South Carolina’s Critical Race War on Education, Part 3: A confederacy of Karens

OPINION: Part 3 of theGrio's series on the conservative war against critical race theory details how a group of angry white mothers took over a majority-Black school district and ousted its celebrated superintendent.

Loading the player...

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Read part 1 and part 2.

Baron Davis is a problem.

When theGrio began planning this four-part series on the conservative, anti-woke activists seeking to demonize scientifically proven education techniques in South Carolina’s majority-Black schools, Dr. Baron Davis, who I’ve known for more than three decades, was supposed to be a metaphor for resilience and Black excellence. In 2017, he became the first Black superintendent of Richland County Two School District, South Carolina’s fifth-largest school district, and was an example of how the toxic swirl of white grievance, anti-Black conservatism and political extremism could be defeated by standing on principle.

Perhaps Davis is a problem because of his education and experience. Davis’ credentials include a bachelor’s degree in sociology, an education specialist degree in counseling education, two master’s degrees (secondary school administration and secondary school counseling) and a doctorate in counseling education. He served as a principal of three different S.C. high schools before becoming the assistant superintendent of Richland Two. Davis knows things. He believes in science. He uses research and data. 

Apparently, it works. 

In 2021, the Superintendents Association awarded Davis the Dr. Effie H. Jones Humanitarian Award for his commitment to “the advancement and mentorship of women and minorities, and/or addressing social justice issues among children and adults in schools.” That same year, Education Week named him a Leader to Learn From for his innovations in education equity and the education journal K-12 Dive selected Richland Two as the School District of the Year. While these achievements are incredible, they are even more remarkable for a school district in a state ranked 42nd in education and 45th in racial equality

Richland Two doesn’t just boast one of the Palmetto State’s highest graduation rates, average SAT scores and percentage of parents who say their children feel safe at school, it is also one of the state’s Blackest. White students make up nearly 17% of the student population in a district that is 61.6% Black. Considering the fact that 60% of  students in Richland Two schools live in poverty, his achievements rise to the level of heroic. 

Davis doesn’t know everything. He does not hold a medical degree nor has he ever attended law school. So, when a group of anti-mask mom activists put him in their crosshairs, Davis became one of several Black administrators in South Carolina’s majority-nonwhite school districts who would have to fight the same accusation: he teaches critical race theory.

Davis has never been to law school. He has never taken a course in critical race theory or required his employees to teach graduate-level legal theory to elementary-age students. But, to be fair, there is a difference between the academic field of critical race theory and what a cabal of outraged white women manufactured out of thin air. 

The newest bogeyman in the long war for white supremacy isn’t new. The opposition to equal education predates critical race theory, the first recorded use of the word “woke” or white people’s recent discovery of the two phrases. It has been happening long before Ron DeSantis tried to violate the Constitution. It is older than the Lost Cause movement, Jim Crow, massive resistance, All Lives Matter and all the other previous incarnations of white nonsense. It cannot make America great again because this particular form of anti-Blackness is older than America itself. 

How a dispute over face masks evolved into a fight over a graduate school legal theory involves a group of mostly white, ultra-conservative women who are seizing control of school boards throughout South Carolina. And, of course, it’s also about race. And religion. And lies.

But mostly, it’s about history.

For us, by us

Even after South Carolina’s majority Black constitutional delegation created America’s first free, compulsory statewide public school system in 1868, Black children were initially excluded from the system of public education the delegates conceived …

So they built their own.

By teaming up with northern philanthropists, churches and grassroots organizations, African Americans constructed, staffed and ran K-12 schools throughout the state.  Even when these separate and unequal institutions received state funds, communities had to compensate for the funding disparities. Essentially, South Carolina’s tax dollars were disproportionately spent on educating white children while Black citizens were paying out-of-pocket to educate their own. 

In 1948, when segregated school districts in 32 of America’s 48 states could legally steal money from Black taxpayers to fund a separate and superior education for white children, Black students in Clarendon County, S.C., were still walking as far as nine miles to attend public schools. Occasionally, one of the Black schoolchildren would drown trying to wade across the Lake Marion reservoir to get to school early so they could chop wood for their unheated classrooms. Not only was Clarendon County 71% Black, but the vast majority of the county’s Black population was employed. So when Superintendent R.M. Elliot refused to allot one of the district’s 33 buses to the children of Black taxpayers, the parents sued. 

By the time the U.S. Supreme Court eventually agreed to hear Briggs v. Elliott, Black parents in Kansas, Virginia and Delaware had also filed lawsuits challenging segregation. The court combined the lawsuits into one case that eventually became one of the most famous case in the history of American jurisprudence, Brown v. Board of Education, which was decided on May 17, 1954.

Mask off

At the beginning of the 2021-2022 school, Baron Davis had a lot to smile about.

