The African American Policy Forum welcomes the news that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has empowered prosecutors to investigate the growing wave of violent threats against teachers, staff, and administrators in our public schools. The appalling behavior at school boards and other public meetings has received wide coverage, but it bespeaks a far more chilling development: the return to an ugly chapter in American history that enshrined racial violence and intimidation campaigns as a calculated force in American politics. The widespread and dangerous misinformation campaign against critical race theory — along with conspiracy-fueled opposition to vaccination and masking — has unleashed a wave of intimidation by an extremist faction promoting mass hysteria. This frenzied disinformation campaign against teaching the country’s racial past in our schools has emboldened self-appointed cultural warriors to go on the attack, imperiling the safety of our schools, educators and children.
Like the crisis during the 1950s and 60s over integration, this one poses an immediate threat to the lives of educators, students, and advocates. In this day and age, we simply cannot afford to have extremist campaigns politicize and compromise the safety of our highly valued public servants and the well-being of our precious youth. We therefore applaud the Justice Department’s proclamation that open intellectual debate must be conducted without “threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.”
We also urge that prosecutors keep the bigger picture in mind here. The lawlessness that gripped the nation on January 6 continues to thrive in the attacks on education and racial justice, spawning violent threats as part of a coordinated intimidation campaign in local schools and districts. Educators nationwide have spoken out about the violent threats stemming from this disinformation initiative and some teachers have resigned. The Justice Department’s new policy comes too late for people such as Brittany Hogan, the only Black administrator in Eastwood, Missouri’s Rockwood School District. Before Hogan announced her resignation this summer, local opponents of critical race theory had posted fabricated tweets attributed to her account and spread a false claim that she had campaigned to ban Blue Lives Matters flags in the jurisdiction. The spate of violent threats and coordinated harassment accompanying this disinformation campaign eventually prompted local police to post a private security guard at her home.
The toxic environment that undermines our teachers’ safety today cannot be dismissed as a mere two-sided squabble — any more than the violence that accompanied integration can be remembered as a “both sides” conflict. It wasn’t the integration of America’s schools that was violent — it was the “massive resistance” to integration that unleashed the bloodletting. Likewise, it wasn’t Black demands to vote, or to break the chains of segregation that were violent; rather, it was the response to these legitimate claims that prompted a new bout of lawlessness from the aggrieved whites whipped into violent aggression.
The shameless propagandists dedicated to inciting these threats today have rushed to denounce the Justice Department’s new policy as government suppression of their protected speech. In a recent committee hearing, Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley derided the new Justice Department initiative to protect educators under threat of violence from the opponents of critical race theory as an effort to silence legitimate dissent. Hawley’s outburst dangerously reprises the anti-Civil Rights argument that freeing Black people from segregation was an abridgement of white civil rights. In line with this backlash sentiment, Hawley repeatedly decried the Justice Department memo as an attack on speech rights — while entirely overlooking the real and present threats to the safety of teachers, students, and parents. Hawley’s performance — a complete whitewashing of the well-documented facts on the ground, and a plain misreading of Merrick Garland’s memo — was calculated to score political points at the expense of the security of educators and students caught in an increasingly dangerous situation.
Packaging his defense of extremist intimidation in the language of free speech is a cover for the facts on the ground, but as this entire campaign against educators reveals, facts are among the first casualties in today’s Trumpian culture wars. Hawley’s performance was calculated most of all to play to the white nationalist base of the conservative movement — and showcased just how far this faction has drifted away from basic values of civility, peaceful dissent and fair play. Instead of offering even pro forma denunciation of the violent threats and intimidation tactics now assailing our educators, Hawley and his allies are simply capitulating to the extremist forces on the right.
It’s dumbfounding that a sitting senator would come to the defense of extremists who seek to intimidate, threaten, maim, and possibly kill educators, framing efforts to enforce the law as a violation of their civil rights. And it also marks the surest signal that our nation is on a horrific descent back into racial tyranny — a state of affairs that will not be reversed easily, and without concerted effort from the defenders of a multiracial American democracy.
We cannot say, of course, that this is an America we don’t know — because we do know it. It is an America of the past — one that resisted the freedom songs of so many with intimidation, with violence, with punishment, and with bloodletting. It is an America whose chief law enforcers sometimes acted too late, or did too little to stem the hatred and organized assaults marshalled to enforce the dictates of the anti-equality faction. It is an America we’ve known, but do not want to meet again.