In fall 2020, a fourth-grade class in Burnsville read a book that warns students that police are “mean” to black people, but “nice” to white people. “Cops stick up for each other,” it says. “Any they don’t like black men.”
At Eagan High School, a ninth-grade class began the 2020-21 school year by watching a YouTube video entitled “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.” In the words of one parent who saw the video and the leading questions students had to answer: “It was white guilt, all the way down.”
In Hopkins, Superintendent Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed told returning faculty and staff that to “eradicate” a “pandemic of racial injustice,” “we need to examine the role that whiteness plays in our macrosystem of white supremacy.”
Hopkins school officials vowed to restructure student learning around the “13 characteristics of white supremacy.” These include requiring black students to turn in assignments on time, along with any expectations that smack of “perfectionism” or “objectivity” (thinking in a logical or “linear” fashion). Hopkins junior highs have dropped traditional letter grades for a new assessment system since letter grades are linked to “dominant white culture” and thus inequitable, a school staff member told Minnesota Public Radio.
As the 2020-21 school year got underway, abrasive, in-your-face “demands” and name-calling were becoming the norm at school board meetings and on parent websites. In June 2020 in Minnetonka, for example, students and alumni styling themselves the “Minnetonka Coalition for Equitable Education” issues 11 “Anti-Racism Imperatives,” demanding — among other things — that the district adopt an “anti-oppressive curriculum (that is, a curriculum that is not Euro-centric).”
Students who object to this new racialist ideology hesitate to speak up, fearing they will be denounced as bigots. Teachers worry that refusal to give in to groupthink could cost them their job. In District 197 (West St. Paul-Eagan-Mendota Heights), Superintendent Peter Olson-Skog made the threat explicit: If “you think we’re being too sensitive, too politically correct,” he said in a speech to staff, “I would encourage you to look elsewhere for employment as I do not believe you will feel aligned” with what he called the “difficult and uncomfortable work” ahead.
Today, a revolution of sorts is underway in many Minnesota schools. In the name of ending white supremacy and systemic racism, school districts are falling over themselves to promote a radical new vision of American society.
The upside-down thought world of “racial equity” advances in the name of justice and harmony. Yet its fundamental premise is deeply divisive: It teaches that life is a relentless power struggle, and splits human beings into two hostile camps (white and non-white), labeling whites as perpetual oppressors and BIPOC (“Black, Indigenous and People of Color”) as perpetual victims.
Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, is aggressively pushing this ideology. “Teaching While White” (TWW), an equity organization the union endorses, puts the zero-sum claim this way: “As I [a white person] am elevated, someone else is marginalized or oppressed.”
The racialist worldview taking over our K-12 classrooms directly contradicts the color-blind ideal at the heart of America’s Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., believed human beings should be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. Racial equity advocates preach the opposite: Skin color, not personal character, determines who a person is. Astonishingly — and seemingly overnight — Minnesota students are now being taught that King’s color-blind ideal is in fact racist.
The crusade for racial equity in K-12 schools has been underway for some time. But in recent months, it’s become a full-scale assault. Why now?
Since the 1960s, elite opinion in university “oppression studies” departments, at teachers’ colleges, and in the media has laid the groundwork. Racial identity politics, rooted in neo-Marxist Critical Race Theory (CRT), provided the ideological framework. More recently, concern about the racial learning gap has given rise to lawsuits and “equity plans” that have failed to move the needle on minority academic performance. At a deeper cultural level, family breakdown, social fragmentation and secularization have created a communal vacuum of meaning and purpose, and have left many yearning for a cause larger than themselves.
All these forces came together in spring 2020, triggered by George Floyd’s death in police custody and the isolation and anomie of COVID-19. Activist groups like Black Lives Matter gained new legitimacy with the aid of a sensationalist, partisan media. Now, these organizations have seized this moment of opportunity to advance their ideological agenda among America’s rising generation.