He was entering his 20th year as an administrator in Richland County Two Schools and his third as superintendent. Not only was he the first Black person in charge of South Carolina’s fifth-largest school district, but he was also a reflection of the students he served. Three out of every five Richland Two students were Black, while fewer than one in five were white. As the Black man in charge of one of the state’s biggest, Blackest school districts in the state, the first day of school was the culmination of Davis’s education, experience and training. And Davis wasn’t the only one smiling.

When COVID-19 caused Gov. Henry McMaster to shut down K-12 schools on March 15, 2020, conservative parents didn’t have a lot to worry about. Anti-masker-in-chief Donald Trump was working on a coronavirus cure that involved a cocktail of Lysol and LED lights. Christopher Rufo had not yet announced his plans to intentionally redefine critical race theory. Ron DeSantis, Maureen Dowd and Van Jones were still a year away from demonizing a “negro idiom” that Black people had been using for eight decades. 

But beneath Baron Davis’ smile, he was consumed with solving a problem. 

By July 2021, the Palmetto State had the ninth-highest rate of coronavirus cases per capita and one of the highest rates of Black COVID-19 deaths in the country. As schools opened, the General Assembly passed a mask mandate prohibition, bannings districts and individual schools from “requiring students and employees to wear a facemask while in any of its educational facilities for the 2021-22 school year … Should a district decide to act contrary to this law, state funding may be withheld.” The anti-mask mandate wasn’t just a feckless appeal to S.C.’s conservative, white majority; it disproportionately endangered Black students. 

Baron Davis wasn’t having it.

Davis had just watched one of his teachers, 28-year-old Demetria Bannister, die from COVID. He had seen the governor strike down a citywide mask mandate in Columbia, where his district was located. So Davis announced a districtwide mask mandate, violating the state order and rousing the ire of anti-mask conservatives. And when the governor, legislators and conservatives challenged his mandate, Davis hired a Black law firm and took the state to court.

“We’re going to focus on protecting our students and our staff, and if those situations occur, we’ll deal with them accordingly,” Davis said in a statement. “I don’t have any comment about where the state may take this case … so we’re going to continue, with the support of our board and our community we’re going to continue taking the steps we need to take to keep our students and our employees safe.”

In summation: I said what I said.

After a federal judge ultimately issued a temporary injunction, carving out an exception for S.C. schools, Davis didn’t gloat. “I knew they were mad when I kept hearing the word ‘freedoms’ at school board meetings,” Davis told theGrio. “Then, all of a sudden, ‘mask mandate’ became ‘CRT.’ It was a coordinated campaign that started with this whole parent-in-charge movement.”

Davis’ assessment of how critical race theory evolved from anger over a mask mandate is supported by documentary evidence. In November 2021, a parent of one of the few white students enrolled in Richland Two, began sending Davis a series of increasingly unhinged email rants that connected conspiracy theories about COVID, the desire for a classic education and the critical race theory classroom conspiracy. 

“We the Parents, We the People, We the taxpayers, We the ones that pay your salary Dr. Davis, We the voters that put you the school board in office are making one final request that you lift the mask mandate,” began Gary Ginn’s first email. “We also request that you stop coercing our children to get vaccinated.”

The email continued:

We feel like it is time that you understand that just like parents disciplining our children, that there will be dire consequences for your actions. 

There will be no get backs no threats, we will remove you from your superintendent job, and your elected positions. It might not be this year but next year is coming fast. We don’t care what the CDC says, we don’t care what DHEC says, we don’t care what your president says. Remove the mask…Change your ways get rid of CRT, SRL, Diversity division and start teaching reading writing and arithmetic. History repeats itself so start teaching real history, not propaganda.  You wonder why you have fights in schools is because you are teaching hate, at board meetings amongst yourselves and the parents you serve. 

A Good Leader leads by showing their followers how to lead.  

We The People, We the Parents, We the Taxpayers, We the voters. Have spoken.

Dr. Davis and Board Members remove mask Mandates now this second.

Thank You for your time and as usual I will be forwarding this to AG Wilson, Governor McMaster.

Gary Ginn

On Jan. 25, 2022, Ginn showed up to a school board meeting. Before the meeting began, one of Dr. Davis’ frequent critics approached Davis’ wife, Pamela, who is also a Richland Two educator. According to police reports, security footage and witness statements obtained by theGrio, Ginn and another man began peppering Pamela Davis with questions. When the two men “refused to respect her boundary and continued trying to engage her,” Dr. Davis was forced to defend his wife. “Ginn and his ally were eventually tossed out of the district’s headquarters and placed on trespass notice after multiple confrontations with Davis’ wife, Pamela, and Davis himself during a meeting,” the Post and Courier reported. Ginn did not respond to theGrio’s request for an interview.

