It happened without us knowing it. It happened without most parents getting any real notice from the local school board in the small town we live in, an hour south of Memphis, called Oxford, Mississippi.
There was one article in our town paper, The Oxford Eagle, about the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation entering into a formal contract to teach racial tolerance and inclusiveness to our K-12 teachers at our local public schools. But nothing else.
“Implicit bias” theory, in the wrong hands, has the potential to do more harm than good.
Did we have race problems in the schools I didn’t know about? I wondered when I read the story. I’d chosen to move my family to this beautiful town in part because the school is integrated — and because I’d witnessed far better race relations in Mississippi than in New Jersey, the state I’d lived in for the better part of my life.
And why a contract with this group? I wondered. What is this Winter Institute? What does this group from the campus of Ole Miss believe? What is their mission, and who are their leaders and staff?
Surely, I figured, they had a sensitivity to people of all colors, religious backgrounds, and political orientations. And the group would surely practice tolerance and inclusion if it was chosen to teach tolerance and inclusion.
So I did some digging. First came the contract. It seemed harmless — but then I stumbled upon this paragraph: “[The William Winter Institute] will provide equity training in implicit bias, microaggressions, stereotype threat, and the historical context of education in Mississippi for all OSD staff.”
There it was. The very ideas hatched at our nation’s most extremely liberal universities were now being delivered straight into our local public schools.
“Implicit bias” theory is just that: a theory. And in the wrong hands, it has the potential to do more harm than good, particularly when the people teaching it drive the disturbing notion that all white people are racists, and don’t know it. Microaggressions have been used at college campuses across the country to deter speech, and they create an environment that actually harms free expression of ideas. Stereotype threat, too, is quite controversial, and has impacted college campuses quite negatively.
Surely, I thought, the board of education just didn’t know the long-term impact that these notions have had on college campuses — and on the climate of free speech and thought.
Then I went to work and examined the William Winter Institute. Though their literature was slick and featured people of all races and ages smiling and holding hands, the diversity on the staff — particularly on the idea front — was absent.
Of the small staff, there was not a single person who could be called even a center-right conservative. The website that houses the Winter Institute’s political positions — ReThinkMS.org — was filled with the usual leftist vision for all that ails America, and their positions were wide-ranging on everything from school choice to hydraulic fracking. Each and every position was fundamentally from the Left, even the far Left. Few posts had anything to do with race.
All fine and good, as the Winter Institute has every right to advance the political positions it chooses. But choosing this overtly political leftist group to teach tolerance and inclusion must have been an oversight on the school board and superintendent’s part, too, I thought.
I then looked at the Facebook and Twitter handles of two key leaders of the Winter Institute, academic director Jennifer Stollman and political director Jake McGraw. And did I get an eyeful! Particularly the posts around the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who won the state of Mississippi by nearly 20 points. Stollman’s were shocking for a person leading an institute that professes to teach tolerance and inclusion. She didn’t hesitate to attack Mississippeans who voted for Trump as racists, bigots and worse, in one post saying this: “Angry rural white voters hating women, people of color, immigrants, lgbtqia.”
It was one of many. Here’s another, describing her plans the day after the inauguration:
Here’s my plan: 1.) Weep for the visible operation of white supremacist heteropatriarchy on display in our election tonight. 2.) Not get out of bed for a couple of days. 3.) Get back up and get back at the hard work of critical education and transforming our racist, misogynistic, heterosexist, xenophobic, violent culture.
Is this what the academic leader of the institute really thinks about America? About half of the people who voted for a candidate she didn’t like?
Then there was a post with a picture of man with the word “deplorable” taped on his back, with this headline: “Sometimes there are more important goals than civility.” What goals might those be, I wondered?
There were many more such diatribes and attacks against conservatives and Republicans. But the worst post of Stollman’s exposed the Winter Institute for what it truly is: a leftist ideological boot camp. On January 20, she posted a call to action to attend a Winter Institute seminar called “Resistance 101: A Lesson for Inauguration Day Teach-Ins and Beyond – Teaching for Change.” I was dumbfounded at the naked partisanship of that post, and the clearly stated political intent of their teaching at the Winter Institute.
Last but not least, I dug up the headline from Ole Miss’ University News from back when Stollman was hired and this was the headline from March 30, 2013: “Education and Activism Intersect for New Academic Director.”
Activism, I thought? Toward what political end?
