FARGO — The atmosphere was calm, at first, when the conference organized by the Center of the American Experiment began Tuesday, June 15, at the Courtyard by Marriott in Moorhead.
Hors d'oeuvres and coffee were served. Nearly 100 attendees found their seats. And then Kendall Qualls, a Black man who grew up in Harlem, president of advocacy organization Take Charge, spoke about the dangers of critical race theory, a school of thought addressing systemic racism in America that is beginning to appear in public schools across the nation.
Short outbursts of disagreement from the audience began when Catrin Wigfall, a white woman from the Minnesota civic organization Center of the American Experiment defined the school of thought, which isn’t new but has risen to prominence recently because of increased public dialogue about racial justice issues.
“Critical race theory puts a race-based lens on everything. Instead of emphasizing our common humanity, critical race theory puts people in simplistic racial groupings,” said Wigfall, describing the theory as a Marxist one whose supporters use diversity, equity and inclusion as buzzwords.
Midway through Wigfall’s speech, the yelling began. Faith Shields-Dixon, an organizer for Black Lives Matter of Fargo-Moorhead, and others, stood up to vent their disagreement.
“You can’t talk for me and my people. You aren’t talking for us, you are white and I am black you don’t know what we go through. You don’t know our struggles,” Shields-Dixon said.
“What’s wrong with equity?” Vanessa Renee Clark yelled.
When Wigfall mentioned Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to judge a person by character and not by skin color, shouts echoed around the room.
“Martin Luther King was a socialist,” attendee Conrad Elliot, from Fargo, yelled from the back row.
Minutes later, a scuffle between attendees ensued and Clark, 35, an organizer for the local activist group Red River People Over Profits Initiative, was briefly arrested by Moorhead police, cited for misdemeanor disorderly conduct and released. Another elderly man, who some witnesses claimed started the altercation, was not arrested, but charges were referred to the Moorhead City Attorney’s Office for review, according to police.
“I got arrested for ripping off an All Lives Matter button,” Clark said while in handcuffs. “I’m good.”
Although the outbursts during the conference were short lived, the disagreement over whether public education should include concepts from critical race theory in curriculums is heating up across the nation.
Opponents, who call critical race theory in schools indoctrination, have pressured schools across the nation in the hopes of eliminating or preventing its presence in classrooms. The Fargo Public School District is no exception to the trend.
Two weeks ago in Fargo, a group of parents and citizens advocating for the recall of four Fargo Public School Board members, ND Parents Against Distance Learning, listed critical race theory as one complaint. Among others, the recall group is targeting board member Seth Holden based on a claim that he is pushing for the theory to be taught in schools, something Holden says is false.
Members of the ND Parents Against Distance Learning say board members are trying to indoctrinate children by spreading hate and labeling people as oppressed or the oppressor, and by introducing books such as a New York Times Bestseller “Antiracist Baby” by Ibram X. Kendi.
The Fargo Public School Board has never had critical race theory on its agenda and does not plan to take the issue up in the near future, said board president Rebecca Knutson, who added that members are responsible for ensuring that all students of any background can see themselves reflected in schools.
What is critical race theory?
The definition of critical race theory is expansive and sometimes confusing, and how schools might implement it in education is not exactly clear.
Proponents of critical race theory, a decades-old concept, say it seeks to illuminate that racism is a social construct built into the American way of life. They want a more inclusive and holistic approach to teaching history, and see the theory as a challenge to those who believe racism hasn't been a significant issue in the United States since the civil rights era.
Some opponents call the theory inherently racist and say it inflames resentment as it interprets society as being made up of groups of oppressors and the oppressed. Its strongest critics argue the theory poses a threat to democracy itself as its emphasis on victimization and group identity could harm the civic bonds and trust necessary for the system to function.
Legislation banning critical race theory, or any curriculum that identifies people or institutions as oppressed or privileged, has been passed in states including Idaho, Arkansas and Tennessee. Proponents of critical race theory have called the legislation unconstitutional.
Included within the information packet for Center of the American Experiment’s conference was an education alert called “Educrats Unleashed, A cabal of progressives wants to rewrite how students learn about their American heritage.”
Within the packet, written by Wigfall, and Katherine Kersten, a writer and attorney, is a brief description of 2020 Minnesota course standards.
Kindergartners are required to know more about Minnesota’s Anishinaabe and Dakota tribes, the writers stated.