Ginn and the other man attempted to file charges, claiming Davis was the aggressor. Richland County Sheriff’s Department investigators submitted their findings to a prosecutor and no charges were filed against Davis. But it was not over

Attack of the Killer Karens

Tiffany and Tina were angry.

In 2020, 47-year-old Brevard County, Fla., school board incumbent Tina Descovich was defeated by an opponent who “campaigned against Descovich’s opposition to teacher raises and mask mandates” the Washington Post reports. After losing her seat by 10 points, Descovich hooked up with Tiffany Justice, a fellow anti-masker who had also served on a Florida school board before she was ousted in 2020 and decided to nationalize the moms vs. mask fight. 

Incorporated in January 2021 by a white woman named Tiffany and another white woman named Tina, Moms for Liberty describes itself as a group of moms, dads, grands, aunts, uncles and friends who are “ready to fight those that stand in the way of liberty.” As benign as that may seem, in 10 months the group has expanded to “135 chapters in 35 states, with 56,000 members,” according to the Post. 

While Moms for Liberty likes to portray itself as a grassroots group of concerned parents raising money through T-shirt sales, they also receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from right-wing politicians and conservative political groups, including Ron DeSantis’ former campaign manager and the current head of Florida’s GOP Christian Zeigler, whose wife was originally listed as a founding member on the Mom’s for Liberty’s charter. Members of the Council for National Policy, a secretive Christian fundamentalist, billionaire-supported think tank, underwrote Moms for Liberty’s national conference. Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., and former Trump Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos all attended. In May 2021, Moms for Liberty partnered with Parents Defending Education, a Koch-affiliated charter school advocacy foundation. The Federalist Society, a right-wing organization that essentially selects conservative Supreme Court justices, also lists Tiffany Justice as a contributor. Tucker Carlson is a fan. Megyn Kelly co-hosted a fundraiser where the top tickets sold for $20,000 apiece. Ben Carson was the keynote speaker. 

And when Moms for Liberty came to South Carolina, they found a new target for their revolution: 

Richland County Two Schools Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis.

“Moms for Liberty sets sights on Columbia-area school mask mandates, curriculum” read the headline in the Post and Courier. “A Richland County chapter recently launched with an initial meeting planned for March 26 and a growing number of several dozen interested members, chapter chair Melissa McFadden said.” As the 2022 school board elections approached, Moms for Liberty ramped up its attacks. The Richland County chapter dispatched recruits with what one resident called a “clear agenda to terminate the superintendent.” 

But how? To accomplish that goal, Moms for Liberty would have to unseat at least two of the four trustees who were generally supportive of Davis’ policies. In a district whose electorate was nearly 50% Black and 39% white, winning a school board election was a long shot. Even if they found a way to do it, they would still have to find a way to void Davis’ contract, since the board’s Davis faction had just voted to extend his contract until 2026. Demographics and the laws were against them.

Suddenly, the battle against mask mandates transformed into a fight against critical race theory.

Moms for Liberty found allies like Joe Trapp, a conservative who was by Ginn’s side during th confrontation with Davis’ wife, supported Ginn in the aftermath and opposed CRT. When Davis hired Helen Grant as the district’s first chief diversity and multicultural inclusion officer, Trapp had to speak out. He was worried she would fill students’ heads “with concepts such as victimhood and failure based on their race.”

Even when the district explained how  “culturally relevant teaching differed from critical race theory,” Moms for Liberty didn’t care. They called it CRT and shared pamphlets on combating “woke ideology.” 

“I kinda equate it to ‘Make America great again.’” Davis explained. “They wanted to put ‘parents in charge’ and adopted terminologies like a ‘classical education’ — they say they wanted to be in charge, so their kids can have a classical education experience. But it was never about what we were teaching their kids. They wanted to dictate what we can’t teach their kid. It wasn’t about what you should teach them, but what you shouldn’t teach them, They want to prevent their kids from being exposed to real history or taught about racial issues. And, so they just organized around the parent-in-charge movement and called it CRT.”

Moms for Liberty had another ally in Richland County Two trustee Lindsay Agostini. A longtime conservative, anti-masker and a supporter of Ellen Weaver, South Carolina’s anti-CRT, pro-parental rights superintendent of education, Agostini was the district’s only white trustee. While school board members are not affiliated with political parties, to win her seat, Agostini hired First Tuesday Strategies, a political consulting firm that works almost exclusively for conservatives, including anti-abortion organizations, charter school advocates and Republican political candidates. After one summer training session on culturally relevant teaching and diversity, Agostini blew the whistle on the district’s efforts “to adopt CRT ideologies.”  Agostini and the Richland County Two School Board trustees declined theGrio’s request for an interview.