I then looked at Jake McGraw’s tweets on the website RethinkMS.org. He is the Winter Institute’s political director. Here was one snarky post, insinuating that Mississippeans who voted for Trump did so not because of his trade policies but because we’re racists: “90% Trump support among white Mississippeans doesn’t show up because every GOP candidate gets that. And it ain’t because of trade policy.”
So disappointed was McGraw in his fellow Mississippeans that he had this to say: “The question isn’t, Mississippi: Is This America? It is. America: Is this Mississippi?”
We were an embarrassment to McGraw, the white voters who voted for Trump? And this man is the other leader of the small team of the Winter Institute?
My research wasn’t done. I searched for hours looking for just one post anywhere on a Facebook page, or anywhere else, from any staffer at the Winter Institute, for just one idea that anyone would consider conservative. A strong school-choice argument, real job creation and economic development that can come from corporate tax cuts on the federal level, the importance of marriage in the economy of households — anything like it. No luck. Not a peep.
After finishing my research, I put it all together and I took it to Brain Harvey, Oxford’s Superintendent of Schools, and two school board members – Marian Barksdale and Grey Edmundson. I was sure they’d be shocked at the findings, and either delay the vote and call for a public hearing, or cancel the contract immediately.
I was wrong on all counts.
They listened carefully to the substantial evidence I showed them, but didn’t seem disturbed. They insisted that Stollman’s Facebook posts were not very nice, but they were her private posts. I asked if the shoe were on the other foot, and a conservative group were teaching tolerance and inclusion at our schools, and said nasty things about black people or gay people the way Stollman and McGraw had caricatured and insulted white Republicans, would they be as understanding? Would anti-gay or anti-black statements be tolerated the way the hateful and false charges of racism and sexism were? I got no answers.
I asked them if they were comfortable letting an overtly political group onto our campus to teach such sensitive subjects to our teachers, and thus, our kids? Again, no answer.
I asked why it was that they’d recently suspended a white child for posting ugly racial comments on his Facebook post, but would allow an adult to teach tolerance who was essentially accusing half the parents in our school district of being racists, bigots, sexists, and homophobes for merely voting for someone they didn’t like? Once again, I got no real answers.
I asked them if they were comfortable letting an overtly political group onto our campus to teach such sensitive subjects to our teachers, and thus, our kids? Again, no answer. I asked about the Resistance 101 Class, and again, no response. And I asked about the headline from the Ole Miss News itself, and all I got was a shrug.
I asked for a special hearing so that Oxford parents could ask questions of the Winter Institute. We had a right to know what implicit-bias theory was about. And microaggressions? We had a right to confront the leaders of the Winter Institute on their views of inclusion. Why can’t they seem to find a single conservative to work on their staff? And we had questions about their idea of tolerance. How could they teach tolerance when they use hateful language to describe half the white voters in the state?
Not only did the Oxford School Board deny our request for an open hearing to ask the Winter Institute such questions, but they moved to have a vote on the subject without the community knowing anything about the material I’d presented.
And they moved quickly. On the night of the vote, just as the board was hoping, very few parents showed up. I was given 10 minutes to speak. Other were given just 5 minutes, and the Winter Institute had their minions present to shill for them. The school board in Oxford allowed only one hour of public comment. And no questions were allowed to be directed at the school board. Or the Winter Institute.
Here are portions of the letter I read to Superintendent Brian Harvey and the Oxford School Board. This is how I began things: “Let me start with a simple premise. Those who teach tolerance should practice tolerance. Those that talk about inclusion should be inclusive. The Winter Institute fails on both counts, as I will prove.”
I then started to make the case.
I want to start where any such discussion should start. With the leaders of the Winter Institute, and their very public and ugly comments about more than half of the citizens of this great state. First, I want to talk about academic director Jennifer Stollman. This was one Facebook post directed at rural white voters in Mississippi and beyond.
I read one of the many hateful Stollman posts that attacked rural white voters as racists, sexists and homophobes. I then said this to the school board:
This is hate speech, calling white rural Americans racists, sexists, and worse. Hate speech aimed at large groups of white people she didn’t know, and all because they voted differently than her. How do you think the people of this state would feel if they knew these things, and knew you knew these things, and allowed her to teach tolerance to our teachers and kids anyway?
I then addressed the school board directly, and got personal.
