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Va. lawsuit denounces anti-racism curriculum as ‘pathological’ critical race theory

Emily Mathon speaks in support of the Anti-Racism Policy and aligned curriculum as a part of open public comment during Albemarle County Public School’s School Board meeting via a live stream on a laptop in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 13, 2022. A lawsuit filed against the Virginia school district by a Christian legal organization alleges that the county’s Anti-Racism Policy, or “critical race theory” curriculum, discriminates against students. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

A lawsuit filed by a Christian legal organization against a Virginia school district alleges it teaches critical race theory that discriminates against students because it “classifies all individuals into a racial group and identifies them as either perpetually privileged oppressors or perpetually victimized.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is a Christian, conservative legal nonprofit based in Arizona that has won landmark Supreme Court cases allowing bakers to refuse to sell cakes celebrating same-sex weddings and companies to refuse to pay for employee contraceptive coverage because of religious beliefs of employers.

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On Dec. 22, the organization filed suit against the Albemarle County School Board and school officials in Albemarle County Circuit Court, alleging the anti-racist curriculum’s “pathological teachings … treat students differently based on race in direct conflict with Supreme Court precedent and the Virginia Constitution.”

In 2019, the suit said, the county school board adopted an anti-racism policy that is “racist at its core” because it “views everyone and everything through the lens of race.”

“It imputes racism not only to those who consciously discriminate based on race, but also to those of a certain race (white) who do not actively participate in the prescribed dismantling,” the suit said.

Materials developed to implement the policy and taught to eighth-graders, according to the suit, instructed students that racism “privileges white people” even though racism can “affect any human heart.” Pictures of the materials included in the suit say “remaining apolitical” or saying there are “two sides to every story” can uphold a "racist system.”

Because students and teachers who disagree with this philosophy may be punished under school disciplinary codes, the suit said, the school board has “banned dissent and heterodoxy,” stifling free speech.

“The only way to escape the pejorative ‘racist’ label is to actively support the ideas, causes, and political candidates Defendants favor,” the suit said. “This includes opposing what Defendants deem 'privileged’ and 'dominant culture’ — ‘white,’ ‘upper-middle class,’ ‘Christian,’ ‘able-bodied,’ ‘heterosexual,’ ‘cisgender,’ and male.”

The suit sought to end the programming and a declaration that it “constitutes unconstitutional racial discrimination.”

Phil Giaramita, a spokesman for Albemarle County Public Schools, said by email that school officials were reviewing the lawsuit.

“Responding to these cases in public rather than in the courtroom serves no useful purpose,” he said.

The lawsuit comes as conservatives across the country target curriculums they refer to as critical race theory, an idea that shows how racism unfairly prejudices people of color in the criminal justice and health-care systems, among many other areas of American life.

Although educators contend critical race theory is not taught at the K-12 level in Virginia or anywhere else in the country, Virginia Gov.-Elect Glenn Youngkin (R) pledged to ban it from schools while campaigning last year.

In a statement in July, the Albemarle County School Board and Superintendent of Schools Matthew Haas and other officials said: “Adding Critical Race Theory to our curricula has not occurred, nor are there any plans to do so.”

Since 2015, according to the statement, the school system has offered teachers a professional development program called Culturally Responsive Teaching, or CRT. The program shows teachers can better communicate with students “by better understanding the diverse life experiences and cultures represented,” the statement said, and the program improved academic performance.

“We stand by our endorsement of programs and activities that empower staff to meet the requirements of our anti-racism policy,” the statement said.

AFD’s lawsuit also criticizes the teacher training.

At an Albemarle County School Board virtual meeting Thursday evening, two parents in the school system condemned the lawsuit and directed the board to push forward with Culturally Responsive Teaching.

Amanda Moxham, from the Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County, told board members over Zoom that the lawsuit devalued a policy developed by students in the school system. She argued that the lawsuit was a part of a coordinated campaign to decry teaching about racial inequality as “anti-White, anti-Christian and anti-American.”

“It’s yet another one of these situations where the right wing is continuing to push and push and push, and what we know to be true is that our students deserve better,” Moxham said.

Emily Mathon followed Moxham, stating that the school system’s anti-racism policy and Culturally Responsive Teaching are in line with its mission statement to “know every student.”

“To do that, we have to embrace the intersectionality of children’s identities and cultures,” Mathon said. “We must adapt, grow and change to create learning environments of belonging. That requires efforts, intentionality and discomfort for some.”

In an interview, Ryan Bangert, ADF’s senior counsel and vice president for legal strategy, said the school district was “telling students to affirmatively support ideas that run counter to students’ deeply held moral beliefs.” The organization also sent a letter Friday to Harrisonburg City Public Schools demanding that the district rescind policies affirming students’ chosen pronouns.

“We chose this particular moment because, quite frankly, of how disturbing the things we are seeing out of the school district are,” he said of the Albemarle suit. “Bigotry cannot be defeated by more bigotry.”

The suit was brought on behalf of parents and students “from a very diverse background,” Bangert said. The complaint identifies five families, including immigrants from Panama and Turkey and people of Native American and Black heritage.

“Plaintiffs’ faith teaches them that God creates all people equal, and that a person’s race has no relation to that person’s inherent dignity as a child of God,” according to the suit.

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The lawsuit singled out “prominent critical race theorists,” including Ibram X. Kendi, author of the 2019 nonfiction book “How To Be an Antiracist.”

“Kendi expressly embraces racist discrimination as the answer to racism,” the suit said. It alleged the school system bought the book “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” co-authored by Kendi, for every 11th-grade student.

In a statement, Kendi called such allegations about his work “disinformation” that reflected “an old White supremacist talking point: that antiracism is anti-White and racist."

“What I desire as a scholar, educator, and parent is for all of America’s children to learn our complex history,” the statement said.

As the right targets critical race theory, some have pushed back. Teachers in New Hampshire, for example, filed suit last month alleging the state’s prohibition of lessons teaching that people are inherently racist, sexist or oppressive because of their race abridges free speech. At least 11 Republican-led states have approved comparable laws or policies restricting discussions of race — including Oklahoma, where the American Civil Liberties Union filed a similar lawsuit in October.