Today, the Black Lives Matter Global Fund (flush with millions of dollars from corporate America) and countless other activist organizations are aggressively peddling free lesson plans, videos and “racial equity” training to K-12 schools. The National Education Association (the national teachers’ union) and Education Minnesota are cheering them on.
Many Minnesotans have planted Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns, but few likely know the organization’s real agenda. BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors has described herself and co-founder Alicia Garza as “trained Marxists.” Her book “When They Call You a Terrorist” has a foreword by Angela Davis, her “mentor,” whom Cullors describes elsewhere as a “Marxist” and “former Black Panther” whose “reflections on anti-capitalist movements” have sought to “transform U.S. society.”
One of Cullors’s primary goals is to “fight the U.S. state,” in her words. She trained in how to do this as a community organizer at the radical Los Angeles-based Labor/Community Strategy Center. The center’s founder, Eric Mann, is another Cullors mentor and a former leader of the Weather Underground terrorist organization. At his center, Cullors “studied Mao, Marx and Lenin,” and focused, she says, on tactics for influencing young people.
Now Cullors’s Black Lives Matter Global Fund has a direct line into many Minnesota classrooms. Education Minnesota urges educators to support the organization, both financially and in the classroom. The “Black Lives Matter at School” coalition’s website reflects this radical ideology, featuring lessons on the Black Panthers as well as “social justice math” assignments in which, for example, students learn math concepts by investigating “police stops and searches” in Oakland, California. The coalition’s website sets the tone with a quote from convicted cop-killer and FBI “most-wanted” terrorist Assata Shakur, who fled to Cuba after a 1979 prison break.
Not education, but indoctrination
Racial identity politics, in its guise as “racial equity,” is not education, but indoctrination. Education requires the free exchange of ideas. Indoctrination, in contrast, conceals its true goals and uses the manipulative tactics of coercive thought reform to reshape students’ and teachers’ attitudes, beliefs and behavior in ways that advance the manipulators’ agenda.
In 2014, Aaron Benner, a former elementary teacher in the St. Paul Public Schools, put his finger on what is taking place in Minnesota’s public schools. He observed in a radio interview that the “Pacific Educational Group” racial equity training he had undergone there, in its modus operandi, resembled indoctrination into a cult.
Stella Morabito, a former U.S. government intelligence analyst who has written extensively on the effects of propaganda and identity politics, agrees. “The indoctrination we are seeing” in American schools today is “a psychological operation that plays on the fear of social isolation through identity politics, peer-modeling, and social contagion,” she writes.
The three stages of coercive thought reform
The “techniques of propaganda and salesmanship” are well-understood by social psychologists, and have been “refined and systematized” by influencers from cults to military psychological operations and power-hungry dictators, according to Morabito.
Campaigns to exert undue influence exploit a fundamental trait of human psychology: the fear of social isolation. “The terror of abandonment is built into our social DNA because human beings cannot survive in isolation,” writes Morabito. That’s why the worst punishment we can imagine is solitary confinement, she says.
Elites who seek to influence other people’s beliefs and behavior can “weaponize” this fear to control their subjects for their own advantage. Scholars like clinical psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer, author of Cults in Our Midst, and Dutch psychologist Joost Meerloo, an authority on influence techniques used on POWs in World War II and Korea, have identified three steps of coercive thought reform.
- First, manipulators seek to undermine the subject’s identity — destabilizing his or her sense of self in order to sow self-doubt and increase vulnerability to outside influencers.
- Second, they introduce an alternate, closed system of reality, and restrict access to ideas that challenge it.
- Finally, they use “emotional blackmail” tactics — including threats of social rejection backed up by group pressure — to compel subjects to accede to groupthink.
These manipulative tactics are so powerful that, when successful, people subjected to them can be made to believe they did something they didn’t do. The phenomenon has been documented in cults and abusive relationships and with POWs and kidnap victims like Patty Hearst.
