School board meeting puts spotlight on critical race theory

·7 min read

Jun. 17—COOPERSTOWN — More than 30 local residents gathered in person while another 50 attended virtually the final school board meeting of the year Wednesday, June 16, for a community discussion on incorporating elements of diversity, inclusion and equity into the school curriculum.

"We've all seen this in the news. I think everybody knew this discussion was coming," Cooperstown resident Pete Russo said. "One of the issues is that a lot of people take these ideas and proposals at face value."

Russo explained critical race theory as a derivative of Marxist critical theory, which he said "explains the unfortunate byproducts of capitalism are not incidental, but by design."

"What critical race theory does is it racializes critical theory," Russo continued. "Thus, slavery was not an unfortunate circumstance of the founding of our constitutional republic, but actually the purpose of it, and therefore, all foundational structures and ideas in the constitutional rule of law must be dismantled."

Describing critical race theory as a form of grooming and indoctrination; "blatantly political and pseudo-moralistic," Russo claimed that the academic concept is "designed to destroy our republic and our community by devaluing its principles and by making race the critical factor in all decisions."

"It says that the answer to past racial inequities is the renewal of racism against the groups deemed to have been the oppressors. It also perpetuates a feeling of victimization among the groups deemed to be oppressed, and it is designed to degrade and undermine the reality of individual responsibility, leading to better outcomes for all children, for all citizens, regardless of race, creed or color," he continued. "In essence, it effectively re-segregates our kids, it re-segregates our community, it re-segregates our nation."

He went on to liken critical race theory to the political motivations of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, until he was cut off by laughter from the audience.

Cooperstown resident Dylan Arnot traced the origins of critical race theory to the mid '70s, within the decade following the ratification of the Civil Rights Act.

"It is not anything new; anybody that claims otherwise does not know what they are talking about," he said. "Simply put, CRT establishes that race is not a natural biological feature, but rather a socially constructed category that has been historically used to oppress certain groups of people. I don't think anybody would disagree with that."

"CRT attempts to examine how intersectional politics, particularly in regard to race, have shaped historical events and continue to shape our societal landscape," Arnot continued. "You cannot view historical events through the lens of a vacuum. In particular, CRT aims to explain how laws and legal institutions in this country were used to establish and maintain social, economic and political inequalities between whites and non-whites."

"You can't just talk about the Civil Rights movement; you must also talk about the animosity that these civil rights groups faced and continued to face after the Civil Rights Act passed," he said. "This animosity did not disappear. The opponents of this legislation did not quietly back off and never talk about their politics again. These issues still affect our society today, and we cannot rob a generation of nuanced analysis of the history of this country."

"The best thing the school could do is educate us all, intergenerationally, on our own history, especially the parts that have been left out: race, the vagrancy laws, the fact that slaves were considered three-fifths of a person — there's a long list of things that students have never heard, I never heard and we still don't talk about," said Cooperstown resident Paula DiPerna. "I think the best thing the school board can do is issue guidance for faculty on a diverse set of resources that can be debated."

Reminding the audience of Abraham Lincoln's infamous declaration, DiPerna said: "We cannot stand if we are divided in the way we are beginning to look."

Chip Northrup, a seasonal resident of Cooperstown and Texas native, outlined his family's slave-owning past.

"Most of my Northrup relatives were killed in the war, either in POW camps or in the Battle of Atlanta," he said. "The surviving Northrups, one of them lived in Texas, and the other one moved to Brazil, where slavery was still legal until the 1880s."

"I grew up under apartheid, basically, in the south, so I know the history of it myself. I know the segregated water fountains and the segregated buses," Northrup continued. "You need to teach history just the way it is, just straight. No spin on it, no conspiracy theories. Just make sure the textbooks are right and I think you don't have to worry about all that. I wouldn't get hung up on demonizing some point of view."

Former Cooperstown elementary principal Doug Geertgens held up recent directives from the state Education Department on the topic of a "culturally responsive sustaining education framework."

"The New York State Education Department has come to understand that the results we seek for all of our children can never be fully achieved without incorporating an equity and inclusion lens in every aspect of our work," he said. "Somebody up there in their little ivory tower has developed this. This is not increasing math, increasing reading, and so on."

"It goes on to say there is an urgency — what is the urgency?" he continued. "We've been educating kids for years and all of a sudden there's an urgency to do this and to get this in the curriculum before the masses understand what's going on."

Geertgens said he took issue with the state's definition of culture.

"They have taken great liberty to add language to meet their agenda that goes way beyond Merriam-Webster," he said. "The New York State Education Department understands that the responsibility of education — get ready for this — is not only to prevent the exclusion of historically silenced, erased and disenfranchised groups, but also to assist in the promotion and perpetuation of cultures, languages and ways of knowing that have been devalued, suppressed and imperiled by years of education, social, political and economic neglect and other forms of oppression."

"I spent 18 years in this school, and I'm telling you we did not do that, and I take exception to that," he said.

Hartwick resident Sam Ross, a 1990 Cooperstown graduate and self-identified gay man, recalled his experiences essentially in exile during his later high school years because of his sexual identity.

"I made it. I'm alive. I'm here. I didn't commit suicide like most gay people do that grow up in small towns in America," said Ross. "I did not want to get up here and talk. Look at me. I'm like this because I was bullied in this cafeteria, I was bullied in this school, by principals, by teachers, by other students, by children of people that did not agree with who I am, what I was born to be. God made me this way. OK?"

"If you don't want to teach diversity, then you're going to have another generation of people that are shaking in their shoes up here in front of you, insecure," Ross said. "I don't consider myself an insecure person anymore, but when I am forced to come here by what I see on Facebook from hateful people... I'm here. If I have to shake in my shoes for the rest of my life in this town, I will."

Fly Creek resident Tracey Lippitt recalled a 2011 incident in which her Black son, Wes, then a teenager, was shot and wounded by a fellow Cooperstown high schooler and charged with second-degree attempted murder as a hate crime. The case was settled with a plea bargain.

"Some of you may not remember, and some of you maybe didn't live here," she said. "What I've come away with now, over 10 years ago that this happened, is how we really need to be aware of these teachable moments in this time. Our world is so chaotic and filled with horror. We really have to respect one another in the education of our students here. We need to address humanity at large, from all perspectives."

"Wes came to Cooperstown as one of very few ethnic students in the elementary students in the school, but was embraced by the community in a really big way," Lippitt concluded. "I'm really grateful for his education here, and I hope and I have faith that because of where we live and the people that we are — with integrity — that we'll figure this out."

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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