Omaha meeting provides forum on critical race theory

June 18, 2021, 1 p.m. ·

The crowd at the Learning Community Coordinating Council meeting
People listen to discussion of critical race theory Thursday in Omaha (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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A meeting in Omaha this week provided a forum for people to discuss the controversial topic of critical race theory.

Critical race theory wasn’t on the agenda for the Coordinating Council of the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties Thursday. Technically, what was on the agenda was renewing the council’s contract with the University of Nebraska’s Buffett Early Childhood Institute. This spring, the Buffett Institute offered teachers voluntary training on subjects including anti-racist education. After some social media posts said this was based on critical race theory, people showed up to talk about it.

According to law professor Richard Delgado, one of its earliest proponents, the critical race theory movement is a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism and power. It looks at things like the influence of racism on laws, education, and other institutions.

At Thursday’s meeting, Kathy Brady of Bellevue said things like that shouldn’t be taught to children.

“Our children need to learn how to think, not what to think. All parents want their children to get a great education, to be safe, to be treated fairly and equally, and have opportunities. Schools need to teach facts, not unproven science, not ideology, not theories,” Brady said.

Sam Meisels, executive director of the Buffett Institute, said while there’s some overlap between critical race theory and anti-racism education, it’s not what’s being taught.

“Do we teach critical race theory? The answer is no – we don’t… We help teachers learn how to be fairer. We help teachers learn about how their actions, their beliefs, their behaviors may be harmful or may be helpful to children. This is something that’s been a lifetime task of mine. And it’s a lifetime task for every white person, I think,” Meisels said.

Sally Otis defended the training, saying it’s needed to counter misperceptions.

“Growing up I was taught to be color blind. I was taught not to see race. I was taught that we all work hard and we all have the same opportunity. And that is simply not true. It actively perpetuates harmful systems and prevents us from moving forward,” Otis said.

Allie French criticized critical race theory as distorted.

“The terminology, the intent, the message that CRT delivers is divisive. It does create animosity, guilt and shame. It does not create hope. It does not bring closer people together in a constructive manner. The only thing that is true about CRT is the oppression and exploit(ation) in an acute period in time, as if that tells the whole story,” French said.

Council member Tim Hall blasted the training, which he suggested would trickle down to students.

“This current hypersensitivity towards racial issues that’s being perpetuated is toxic to our society. CRT teaches young children – in this case, three- to eight-year-olds – that their white classmates are oppressors based merely on the color of their skin, and that all institutions in America are plagued by systemic racism. Racism is learned through this very kind of indoctrination,” Hall said.

Shee Covarrubias of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska said individuals are not being targeted. And she criticized states, which so far don’t include Nebraska, that have adopted or are considering laws banning teaching critical race theory.

“No one is blaming any one individual white person for being white. No one is asking any one individual white person to feel bad about the color of their skin. Ironically by writing the laws to ban the teaching of systemic racism, these states are in fact, reinforcing the thesis for the theory they are attempting to deny,” Covarrubias said.

Commission member Tonya Ward expressed support for critical race theory, but said the Buffett Institute should not be conducting anti-racism training. Ward also criticized One World Community Health Centers, another organization the council contracts with.

“We need to make something different and change it. But from my point of view, Buffett and One World are not the entities to bring this CRT or anything to do with race relations. They are the wrong people. And they should not take it from tax dollars. Buffett’s rich enough with all their millions to make their own program. Do what you want,” Ward said.

After nearly two hours of public comment and another three of discussion, the council voted 8-3 to authorize a contract with the Buffett Institute worth about $14 million over four years. Commission Chair Allen Hager praised the discussion.

“I think it’s been a very enlightening evening. I appreciate the pro and the con of the public comment. I’ve been here nine years… I can tell you in nine years, I haven’t seen that much public comment, and that’s good. Public comment is the basis of what this country is about,” Hager said.