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The 'Concerned Parents' of Missouri Who Aren't Racist, Damnit 

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State Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin (R-Shelbina), told the crowd "we don't want ideology taught" in classrooms, adding, "we don't want to tell our students that we are basically a horrible nation." - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • State Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin (R-Shelbina), told the crowd "we don't want ideology taught" in classrooms, adding, "we don't want to tell our students that we are basically a horrible nation."

On April 30
, several dozens of cars pulled past the gates into Brookdale Farms, a picturesque wedding and event venue in rural Eureka which played host to the “community conversation.”

After months of tension and controversy, the roughly two-hour meeting operated at the tenor of a Facebook comment section. Conversation, and community, were distant afterthoughts.

This was much bigger than a Facebook group. What was once contained in social media now featured the “distinguished guests” of Missouri state Senators Andrew Koenig and Cindy O’Laughlin. Both affirmed the concerns of parents who believed schools across the state were succumbing to a dangerous ideology.

To illustrate that danger — and what, exactly, critical race theory even is — the event began with a largely incoherent Zoom presentation from Bion Bartning, the former cofounder of popular lip-balm brand Eos and the current head of FAIR, the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism. As he explained, he had helped found the group after realizing that the diversity curriculum being taught in his children’s elite New York private school was actually indoctrinating them into a form of “racism masquerading as anti-racism.”

If the audience was hoping for clarity on the issue, this wasn’t it. Technical troubles made much of Bartning’s 30-minute presentation difficult to follow as he coined new terms like “neo-racism” and “the New Orthodoxy.” In one slide, a chaotically arranged graphic claimed to show the academic and historical factors behind critical race theory; the slide did this by placing arrows and red boxes around terms like “Post-modernist philosophy,” “Stockley Carmichael,” and “Intersectionality” while using green circles to show the roles of “Thought reform,” “Ku Klux Klan & Jim Crow” and “Fall of Religion, Rise of Tech.”

In another slide, Bartning presented a chart of checkboxes comparing “FAIR values” to “the New Orthodoxy” and “Ku Klux Klan ideology” — the latter two presented as equivalent, equally lacking in a list of defined “character strengths” including “judgment,” “curiosity” and “forgiveness.”

However, in his remarks Bartning did not explain his theory's references to the KKK or how the racist group was now, apparently, stoking anti-racist activism in the classroom. Two slides later, Bartning encouraged parents to model their counter-activism against critical race theory on “MLK’s civil-rights movement.”

A slide from the FAIR presentation drew parallels between anti-racism lessons in the classroom — defined as "the new Orthodoxy — and what he termed "Ku Klux Klan Ideology." - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • A slide from the FAIR presentation drew parallels between anti-racism lessons in the classroom — defined as "the new Orthodoxy — and what he termed "Ku Klux Klan Ideology."

When it came time for the attendees to speak themselves, several repeated claims that diversity lessons were forms of Marxism or liberal propaganda — but, like Bartning, they drew on their own feelings and anecdotal descriptions of the lessons’ impact on their kids.

Lost in the noise was any evidence of what was actually happening in these classes. No lesson plans were discussed, no assignments read. No Rockwood teachers or administrators appeared at the meeting. Of the two self-identified students who rose to speak, one said she had never heard the term “critical race theory” ever mentioned in her classes; the second said she dreaded her English assignments — but it wasn’t critical race theory she was concerned about. Rather, she decried the “disturbing literature” featuring violence and sexual content that, as a Christian, threatened her “purity.”

And while a white parent crying out about how she’s “not a racist, damnit!” became a viral hit, it wasn’t the only moment caught on camera that day that revealed the overriding self-concern at play among the concerned parents.

When Amy Ryan took the mic, she discussed the racism she’d experienced growing up as a child of Asian descent in Wildwood, and, more recently, through messages she had received about “going back to China.”

“For years, I have been judged,” Ryan said — and at the table next to her, an older white woman shook her head in disagreement and mouthed, “No.”

At another point, a different parent defended the school's diversity efforts. She pointed out that most of the room was white, and that “we need to understand that our perspective as white people is not everyone’s perspective.” The crowd listened in silence, but erupted as she began to discuss the concept of white privilege — several men shouted back, “You just called us racist!” and “You judged this entire room on the color of our skin!”

Meanwhile, the senators in attendance attempted to control the crowd — but only insofar as establishing critical race theory was the real threat.

Responding to Ryan’s story of encountering racism against Asians, O’Laughlin, who is white, made it about herself — responding that she too has “had people say things to me that were hurtful and ugly,” and adding that although “some people do things they shouldn’t do, or shouldn’t say, we don’t want to tell our students that we are basically a horrible nation.”

Koenig, who is also white, then picked up his mic, and, like O’Laughlin, similarly sidestepped the experience of racism he’d just listened to so that he could talk about how the real racism is critical race theory. “The reality is mankind is sinful,” he said, and added that “there’s always going to be a lot of racism out there, but, honestly, there’s no better place to live, in human history, than the United States right now.”

Koenig might be right, but, for Rockwood School District, the United States is a place where teachers and students are being buffeted by paranoid Facebook moms and Republican politicians who wrangled a free 200-person rally out of the district’s publicized distress.

The consequences are already hitting. Along with the resignation of Rockwood Superintendent Mark Miles, Brittany Hogan announced that she's leaving her job as the district’s director of educational equity and diversity — less than one year after being promoted to the position.

Defenders of the school aren’t staying silent, however. On May 6, members of the Rockwood school board took turns reading a statement addressing the “sometimes hateful and certainly hurtful social media posts, emails and voicemails” sent to the district staff, and calling on “all stakeholders, parents, community members, staff and students to stop spreading hate and shame.”

“We implore you to think about what you say,” said Board President Jaime Bayes, reading aloud from the statement at the meeting’s conclusion.

There was one other thing.

“We want to be very clear,” she continued. “The Rockwood School District is not teaching critical race theory.”

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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