Influence techniques in Minnesota schools
Ideologues striving to reshape students’ beliefs about the role of race in America have found “racial equity” to be an ideal vehicle. It’s a framework that skillfully plays on Americans’ desire to atone for the more reprehensible moments of our nation’s racial history.
Here’s how coercive thought reform tactics play out in Minnesota schools.
Racial equity lessons destabilize students’ personal identity
First, Critical Race Theory-focused instruction, like that of the Black Lives Matter Global Fund, undermines students’ sense of self, increasing their vulnerability to outside influences. By directing students to submerge themselves in a collective racial identity — white or non-white — it begins to erase their self-concept as unique individuals, according to Morabito.
Racial equity instruction conditions white children to question their ability to grasp reality and to act as they intend in the world. It warns they can take no pride in their accomplishments because these are merely a function of “white privilege.” It insists they routinely harm their non-white classmates by committing micro-aggressions of which they aren’t even aware. It’s a no-win situation: If they think they aren’t racist, this just proves how racist they are. The message is that white skin is a source of self-deception, guilt and shame.
Indoctrination often starts with the youngest, most vulnerable students. For example, in the “Melanin Project,” which Edina Highlands Elementary School has used in K-2 classrooms, students trace their hands and color them to reflect their skin tone for a classroom poster that reads, “Stop thinking your skin color is better than anyone else’s.”
In Mahtomedi, school officials urge parents to prepare for conversations about race with their children by reading texts like “What White Children Need to Know about Race.” In this essay, kids learn that what they’ve always believed about race (and been told by their parents) is wrong: The idea that people’s skin color doesn’t matter is actually “whiteness-at-work,” a “socialization strategy that perpetuates a racist status quo.”
Older students are subjected to more sophisticated propaganda, such as an eight-week course on Critical Theory and “privilege” at Apple Valley’s Eastview High School, or videos on “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” at Eagan High School.
Black children, too, have it drummed into their heads that they lack self-awareness and agency. As victims of “white supremacy,” they are told they bear no responsibility for their behavior and (as in Hopkins) can’t even meet minimal standards like turning in their assignments on time or thinking logically. They are constantly urged to feel anger and resentment.
Teachers are inundated with the same debilitating propaganda in their school-sponsored racial equity training. “Teaching While White” is typical, insisting that teachers are hapless victims of false consciousness. “Schools are full of people ‘who without intending to create racial hurdles or hostility, manage to create a fair amount of both,’” admonishes a TWW text entitled “Being an Ally: The Role of White Educators in Multicultural Education.” Clueless white teachers “cannot see what they have done,” it says.
The goal of manipulation like this is to convince students and teachers they must turn for guidance to their enlightened betters — activists who alone can see reality and understand justice — if they are to atone for guilt (whites) or avoid being dupes (blacks).
Ideologues introduce an alternate system of reality, and restrict access to ideas that challenge it
Racial equity advocates’ assertion that America in 2020 is systemically racist is absurd on its face. Our nation recently had a two-term black president, and immigrants of all colors have flocked here and found unparalleled opportunity and prosperity.
Unfortunately, for decades American schools have done a woeful job of teaching our nation’s history. Today’s students are sitting ducks for propaganda about “systemic” and “structural racism.”
But something more is going on. The ideology of racial equity is constructed around what George Orwell called “Newspeak” — jargon intended to make thinking about dissent increasingly impossible. Terms such as “white supremacy” and “systemic racism” are what psychologists call “loaded language,” concocted to provoke anger, fear, resentment or a false sense of guilt.
The point of manipulating language is to obfuscate in order to control, as Orwell observed. “Equity,” for example, signifies not equality but special treatment, while “diversity training” puts one “on notice that one will become a nonperson if one says a wrong word or thinks a wrong thought,” in Morabito’s words.
Racial equity activists use mind-numbing slogans to imprint Newspeak in students’ heads. “Manipulators repeat lies and sloganeer endlessly to condition their subjects to repress unauthorized speech and thought,” writes Morabito. These slogans, she says, are “pieces of anti-intellectual spaghetti that stick to the walls of our minds when we are not equipped to think independent thoughts.”
