “Culture War” about curriculum is a distraction from revolutionizing our unjust school system beginning with fully funding our schools, supporting our teachers, and centering the needs and cultures of our most marginalized communities. 

Who’s fighting this so-called “Culture War”?

The reality for many activists and scholars is that Republicans are only one barrier to racial justice; progressive liberals, in trying to appease conservatives, have watered down the intent of CRT, and therefore, ethnic studies. When reading the liberal and progressive headlines, one can easily be convinced CRT is either for white folks to learn how to talk about race or for Black folks to see themselves in the books they read. While these are essential components of CRT, they barely scrape the surface of the changes we at WAESN know our schools need. Liberals and progressives who tell you this is a culture war co-opt our material and historical struggle for liberation

Instead of defending the framework of CRT, liberals want you to think this war is one of promoting multicultural “diversity” or fighting individual acts of bigotry and racism. These corporate-sponsored liberal headlines framing our education crisis as a CRT “Culture War” erase, abstract, and appropriate the demands of families, youth, and educator organizers. They silence us and our ancestors in the generations-long fight for liberation. For racial justice and economic liberation, we must make radical changes to our school funding programs, implement restorative justice, and collaborate for cultural restoration. But before we get into our solutions, we first must disrupt the looping rhetoric of the ruling elite and their control over the two parties. 

Origins of the Anti-CRT Movement in Washington State

Washington State plays a unique role in this national and generational crisis. The New Yorker claims Gig Harbor resident and conservative journalist, Christopher Rufo, is responsible for inventing the CRT “Culture War” in 2019, arguably starting with attacks against WAESN Executive Director, Tracy Castro-Gill. After leaking a City of Seattle “anti-racism” training and making his way onto Tucker Carlson in 2020, CRT made its way to Trump’s attention. For Rufo, CRT was the perfect term to attack because its foundations were rooted in the Marxist tradition of the 1960s. Rufo, unfortunately, was right that red-baiting and pandering to white fragility would work to spread anti-CRT sentiment and outrage. In response to the conservative weaponization of CRT, liberals have fallen prey to playing defense for something they fundamentally are at odds with, but this is not new. CRT is not a culture war, but a revolutionary framework that we at WAESN reclaim as a part of our project of Ethnic Studies. 

Rufo tweets admission of Southern Strategy tactics in attacking CRT

CRT is a framework to critique inequitable funding systems, misrepresentative and white-washed colonizer histories, individualistic capitalist values, and the disciplinary systems that disproportionately punish our students of color. Talking white male heads, including Luke Rosiak, Ben Shapiro, and other, local pundits have turned their strategies from broad attacks on scholarship to baseless personal attacks on leading education advocates in the state, including Tracy Castro Gill, the Executive Director of Washington Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN). 

Unfortunately, for activists and organizers like Tracy, personal attacks, like those launched by Luke Rosiak and Ben Shapiro, have become a rite of passage, a necessary evil to being a political agitator. It comes at a deep emotional and psychological cost for activists, including death threats. Luke Rosiak tried to discredit Tracy by attacking their dead husband and accusing them of child abuse for supporting their trans child. Tracy’s response to these attacks can be read here. Tracy isn’t the only CRT advocate receiving threats and attacks here in Washington State. Jesse Hagopian, member of Black Lives Matter at School and a national advocate for education reform and racial equity, has been subjected to countless attacks and death threats. These attacks are aimed to sabotage the stability and momentum of the work to bring justice to our schools and our society.

While liberals play the role of political pundits in this “Culture War” from the comfort of their armchairs, educators doing the work are waging what can often feel like an actual war with violence ranging from the threat of losing jobs to physical and emotional violence or death. Counter-narrative is a crucial tenant of CRT and ethnic studies, so WAESN is here to set the story straight and shift the narrative from the “Culture Wars” to the ongoing struggle against political systemic racial and economic oppression.

Local Media’s Liberal and Progressive Co-optation

Today’s mainstream journalists stand in the long tradition of liberal Americans who, as James Baldwin warned us, “have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.” The liberal outrage at banning To Kill a Mockingbird is the best encapsulation of white liberals turning their political discourse into a self-serving woke-badge of honor. James Baldwin’s writings, too often co-opted by liberals, warned us of the complacency of these liberals who argue that “as long as such books are being published…everything will be alright” in America. The current incarnation of Baldwin’s liberal is, “So long as we have POC representation, everything will seem alright.”

Despite countless local leaders making huge waves in the national struggle for liberation in our school systems, the Seattle Times continues to engage in this ideologically obstructionist discourse. Naomi Ishisaka’s Seattle Times article from August 2021 frames the struggle for CRT within the #TeachTruth action that took place at Yesler Terrace park to oppose anti-CRT bills as a part of a national day of action organized by the Zinn Education Project. Ishisaka’s detailing of the action highlights messages only favorable to the liberal framing of CRT. For example, several radical Black femmes, including WAESN’s Alexis Mburu, organized and spoke at this event, but were ignored in Ishisaka’s article. Her quotes of Jesse Hagopian were cherry-picked and among the more palatable quotes, thus erasing other radical organizers of the event from WAESN, Democratic Socialists of America, and the WA NAACP Youth Council. We believe watering down this story is the product of The Seattle Times’ conservative bent, but Ishisaka’s summary of the demands on the street were: curriculum reform. Our response: Um, no. If we are truly using CRT as a framework for rebuilding our education system, there needs to be a revolution of our school funding system, our punitive justice system, our tax code, and the fundamental values of our society. If we continue to allow liberals and conservatives to frame the political discourse as a “Cultural War,” we will continue to allow the ruling class to abstract our material conditions from the conversation. 

