South Carolina’s Critical Race War on Education, Part 4: Amen
OPINION: The final chapter of the series examines the Moms for Liberty-led anti-critical race theory coup that claimed the career of Berkeley County Schools' first Black superintendent.
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, part 2 and part 3.
Whenever the subject of racial disparities is discussed in mixed company, the people whose social studies curriculum gerrymandered Black people out of white history will invariably offer a morsel of advice. It is as remarkable in its predictability as it is stupid, and it always begins the same way:
“If you would just value hard work and education…”
Notwithstanding the fact that this settler nation was originally founded by people so incompetent and lazy that they needed an intercontinental human trafficking system to do their labor, all one needs to do to expose the ignorance of their historical knowledge is to look at Berkeley County, South Carolina.
Founded in 1682, Berkeley County was one of South Carolina’s first three counties. By 1790, less than 30,000 white residents of the county lived among 103,000 enslaved Black people. The original Berkeley County was eventually annexed into Charleston County, creating the area that would be called the “slave capital of North America.” States throughout the South banned enslaved Africans from “any writing whatsoever” after Africans gathered at the mouth of the river that crisscrosses Berkeley County for the revolt known as the Stono Rebellion.
Before Emancipation, the literacy rate among free Black citizens “matched and possibly exceeded that of whites,” notes historian Beth Barton Schweiger. When the federal government built Freedmen’s schools in Charleston after the Civil War, administrators were astounded that the 80% attendance rate eclipsed white enrollment. On Jan 14, 1868, 124 delegates — 76 of whom were Black — gathered in a three-story house in Charleston, S.C., to write a new state constitution. Before they began dreaming up a new form of government, Gov. James Orr addressed the delegation, reminding the state’s new founding fathers what citizens in the majority-Black state wanted more than anything else.
“Education is now the great desideratum of all the colored people of South Carolina,” Orr declared. “For obvious reasons it was the policy of the State, previous to emancipation, to exclude the slave population from the benefits and advantages of education. I will not discuss these reasons. But the relations of that population to the State are now materially changed … Hence, the education of the black population — and, I am sorry to say, of many of the white population of the State — should command the earnest attention of this body.” Two months later, on March 17, 1868, the majority-Black constitutional delegation emerged with something that had never existed in the history of this country:
The first, free, compulsory, statewide public school system in America.
In 1876, using intimidation, mass racial violence and outright terrorism, whites regained control of the state’s political apparatus. Before they could rewrite segregation into the state constitution and disenfranchise the majority Black voting population, the new legislature figured out how to eliminate the power of the majority Black voting population. They created an entirely new “third” Berkeley County as the centerpiece of the “Black” Seventh District — a gerrymandered territory that corralled the state’s Black voters into a single congressional district. “By condensing Black voters into a single district, the statewide political influence of Berkeley County’s Black majority was contained,” notes the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies.
If Black people did not value education, Berkeley County would not exist.
This historical fact is also a present-day truth. In 2021, when the Berkeley County School Board announced that Deon Jackson would become the district’s first Black superintendent, some of the Black citizens openly wept.
But if white people valued education, Deon Jackson would have a job.
The Jackson conspiracy
Perhaps no one on the planet has ever been more qualified for a job than Deon Jackson was for the position of Berkeley County School District superintendent.
I’ve known Deon Jackson for more than 25 years, long before he taught students, coached football and served as assistant superintendent in Berkeley County School District (BCSD), South Carolina’s fourth-largest school district. I met him when we were both college students, back when he played college football at a nearby college, the Citadel, and I had just finished a graduate course in an obscure subject called critical race theory. Jackson would go on to serve as principal, earn his master’s degree in educational administration and, in 2017, become assistant superintendent. Over the course of 21 years in BCSD, he saw the election of America’s first Black president, the rise of Donald Trump and the explosion of a deadly contagion that paralyzed the education system to which Jackson had dedicated his life. But none of these historic events spread fear and consternation than the rise of another pandemic.
While covering this story for more than a year, I spoke with dozens of educators, administrators, parents and elected officials who were involved, in one way or the other, in the pandemic defined by South Carolina conservatives’ battle against critical race theory. But unlike the virus that ousted Richland County’s first Black superintendent Baron Davis, attacked educator Gloria Swindler Boutte and created a statewide movement against education equity, the people who spoke to theGrio would only do so off the record or on background. According to two BCSD teachers and an administrator who speak off the record, the anti-CRT contagion that developed in Berkeley County was not specifically about Jackson or even CRT.