“The standards imply that these tribes are our state’s rightful inhabitants, and in later grades students will learn that white ‘colonists’ seized ‘the land now known as Minnesota’ by ‘theft’ and ‘genocide,’” the writers stated.
Additionally, Kersten and Wigfall wrote that students will be forced to learn about environmental issues, racial minorities, antiwar, the LGBTQ community and immigrants and refugees.
“It’s to program them to line up behind the ‘woke’ agenda,” the writers stated. “The new racialist ideology is deadly for our democratic way of life. America’s freedom and prosperity are based, not on shared race or ethnicity, but on an allegiance to shared principles.”
Wigfall ended her speech by saying parents need to fight back, get involved and run for school boards.
During the June 15 meeting, many in attendance spoke up against the presenters.
“This group denies the genocide of Indigenous people happened and says respect for LGBTQ individuals is a bad thing,” said Elliot, who is a transgender man.
“You’re here to scare white folks, and you’re disrespecting black leaders in our community,” said Fargo resident Ron Gaul during a question and answer session following the speeches.
Changes in education
Diversity, equity and inclusion are not buzzwords to the Fargo Public School district, said Rebecca Knutson, president of the board.
“The Fargo Board of Education is serious about addressing issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and in fact, we’ve shown that by hiring an administrator to address those specific issues,” Knutson said.
But there exists a level of fear among some parents about change, Knutson said.
Amy Mueller is involved with the ND Parents Against Distance Learning group, and said critical race theory should not be allowed in any school setting.
“To me, it’s an incredible racist theory, and it’s not based on any facts. It’s a Marxist idea that is teaching children to hate each other based on the color of their skin,” Mueller said.
Mueller pointed to the hiring of Tamara Uselman as the district’s newly-hired director of equity and inclusion and to Holden’s agreement with tenets of critical race theory as proof.
Additionally, Mueller said, Fargo Public Schools has issued a list of anti-racist books they’re adding to school libraries, focused at the elementary level. One of the books is about a transgender child called, “When Aiden Became a Brother,” by Kyle Lukoff.
Uselman said the book list is a draft, and parents have authority over what books their children read.
“We want books that provide mirrors for kids in the classroom, we want to be careful to have books that kids can relate with. If a parent has a problem with a book then a parent can say I don’t want my child to read it,” Uselman said.
Knutson said that new books that may be introduced to students are about adding educational opportunities, adding that if society had addressed racial justice issues effectively in the past, “we would be talking differently about them today,” Knutson said.
“I hear that some might be worried that a first grader would be exposed to someone being transgender. We have a responsibility in our school district to educate everyone, whoever they are," Knutson said. "My guess is that there is a segment of the community that believes it could be a threat."
Local discussion about critical race theory begins
In a June 9 discussion on critical race theory on Fargo radio station AM 1100 The Flag, host Scott Hennen interviewed one of the parents involved with the ND Parents Against Distance Learning, Allie Ollenburger, who claimed school board member Holden was pushing critical race theory in schools.
In a later interview, however, Ollenburger said she wasn’t sure about Holden pushing the theory into schools, but, “he campaigned on the school-to-prison pipeline study, which is based on critical race theory. And we assume positive intention in what he’s doing,” Ollenburger said.
The school-to-prison pipeline metaphor refers to school discipline policies that remove students from learning opportunities, which pushes them into the criminal justice system — especially with students of color.
Holden, however, said he has never pushed critical race theory into schools.
“It can be proven because if you look back at any of our documents at any of our board meetings from the time I was on board until now, there has not been one business item (on critical race theory) on our agenda discussed once,” Holden said.
“If you want to disagree with any votes I’ve put forward, that’s fine," said Holden, who added, however, that he thinks his critics have been attacking him based on false claims.
"All it does is diminish your credibility on all the issues you’re trying to push,” he said.
Holden said he mostly agrees with critical race theory but does not support applying it to the extreme.
“As a school system, teaching white kids that they’re inherently evil because they’re white and they’re inherently racist because they’re white, and that they’re responsible for a system that was put in place long before they were born is not right," he said. "It is not fair to our children and it’s not the right way to navigate through this.”
Ollenburger isn’t opposed to including new perspectives in schools, adding that she thinks courses need to be well rounded. She sees North Dakota as where Minnesota was five years ago in relation to critical race theory.
“I’m really opposed to erasing everything that exists,” Ollenburger said, adding that changes in Fargo Public Schools are “tiny components, not full blown,” she said. “We’re getting involved now to prevent erasing the factual basis of our history and what our country was founded on.”