Newest "anti-woke" tantrum: Right-wingers don't think kids of different races can be friends

A bizarre racist outburst at a Texas school board isn't an isolated event — it's part of a national pattern

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 14, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Kindergarten students head to the first day of class at Roosevelt Elementary School in Anaheim, California, Aug. 10, 2023. (Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
Kindergarten students head to the first day of class at Roosevelt Elementary School in Anaheim, California, Aug. 10, 2023. (Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Considering how rapidly the right's "war on woke" is expanding, it was perhaps inevitable: Self-identified "mama bears" on a Texas school board are angry that a classroom had a poster showing people of different races holding hands. Last week, the school board in Conroe, Texas, a small city north of Houston, turned the right-wing mania for censorship into a dark parody of itself. At issue? A poster that seemed to imply that interracial friendship is possible. 

According to ABC 13 Eyewitness News in Houston, things started when school trustee Melissa Dungan declared that she had spoken to parents who were upset about "displays of personal ideologies in classrooms." When pressed for an example, according to the news report, "Dungan referred to a first grade student whose parent claimed they were so upset by a poster showing hands of people of different races, that they transferred classrooms."

"I wish I was shocked," Dungan said of the poster. "I am aware these trends have been happening for many years."

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Some other members of the school board did, in fact, argue that there was nothing objectionable about such a poster. But Dungan was backed up by another trustee, Misty Odenweller, who insisted that the depiction of uh, race-mixing was in some way a "violation of the law." The two women are part of "Mama Bears Rising," a secretive far-right group fueling the book-banning mania in Conroe and the surrounding area. At least 59 books have been banned due to their efforts. 

When another trustee asked Dungan if she personally objected to an illustration of cross-racial friendship, she demurred, simply declaring that she was just trying to avoid "situations like that." Situations like what, exactly? She didn't say. Dungan's behavior is a perfect illustration of the "anti-woke" tap dance. The person alleging nefarious wokeness never admits to their own bigotry, instead pretending that they're reacting to "woke" people who are "pushing" an agenda, in this case through innocuous poster art. Of course, the entire premise of the argument is rooted in bigotry, as this example shows. It presumes that the feelings of real or imagined bigots who might take umbrage at such an image are of paramount importance, and that everyone else's freedoms must be curtailed to appease them. 

It's tempting to shrug it off as one-off weirdness from Nowheresville, Texas. But while this was an especially ham-fisted example, it's part of a well-funded nationwide effort, led by a group of interlocking far-right groups, aimed at destroying modernity, undermining democracy and imposing authoritarian government against the will of most Americans. Donald Trump sucks up most of the oxygen in the discussion about rising American fascism, but even without him, this movement is powerful and widespread, and it's using these local culture-war skirmishes battles to seize even more power. And old-fashioned racism, the kind on display in Conroe, is very much at the center of it all. 

Last week, the New Republic published a lengthy and terrifying investigative article by Katherine Stewart about the Claremont Institute, once a vaguely respectable conservative think tank and now among the leading right-wing organizations pushing the anti-education and anti-democratic agenda below the surface of the Conroe incident. One of the many Claremont alumni Stewart profiles is Christopher Rufo, who spearheaded the recent hysteria over "critical race theory" in education. In reality, critical race theory was an approach used in law schools and other graduate-level academic spaces, and had basically nothing to do with public schools. Rufo's ingenious idea was to turn it into a catch-all scare term that could be used to demonize any and all forms of anti-racist education, even something as previously noncontroversial as a poster depicting interracial friendship. 

The far-right, anti-democratic politics of the Claremont Institute are so grotesque that many readers will dismiss them as preposterous, but it's all carefully documented and disturbingly real. As Stewart chronicles, Claremont has promoted the work of Costin Alamariu, who holds a PhD in philosophy from Yale and writes under the name "Bronze Age Pervert." He has declared that the "liberation of women" is an "infection" that requires "the most terrible convulsions and the most thorough purgative measures."

Media coverage of Moms for Liberty mostly portrays them as overzealous church ladies. But beneath the surface, there's a lot of far-right radicalism.

A frequent contributor to Claremont's online journal, who writes under the name "Raw Egg Nationalist," argues that "men and women shouldn't work together in the same spaces" and describes the Black Lives Matter protesters of 2020 as "hideously ugly, malformed people." Claremont-associated blogger Curtis Yarvin argues (in Stewart's words) that "America needs a king, a dictator with total military power." Claremont's most famous associate is board member and former law professor John Eastman, now known as "Co-Conspirator 2" in the indictment against Donald Trump for attempting to overthrow the U.S. government. 

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Because of their tight link to the book-banning efforts, the relatively new but suspiciously wealthy group Moms for Liberty has received massive media attention in the past couple of years. Even so, the group's radical ideology has not really been covered in most mainstream news coverage, which tends to portray the Moms as a bunch of overzealous church ladies. As Flux editor Matthew Sheffield, Media Matters vice president Julie Millican and researcher Olivia Little explained in a recent "Theory of Change" podcast, however, underneath the facade of "Christian moms" is some startling far-right radicalism. 

For instance, while it was widely reported that a Moms for Liberty pamphlet from one branch was caught quoting Adolf Hitler, the group was able to spin that as a misunderstanding and a mistake. But at their summit a few days later, speaker Tiffany Justice yelled, "I stand with that mom" — the one who quoted Hitler — while the audience whooped its approval. 

Moms for Liberty has heavily promoted trainings for conservative activists on how to take over school boards, which ought to make clear how we should understand stories like this one, which just sound like a racist tantrum in a Texas suburb. These aren't random or isolated events — they're part of a large, well-organized and well-financed attack on public education across the country. Mama Bears Rising, the group that fueled the Conroe school board takeover, in unsurprisingly discreet about its connections to the larger national movement for censorship. But screenshots of online communications by local anti-censorship activists suggests that it's no coincidence that the books targeted for censorship in Conroe are the same ones that show up on book-ban lists across the country. Mama Bears Rising is drawing on the same playbook that's being disseminated nationwide through a well-funded network of Christian nationalist activists. 

These days, it's almost never just one nutty lady at a school board meeting. It's about a movement with a committed ideology, that has deep connections to Donald Trump's campaign to end democracy. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Anti-woke Book Bans Commentary Education Moms For Liberty Public Schools Racism School Boards