I am a brown person. I am half Italian and half Arabic. I deplore racial prejudice of all kinds. I know the sting of prejudice, and have felt it. Arab Christians throughout the Middle East know the pain of religious persecution. I’ve trained my daughter to call out any racial slurs and racial prejudice. I can imagine the pain the “N” word, and other slurs, can cause. But calling someone a racist you don’t know, whose heart you don’t know, and who is not a racist — that’s a slur, too. And it is something else. Something worse. It is an accusation. What can one say in rebuttal? There are two bad options. One can say “I am not a racist?” Or say nothing at all. It’s terrible. And yet Jennifer Stollman repeatedly hurled around those and other disgusting insults openly and proudly. And without recourse. Our superintendent, Brian Harvey, told reporters that these were just a few comments and don’t represent the Winter Institute’s work. If this had been an Alt-Right post from a partisan conservative website making ugly claims about African-Americans, Mr. Harvey, would you be inviting them to teach tolerance in our schools? Would we even be talking right now? But Stollman is free to say anything she wants about rural white people, and Republicans, and be given a pass? This double standard is shameful, Mr. Harvey and members of the board. And you know it.
I then went on to talk about culture of the William Winter Institute, and how comments like Stollman’s were not only permissible, but perfectly acceptable.
Stollman — as a leader of the institute charged with teaching tolerance in our public schools — felt perfectly comfortable using that kind of language. Which reveals a lot about her, but also the culture of the Winter Institute. Sadly, the Winter Institute permits intolerance and hate speech while claiming to want to end it.
My public statement went onto address the snarky and hateful tweets from Jake McGraw, the institute’s political director. I then asked the school board and the superintendent some very serious questions:
When our children discover that the folks teaching tolerance in our schools routinely use hateful language on Facebook and Twitter to describe the parents of nearly half of our kids, and the good people of this state, what will our teachers tell them? What will you tell them? Wasn’t a white student just suspended for posting hateful comments about a black child in this school district? And yet the school board is considering giving the adults at the Winter Institute a pass? Why do we have a tougher standard for children in our district than we do the adults in charge of teaching tolerance?
I then moved on to the lack of ideological diversity at the Winter Institute. And to the concept of inclusion, which is a part of its charge.
The Winter Institute has not a single conservative on their staff, and not a single post from a conservative website or think tank about opposing theories of poverty and race. They say they practice “inclusiveness,” but they can’t find one conservative staffer in a state filled with conservatives? How can that be? To teach diversity, shouldn’t diversity of opinion be the most important kind? Is this what inclusiveness looks like, excluding the opinions and ideas of 50 percent or more of the state’s population?
I wasn’t finished.
Contrary to leftist opinion, Republicans care about the poor. Many are poor! My wife grew up the daughter of a single mom with three sisters. She grew up with nothing. In a double wide. Near the coast. She is smart. She is beautiful. A great mom and wife. The love of my life. She votes Republican. We who vote Republican care about poor people. We tithe in our churches — and give more than any group of people in America, per capita, we Republican white southerners. We just don’t believe more wealth redistribution is the answer to poverty. We believe marriage is an answer, and the great equalizer in all things related to poverty, and across racial and ethnic lines. We believe a growing economy can lift many boats, and that a good paying job is the best anti-poverty program. We believe in work credits and vouchers that follow the individual and give them more choices in schools and housing — rather than the top-down delivery system of the welfare state that gives only one.
Then I went straight at the mission of the Winter Institute. I read the post about the “Resistance 101 Seminar” and the “Teaching For Change in the Age of Trump” course the group was teaching right after the inauguration. And then I said this:
What does “teaching for change” mean? Did they do “teach for change” education seminars after President Obama’s inauguration? Did they demand a resistance to the ever expanding encroachment of government, particularly in health care? No. They wanted more government control. At least half of the country was deeply worried about Obamacare. But no resistance? This is what they’re teaching at their youth institute, folks? The Resistance 101! This is who they are, and how they view education. As a means to an end. As an opportunity to indoctrinate. Not educate. This post alone is reason to not let the Winter Institute into our schools.
But I wasn’t finished. I took on the ideas they were pushing to our local K-12 school district. I started with the “implicit bias” theory. I continued:
I want to talk to you about the efficacy of the theories the Winter Institute peddles. Implicit bias theory — which essentially says white folks are racists and don’t know it — being a big one. The Winter Institute told OSD that they have science on their side. That’s wrong. This is a controversial subject, and there is real disagreement. A very long expose was released in New York Magazine in January of 2017. The title of the piece? “Psychology’s Favorite Tool for Measuring Racism Isn’t Up to the Job.” The subtitle? “After almost two decades after its introduction, the implicit association test has failed to deliver on its lofty promise.”