Suddenly, CRT was everywhere. Plagued by activists searching for “offensive material,” the district restricted parents’ access to the library. Three Richland County teachers, who all spoke on the grounds of anonymity out of concern for their jobs, told theGrio that the controversies caused internal conversations within the district about removing culturally relevant parts of the curriculum from their lesson plans. An English teacher removed “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” from the required reading list. Another elementary school social studies teacher was confronted by a parent who wanted to know if lessons on slavery included the fact that “slavery existed in every culture.” An AP history teacher provided remarkably similar emails from parents who objected to a homework question asking how many signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners. Each teacher alleged that the parents in question were all members of Moms for Liberty. 

But would it be enough to flip the school board? And even if Moms for Liberty managed to do that, how could they get rid of Davis?

On May 16, 2022, Gov. Henry McMaster quietly signed a law banning transgender women from playing girls and women’s sports in South Carolina public schools and colleges. To enforce that law, Republicans sponsored S.B. 202, which gave the governor the power to authorize an investigation into public schools that violated the rules of athletic competition. 

On May 25, 2022, the governor’s spokesperson announced the first target of S.B. 202. Gov. McMaster would not use the anti-trans athlete law to investigate a single transgender athlete or athletic program. Instead, before the law even passed, McMaster cited “hundreds of emails” and calls from concerned parents, about the “dysfunction” emanating from one place: 

The Richland County Two School Board of Trustees.

To be fair, Richland County Two School District had its share of problems. After a monthslong investigation, South Carolina’s Office of the Inspector General found “dysfunction and member conduct fostered a hostile environment” among trustees. Although the report found no major policy violations, the 53-page report noted a “distinct difference in perspective” between two groups:

  • The Davis Four: According to the Office of the Inspector General, this pro-Davis majority believed that the role of the board was to “support the superintendent”  and “consistently emphasized that the Board set goals and ‘stayed out of the weeds.” The OIG admonished members of the Davis Four for referring to a parent as the “captain of the redneck white supremacists ” and allegedly shouted “f**k you” at anti-mask protesters.
  • The Anti-Davis Three: The minority included Agostini and two other members. After the Ginn incident, Agostini suggested that Davis and his wife be placed on administrative leave. One anti-Davis trustee was incensed when Davis refused to let her use district funds to attend a T.D. Jakes “Woman Thou Art Loosed” conference.

In fact, in all of Richland County Two, there was one person who escaped any accusations of wrongdoing:

Dr. Baron Davis.

After examining Davis’ entire tenure as superintendent, the governor’s investigators conceded that the beleaguered district had “delivered quality public education to more than 112,837 students over the four-year period under review.” In fact, the inspector general noted that the district’s test scores had rebounded from the COVID-19 disruptions, adding: “This is where a unified Board focused on academic achievement and supportive of the superintendent and District staff can have its greatest impact.” And when theGrio and other news outlets submitted FOIA requests for the “hundreds” of complaints that supposedly caused Gov. McMaster to sic the OIG on Davis, we received 26.

Eleven were from Gary Ginn.

Moms for Liberty didn’t care. They were not concerned about those pesky facts. They didn’t care that they were the minority in a mostly Black district. They were fighting a war and they had a plan. It was simple math.

Richland County Two trustees serve four-year, staggered terms, so Agostini and the two other anti-Davis trustees were among the four seats up for reelection in 2022. And, because board members are elected at large, Moms for Liberty candidates didn’t need to win a majority of votes. They didn’t even have to get the most votes. To take over the school board of an overwhelmingly Black district, Moms for Liberty just needed the district’s white minority to vote for their pro-white, anti-CRT candidates. If a single Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidate was among the district’s top four vote-getters, they would win a seat and flip the board.

They won two

While it is impossible to attribute ALL credit to Moms for Liberty, the 2022 election was the first election in more than a decade where Richland County’s white vote exceeded the county’s Black vote. Angela Nash, a Moms for Liberty-endorsed real estate agent, came in first place with 14% of the vote. Teresa Holmes, the only member of the Davis Four who ran for re-election, narrowly lost by 506 votes … to Joe Trapp.

On Jan. 17, during an executive session, the Richland Two Board Chair Lindsay Agostini accepted superintendent Baron Davis’ resignation. Davis, whose contract was not supposed to expire until 2026, will recieve $615,000, including $75,000 for “settlement for all disputed claims.” Essentially, Richland County’s Black taxpayers are paying for white parents’ unfounded fears.

The vengeful cabal of Karens in South Carolina is what Ron DeSantis wants for Florida. They aren’t actually concerned about divisive history or making white children feel bad. As you’ll see in in the next chapter of our series, defiance and Black belligerence aren’t necessary prerequisites to raise the ire of this protoconservative white mama mafia. The ballad of Deon Jackson shows …

Being Black is enough.

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.