According to an administrator who worked alongside Jackson, the district began receiving complaints about critical race theory being embedded in the schools around February 2021, shortly before Jackson was appointed in May. He reportedly urged his predecessor to open a dialogue with the parents, to no avail. But as soon as Jackson assumed the role of BCSD’s superintendent, he moved to directly address the concerns of the good white people of Berkeley County who were trying to prevent their children from being indoctrinated with a graduate-level legal theory.
As superintendent, Jackson emphasized that BCSD adhered to South Carolina state standards, noting that textbooks used in Berkeley County schools were selected by the authorities at the state level. However, this maneuver only served to redirect the conservative movement’s attention toward nitpicking teachers’ lesson plans and classroom instruction. So Jackson went further.
“[He] invited them in,” the BCSD administration insider told theGrio. “He gave them access to our folks that were working in curriculum and instruction. It got to a point where they were having biweekly meetings … Once they saw that there was no critical race theory in our curriculum or our instructional materials, they didn’t want to come to any more meetings.”
When asked if they were confronted by parents about critical race theory in their classrooms, each teacher who spoke to theGrio had the same reply. “Oh, this was never about the parents,” explained one teacher who spoke on the grounds of anonymity. “It was about Christi Dixon.”
Dixon, president of the Berkeley County Chapter of Moms for Liberty is a favorite of far-right activists such as Steve Bannon and James O’Keefe. In May 2021, she began appearing at BCSD school board meetings and became a star. Unlike her fire-breathing counterparts, Dixon does not believe that social studies teachers are teaching critical race theory. Instead, Dixon manages to draw a direct line between critical race theory and the practice of culturally responsive teaching using an effective sleight of hand. “Critical race theory, also known as culturally responsive teaching, is not a book, a lesson or a project,” Dixon told the South Carolina legislature’s Education and Public Works Committee. “We need to stop thinking of it as curriculum. It is a worldview.”
“It was obvious they had a strategy. It was just constant messaging,” said the BCSD administration official. “We knew it was going to happen every single board meeting. They’d show up with pre-typed messages and when [BCSD communications officials] scoured the Moms for Liberty website, it was just their talking points.”
BCSD’s nine-member board reflected the district’s 45% white student population, with three conservative members who serve rotating four-year terms. In presidential election years, five members are up for election. For the 2022 midterms, four members ran for re-election. But, Instead of flipping the Berkeley County School Board as the group did in districts across the country, they devised a new strategy for BCSD.
They wanted it all.
In December 2021, the South Carolina Senate introduced Senate Bill 910. Instead of rotating elections, every single member of the school board would be up for election in 2022 — even the officials who had only served half of their terms. The law also reduced the board’s nine single-member districts to eight by consolidating two majority-Black districts and replacing its representatives with an at-large member. The state’s Republican majority quietly passed the bill because SB910 only applied to Berkeley County.
The GOP’s conservative culture warriors still had one legal hurdle standing in their way. BCSD, like most school districts, does not allow school board candidates to run as representatives of a political party. How could they skirt the law and run Republican candidates in a nonpartisan election?
What if there was a group that was funded exclusively by Republicans? What if the state Berkeley County Republican Party endorsed the candidates and funded their rallies? What if there was a GOP-funded “nonprofit” that endorsed the conservative school board candidates? Of course, the candidates would need to take some kind of pledge to “advance policies that strengthen parental involvement and decision-making, increase transparency, defend against government overreach, and secure parental rights at all levels of government.”
On Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, the Berkeley County voters elected six Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidates to the Berkeley County School Board. The new slate of anti-diversity board members includes new board chairman Mac McQuillin, who did not respond to theGrio’s request for an interview. The election was certified on Nov. 11, 2022. According to a lawsuit filed by Jackson and obtained by theGrio, McQuillin phoned Jackson on Nov. 13, before the new board members were seated and offered Jackson a choice:
Resign or be fired.
“McQuillin informed Jackson that the Berkeley County School Board members were prepared to terminate his employment,” Jackson complaint’s states.
There was absolutely no reason he would consider such an outrageous request. He had complied with every demand from Moms for Liberty. His contract didn’t expire until 2025. The board members had not even been sworn in, so when would they have had a chance to make that decision? But, according to McQuillin, Jackson was not being fired for anything he did. The new Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidates needed his head and, if he did not resign, terminating his contract would be their first order of business when they took office.