Here is a key quote from the article: “The implicit racial bias story line is catnip to progressive members of the public.” Patrick Forscher, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin who’s studied the issue, explained that politics have bled into science when it comes to the instrument: “The problem is that implicit measures became a critical part of a political narrative about why disparities between social groups exist in the United States,” he explained. “Thus, claims about implicit measures became, to a certain extent, political claims, not just scientific claims.”
This report came out in one of America’s biggest liberal magazines. Why was the school board not made aware it by the Winter Institute? We know why. Because it casts doubt on their claims. Which sheds doubts on the institute’s credibility. They have a habit of telling only one side of the story. This is not an institution we should trust to handle the training of our teachers — and by proxy, our children — on a subject as sensitive as race!
I then took on the whole notion of microaggressions, with this comment: “What about some of the other theories being peddled as tolerance teaching? Like microaggressions. Anyone who has eyes to see knows how that’s working at college campuses across America. It is creating more intolerance, more division, and less free speech.”
I then cited an example of just how unhinged the microaggression crowd has become at one of America’s great public universities, the University of Virginia, where I got my law degree.
My alma mater, the University of Virginia, went down this microaggression road some years ago. Many alumni voiced concerns that things would end poorly. Fast-forward to the fall of 2016. This was a headline from UVA’s student newspaper, The Daily Cavalier: “Professors ask President Sullivan to stop quoting Jefferson.” And the subheader was this: “Faculty, students believe Jefferson shouldn’t be included in emails.” For those of you don’t know it, UVA’s founder was Thomas Jefferson. The letter to UVA’s female president argued that in light of Jefferson’s owning of slaves and other racist beliefs, she should refrain from quoting Jefferson in email communications. Here’s one excerpt: “We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it,” the letter read. “For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these emails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.”
I then added this: “This is where left-wing activists want to take education in this country. They want to use their coded theories to erase history they don’t like. It’s offensive. And cuts against everything education should be about.”
Then I told the school board there are better, and more trustworthy, people in our town to lead a hard conversation on race, poverty, and education:
Do you trust the people at the Winter Institute to teach love and tolerance to our children? I don’t. And I don’t because they don’t practice what they preach. “Do as I do, not as I say” is one of the great teaching maxims. That’s why I trust our pastors to talk about race. They are trained not to see color, but to love their neighbors. Let’s bring in white and black pastors to talk about these things. If we want to talk about race and poverty, let’s bring in trusted white and black business leaders to talk about how we create more jobs for our people. Grow the economy of Mississippi so we can lift more people out of poverty. Let’s bring in academics to have a real dialogue across political lines about poverty and education. Let’s bring real grown-ups whom we know and trust to do this important work, not partisan left-wing activists fresh out of grad school looking to advance their agenda — and their careers.
I then closed out my statement with a promise:
The people of this town, the people of this state, are about to learn about the Winter Institute, and the Oxford School Board’s lack of commitment to discussion and openness. There are many white people in this town and in this state who won’t like any of it. The hate speech of the Winter Institute’s leadership, the implicit-bias theory, the microaggressions and the rest. They don’t know about any of this yet. But they will, I promise. And when they learn more, you will hear from them.
Members of the school board. I urge you — for your own good and the town and state’s own good — please delay this vote, and announce a public hearing to vet this group. Because more debate is better than less, especially on such a sensitive subject like race in Mississippi. The Winter Institute Leadership deserves to be challenged in a free and open hearing with the public that pays the taxes that pay for our schools.
That’s how I ended the speech. Less than an hour later — the Oxford School Board voted unanimously to go forward with the Winter Institute contract. They ignored the call for a public forum.
They were hoping the parents of this town and state wouldn’t find out about the Winter Institute’s true nature and real political intentions and ambitions. They were hoping it would just go away, and they could carry on.
But they will soon learn that conservative parents across Mississippi — and reasonable liberals — won’t much care for the Winter Institute’s rhetoric, its fiercely partisan nature, and its goal of “teaching for change” in every Mississippi public school, and beyond.
The Winter Institute has every right to peddle its leftist ideas to college students at Ole Miss, who can choose to sign up for their agenda. or not. But a lesson the folks at the Oxford School Board and the Winter Institute are about to learn is this: What happens at Ole Miss should stay at Ole Miss.
Controversial and divisive ideas like implicit bias, microaggressions, and wealth redistribution have no place in our public schools. At least not without real balance — and equal time — from good people on all sides of the debate. And not without a very open, and very tough, adult discussion.
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.