Republicans attack Mills administration for anti-racism lesson plan

·5 min read

Sep. 23—Republicans are criticizing the Mills administration for a video on a state educational website that lists former President Donald Trump's MAGA slogan as an example of what it describes as covert racism.

Other examples include "calling police on Black people," "not challenging racist jokes" and the statement "all lives matter."

"Students should be taught reading, writing and math, not a woke curriculum from the Mills administration that teaches kids that they are inherently racist for the beliefs they or their parents support," Republican Governors Association spokesman Will Reinert said in a written statement.

Maine Department of Education spokesperson Marcus Mrowka stood by the video and said in a written statement Friday that it has been mischaracterized by critics.

He said the video was created by the nonprofit Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, and linked to a digital lesson about diversity and race that was created by a teacher for other high school-level educators who choose to watch it or share it with students. The DOE hosts educator-created learning "modules" on its public website, but does not require teachers to use them. Mrowka also noted that each module contains a disclaimer that the lessons should be completed "with an educator or adult supervision, feedback and guidance."

"The Maine Department of Education does not tell teachers or parents what to teach in the classrooms," Mrowka said. "Decisions about what is taught in a classroom are made by — and always will be made by — teachers, parents, community members and local elected school boards, consistent with the Maine Learning Results and Maine's longstanding tradition of local control."

He added, "The Department of Education will continue to support teachers, parents, and elected school boards as they make their own decisions about public education in Maine, despite attacks like these."

BACKLASH AGAINST 'WOKE' EDUCATION

The criticism by Republicans ahead of the November election is the latest backlash against what they call a "woke" public education system.

It comes two days after former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who is challenging Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, released a proposed parents bill of rights that he framed as fighting back against "extreme woke agendas" of public educators. And earlier this month, LePage campaigned in Lewiston with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and praised Virginia's new law that allows parents to review, remove and replace sexually explicit material from school curriculum.

National and state Republicans criticized the racism lesson after the conservative online news outlet Breitbart published a story Wednesday highlighting one slide in the hourlong YouTube video, which was created two years ago by the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. It wasn't clear when the learning module linking to the video was first posted on the state website.

Before the video was called out by Breitbart, relatively few people had seen it. The video has been available since June 2, 2020, and had been viewed about 300 times as of Friday. It wasn't clear how many of those viewers found the video through the learning module.

The video uses an iceberg as a metaphor for racism. Panelists who speak in the video compare explicit forms of racism — lynching, racial slurs and burning crosses — to the exposed portion of the iceberg, and say implicit forms of racism make up the much larger hidden portion.

The slide that sparked the criticism is shown for about 75 seconds. It lists examples of what the nonprofit calls overt and covert forms of racism and white supremacy.

The roughly 50 examples of covert racism include Trump's MAGA slogan, which stands for Make American Great Again, along with "calling police on Black people," "not challenging racist jokes," "mass incarceration" and the statement "all lives matter."

None of the panelists appearing on the nonprofit's video discussed or highlighted MAGA as an example of implicit racism.

Before showing the slide, panelist Marpheen Chann notes that biases can form a lens through which a person sees the world, whether the person is aware of them or not.

BIASES FORM A LENS

"Having bias doesn't necessarily make you a bad person, but it can and does cause harm," Chann said. "But we each have the moral responsibility to speak up when we see bias, especially explicit bias. And we also have the moral responsibility to learn and grow and address our own implicit biases — the bias we don't necessarily see."

Such lessons on implicit bias exploded in popularity as part of diversity, equity and inclusion discussions within private companies, nonprofits, trade associations and educational institutes following George Floyd's murder by Minnesota police in 2020. Floyd, who was Black, was killed by a white police officer responding to a call about an allegedly counterfeit $20 bill.

This is the second time the DOE has faced Republican criticism for its online learning modules, which were created during the pandemic using $2.8 million in federal funding. The MOOSE program, or Maine Online Opportunities for Sustained Education, contains about 200 voluntary lessons that are available to teachers to use. They are not required as part of a school's curriculum, which is set at the local level.

In the spring, the DOE removed a video intended for kindergarten teachers who wanted to explain gender identity and same sex relationships to their students. The department took the video off the site after being criticized by Republicans, who used the video in an attack ad against Mills. The Maine Republican Party has re-aired that ad this fall.

Mrowka, the DOE spokesperson, did not respond to a follow-up question about why the DOE removed the LGBTQ video and not the implicit bias video.

Neither the Maine Republican Party nor the Republican Governors Association would say whether it would use the anti-racism lesson in any upcoming campaign ads.