In stark contrast to the Seattle Times, the South Seattle Emerald does important work by amplifying often overlooked stories, not unlike this one. For example, the South Seattle Emerald (SSE) recently published an article by the National Liberated Ethnic Studies Coalition that declared that the time for ethnic studies organizing is now. SSE is the most pro-ethnic studies, pro-communities of color news outlet in the state and has published over a dozen articles on the positive work and impact of ethnic studies.

WAESN is in full support of SSE and its founder, Marcus Harrison Green, and his February 8th article published in the Seattle Times deserves what Dr. Django Paris calls a loving critique. In the piece, Green begins to ask an important question that progressives have been asking since the CRT “Culture War” exploded in the wake of 2020’s uprisings: “Do you know what critical race theory Is?” Green’s article does not answer this question, but it does answer what CRT is not. We agree with Green that CRT is not just a culturally inclusive and responsive curriculum. This is where our focus on the definition of CRT and that of Green differs. Green focuses on conservative attacks on “truth” like HB1807 which, as he highlights, “specifically names The 1619 Project and How to be an Antiracist as books that could effectively only be taught alongside ‘opposing’ literature.”

Green’s progressive framing of CRT as “teaching truth” also wrongly names Representative Tomiko Santos as the legislator challenging Conservative bill sponsor, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen). It was Representative Monica Stonier who actually served him the tea during the House Education Committee hearing on the bill. Representative Tomiko Santos is quite possibly the most passive progressive liberal in the Washington State legislature. She is well-known in grassroots organizing as a gatekeeper to transformational change, insisting on “bipartisan wins.” Suggesting that she is somehow radical – or even supports radical change – causes harm to radical movements. 

Representative Stonier questions Representative Walsh’s sources at a House Education Committee hearing on SB 1807

Journalists asking questions in mainstream media outlets trying to define the “real CRT” should not spotlight progressives who dunk on Washington State conservatives. Instead, we should be asking why our systems, including education, continue to not only perpetuate racial injustice, but also reproduce class disparities. Green, however, does point in the right direction for who we should be listening to when it comes to defining CRT: local youth organizers, families, and community organizations. If we listen to the voices of those fighting for CRT, we learn that these grassroots efforts are being attacked from all sides. 

WAESN Under Attack

Educator organizers in Washington State like Tracy Castro-Gill, Michale Peña, Rita Green, Bruce Jackson, Fernell Miller, Nikkita Oliver, Wayne Au, Jesse Hagopian, Darrin Hoop, Sebrena and RenaMateja Burr, Marquita Prinzing, Jon Greenberg, Alexis Mburu, and countless youth organizers from WA NAACP Youth Council, The Root of our Youth, and WAESN have been fighting on multiple fronts to bring racial justice and ethnic studies to our schools. In 2019, many ethnic studies advocates’ work came to fruition after building the movement behind SB5023, which entrusted the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to “identify and make available” ethnic studies materials and resources to 7-12 educators. It was later extended to grades K-6 with SB6066. WAESN has played a fundamental role in creating the materials and resources provided by OSPI. However, WAESN’s advocacy efforts agitated the progressive and liberal policy makers attempting to win woke points with legislation that has little accountability, zero funding, and superficial community support. This agitation has fueled the liberals’ attacks on WAESN and made it easier to erase our work from the narrative. 

WAESN recently acquired emails between Jerry Price, OSPI social studies lead charged with developing the ethnic studies framework, and several, white, Zionist educators working to undermine the progress made by femmes of color. David Witus admits to filing a complaint because WAESN condemns Israel’s ongoing attacks on Palestine and because WAESN’s executive director frequently reminds white Jewish people they are, in fact, white no matter how much they tan. It worked, because OSPI removed WAESN from a list of PD providers in the ethnic studies framework, proving once again that our greatest detractors from liberation are passive progressive liberals, this time those liberals in OSPI who favored the feelings of white men over the work of femme educators of color.

WAESN was only re-listed as a PD provider after involving lawyers and sending daily emails to Superintendent Reykdal. Instead of building our coalition, connecting with educators and families, WAESN is forced to be on the defense from both sides of the political spectrum. This is why WAESN is fighting on multiple fronts; both conservatives and liberals want to reframe the education reform discussion to focus on the “cultural” aspects of CRT, when in reality they all fear the growing dissatisfaction with the racial and economic realities of our school system, one limited by the state of austerity and scarcity fabricated by the ruling elite. 

The everyday violence of underfunded, over-policed, and racist schools gets scapegoated as a red-state Republican “Culture War” issue while in reality, Washington schools face a continued crisis fueled by a defunct, do-nothing Democratic controlled state legislature. In a state with a Democratic controlled legislature, we have no excuses, no Trumps to blame, so we must face the fact that perhaps it’s time for us to rethink our allegiance to the Democratic Party. Democrats and “progressives” will not save us. We will save us.

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