Jackson’s complaint states:
“McQuillin stated to the Plaintiff that there were six (6) board members who were willing to vote for his termination and if they voted for Plaintiff’s termination, the termination would be without cause and without an offer of a severance agreement…McQuillin stated to Plaintiff that the termination was not performance based and suggested that Plaintiff resign from his post and stated that, if Plaintiff chose not to resign, he would be terminated on Tuesday November 15, 2022, which could lead to years of litigation, would be embarrassing for Plaintiff, and make it difficult for Plaintiff to obtain future employment.”
Plaintiff, while attending virtual church services, upon receiving this communication was shocked, dismayed, and immediately began crying excessively to the extent that Plaintiff had to be comforted and consoled by his wife who was also shocked and dismayed.”
On Nov. 15, the new, conservative majority-white school board erased another Black man who had dedicated his life to educating students in Berkeley County. All six votes to terminate Jackson’s candidacy came from the newly seated Moms for Liberty-backed candidates.
McQuillin, who declined an interview with theGrio, released a 39-page statement saying Jackson was fired for cause. “I reached out to Mr. Jackson, days prior to the meeting, to inform him of the possible action and to request that he consider resigning and working towards an amicable resolution with the District,” McQuillin said in the statement. “Mr. Jackson never responded to my request. Unfortunately, it appears that he coordinated with others to ensure that his termination would play out in public regardless of how it would affect the District, its employees, parents, and students.” McQuillin’s narrative is undermined by the district’s lawyers, who were also subsequently fired.
Jackson has vowed to fight what his lawsuit calls a “civil conspiracy,” a breach of contract and defamation, among other things. The teachers who spoke to theGrio said a group of district employees initially planned to stage a walkout in protest of Jackson’s firing. However, the plan was abandoned when they were asked to consider how a walkout would affect students in the district by one respected BCSD educator …
The Dove Sellers
According to biblical history, God gave the children of Israel a code after they escaped enslavement. One part of the Levitical code explains that swearing, or even hearing someone swear, is a sin. However, the trespasser could cleanse themselves of sin by sacrificing one of the animals they own.
But what about the poor people?
Thankfully, the fifth chapter of Leviticus makes a provision. As explained in the fifth chapter of the Levitical code, anyone who is too poor to own sheep or goats can simply catch “two turtledoves, or two young pigeons … one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering.” After they caught the dove or the pigeon, all they had to do was find a priest to kill the bird in the prescribed manner. But unclean people weren’t allowed in the holiest part of the temple. So, even if they managed to catch a dove, a poor, unclean sinner first had to find someone clean enough to summon a dove-killing priest.
The process was so complicated that, over time, enterprising businessmen would post up inside the temple and sell doves to poor people. And if you didn’t have the right currency, you could just visit a currency exchange at the temple (for a fee, of course).
This is what it is like to be a Black child in America’s education system.
For children born into privilege, the American education system only requires a small sacrifice to receive the bounty that America offers. If you are poor, Black or otherwise subjected to the vulgar, unwashable curse of this country’s one true curse, you must find a different way to overcome the circumstances of your past.
All you have to do is catch the sky.
The campaign of propaganda against critical race theory has sparked a political movement against diversity, equity, inclusion and truth is not new. It is not even a revival of the past. It is a chain that remains unbroken; unrelenting and ever-present. Berkeley County is America. South Carolina is America. The anti-Black muscle memory of white supremacy is an American tradition.
And yes, it can only be described as white supremacy. White children make up 47.6% of the pupils enrolled in South Carolina public schools and, in 2019, white children were 48% of the national public school population. Yet, parents across the country are storming school board meetings, legislators are writing laws, and school districts are firing experienced, qualified educators at the behest of parents and politicians who are not educated on the subject. The only logical explanation for why the anti-CRT movement has gained so much traction is that, in America, the comfort of white children is worth more than the combined history, culture and education of everyone else.
There is no critical race theory in schools. There is no indoctrination. This controversy has nothing to do with parental rights. In fact, theGrio could not find any evidence that Cheri Dixon has a child currently enrolled in the Berkeley County School District since becoming president of the Berkeley County Chapter of Moms for Liberty.
At the foundation of this conservative war on education is the fear of losing the coveted position provided by the color of their skin. They are willing to sacrifice all the Black children in the world just to preserve their place of privilege. Thankfully, another reform-minded educator came up with a rather unseemly solution for this problem.
And he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves
The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him because of his teaching.— Mark 11:15, 18
But what on earth is whiteness?
It is a seat for selling doves.
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 September.
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