Activists use emotional blackmail (what social psychologists call “aversive emotional arousal techniques”) to pressure students to buy into their ideology. Those who question it are denounced and shunned as “racists” (nonpersons), while those who comply are praised as “allies,” on the “right side of history.” Thought reform is particularly effective when it is framed as a movement for an enlightened elite and nay-sayers are repudiated as inferior, according to Robert Jay Lifton, an expert on psychological extremism. The goal is to pressure those who disagree to self-censor, creating an illusion of unanimity that makes dissent from the group even harder.
The propaganda that results
A 2018 book entitled “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice” exemplifies the indoctrination now underway in Minnesota classrooms. The book was used in a fourth-grade class at Echo Park Elementary in Burnsville, and the Minnesota Departments of Education and Health recommend it.
“Something Happened in Our Town” purports to tell the story of a community’s reaction to a police-involved killing. It demonstrates how children can be manipulated in the guise of teaching about fairness and empathy. The following quotes are illustrative:
“After school, Emma asked her mother, ‘Why did the police shoot that man?’ ‘It was a mistake,’ said her mother. ‘I feel sad for the man and his family.’ ‘Yes, the police thought he had a gun,’ said her father. ‘It wasn’t a mistake,’ said her sister, Liz. ‘The cops shot him because he was black.'”
“‘Was the man that got shot dangerous?’ asked Emma. ‘No,’ her mother said. ‘Shooting him was a mistake. It was a mistake that is part of a pattern.’ ‘Like the pattern on my blanket?’ Emma asked. ‘Yes. But this pattern is being nice to White people and mean to black people. It’s an unfair pattern.'”
The message is not only that police are “mean” to black people, but that children must turn to a young “woke” peer to get the real truth.
Education Minnesota and a phalanx of local and national activist organizations seek to fill Minnesota classrooms with propaganda like “Something Happened in Our Town.” Many school equity offices aggressively push this agenda.
The “Black Lives Matter at School” coalition produces countless lesson plans and activities of this kind. For K-5 students, it offers “Activism, Organizing and Resistance” lessons, which define activism as including “participating in (or leading of) demonstrations, protests or passive resistance.” Projects include “Understanding Prejudice Through Paper Plate Portraits” and “Role-playing a Teachers’ Strike.”
For older students, there’s “Social Justice Mathematics,” which uses “numbers and maps to look at the impacts of housing discrimination, low minimum wage, and the school to prison pipeline.” Students can also study the Black Panthers’ “revolutionary socialist ideology” and create their “own personal versions” of the Panthers’ radical Ten-Point Program. That program included demands that black defendants be tried by all-black juries and that American “black colonial subjects” vote in a “United Nations-supervised plebiscite” to determine their “national destiny.”
Troubling historical parallels
Today, the agenda of racial identity politics is advancing almost unopposed in our public schools, as cowed school officials bow to activist and union pressure. It’s important, then, to consider where such an ideology — left unchecked — can lead.
In America, community organizing guru Saul Alinsky, author of the 1971 “Rules for Radicals,” pioneered the use of identity politics as a divide-and-conquer strategy. An organizer making a power bid “must stir up dissatisfaction and discontent” and “rub raw the resentments of the people,” Alinsky wrote. “Your function [is] to agitate to the point of conflict.”
Some of the 20th century’s most loathsome dictators have used identity politics this way. They have often enlisted young people to do their dirty work, writes Morabito, because youth are especially susceptible to coercive thought reform. Many will do “whatever it takes to be accepted.”
Lenin was a skilled practitioner of identity politics. “We can and must write in a language which sows among the masses hate, revulsion and scorn toward those who disagree with us,” he wrote. In the 1930s, Stalin used the Communist League of Youth, or Komsomol, to foment hatred among Ukrainian peasants in a bid to seize control of that rich agricultural area.
The Komsomol descended on peasant villages and whipped up animosities among formerly friendly neighbors. “At these meetings, the villagers were told that they belonged to three mutually hostile classes: the poor peasants, who were the allies of the proletariat, the middle peasants, who were neutral, and the rich or ‘kulak’ peasants, who were its enemies,” writes Orlando Figes in “The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia.” The names of peasants in each class were posted outside the village school and “rich peasants,” or kulaks, were humiliated, attacked or killed.
“The villagers had never heard such propaganda in the past, and many were impressed by the long words used by the leaders of the Komsomol,” writes Figes. Today, notes Morabito, CRT agitators take advantage of the tragedy of racial divides in America to call for a form of race consciousness that “breeds the same blind hate.” “Our miseducated youth,” she points out, “are easily impressed by new terms such as ‘systemic racism,’ ‘intersectionality,’ and ‘white fragility.’”
Mao Tse-Tung employed similar tactics during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76). His Red Guards, drawn from high school and university students, viewed themselves as champions of the exploited who were “forging a better world,” according to China expert Frank Dikötter.
Mao bifurcated the Chinese people into two hostile groups: The Five Reds (Communist Party members, soldiers, poor farmers and low-class workers) and the Five Blacks (landlords, counter-revolutionaries, rich farmers, rightists and bad influencers). Blacks were excoriated as “enemies of the revolution.” They were beaten, persecuted, “re-educated” and forced to confess their thought crimes in public struggle sessions. (It’s worth noting that curricular materials recommended by “Black Lives Matter at School” describe the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program as a “model” for the Red Guards.)
Mao also deployed the Red Guards to destroy symbols of China’s pre-Communist past — a vital part of his crusade to build power by rewriting Chinese history. In the “Campaign to Destroy the Four Olds” (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas), ignorant teenagers pulled down temples, destroyed antiquities and burned classical texts and books of genealogy. In a corollary campaign to impose “the Four News” (New Customs, New Culture, New Habits and New Ideas), Red Guards brutalized people wearing “bourgeois” clothes and demanded that streets, stores and buildings be renamed to advance the revolution. The devastation ended only with Mao’s death.
The groundwork for authoritarian control is being laid in Minnesota schools
In America today, many public figures have seen their reputation and livelihood destroyed in retaliation for their alleged racial thought crimes.
Now such tactics are beginning to surface in Minnesota’s K-12 schools. At Henry Sibley High School in West St. Paul, for example, a group calling itself “197 Students for Change” mounted a “Days of Demands” campaign in August 2020.
Citing “anonymous stories,” the students targeted “racist” teachers and administrators by name, and published accusations against an “all-white administration trio” who “deny their own racist tendencies” and “get off by oppressing BIPOC (sic).” They demanded that faculty who don’t “retai[n] information taught in their equity training” be punished and that “predatory teachers” be fired. Some teachers now fear for their jobs.
The group also called for banning “students who have been actively racist” from sports, clubs, and other “privileges.” They demanded that Sibley High be renamed, on grounds that its namesake, Minnesota’s first governor, was a “colonizer, rap*st and manipulator.”
The “197 Students for Change” manifesto conjures echoes of Mao’s Red Guard:
“We are sick of letting racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices thrive … We will no longer tolerate anything less than a full rejection of these hateful beliefs. We are #197studentsforchange. Together, we end prejudice in our district. THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE.”
Wake up, Minnesota. If such behaviors are normalized and allowed to multiply in our public schools, we must not be surprised at the bitter harvest.
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This article was republished with permission from the Center of the American Experiment.
Katherine Kersten, a writer and attorney, is a Senior Policy Fellow at Center of the American Experiment. She served as a Metro columnist for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) from 2005 to 2008 and as an opinion columnist for the paper for 15 years between 1996 and 2013. She was a founding director of the Center and served as its chair from 1996 to 1998.