By Dr. Alan Singer
You probably have never heard of Thomas W. Smith of Boca Raton, Fla. I never had until I discovered that Smith, who manages a hedge fund, is at the center of a network of groups misrepresenting and battling against Critical Race Theory to rally grassroots support for their conservative agenda.
According to federal tax submissions, Smith is the sole contributor to the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, which claims to support “free markets.” In 2019, he donated $18,397,811 to the foundation. The foundation has more than $24 million in assets and is operated by James Piereson, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, where Smith is a trustee. The Manhattan Institute, one of the leaders in the anti-CRT campaign, has received more $4 million from the Smith Foundation.
From 2017 to ’19, the Smith Foundation donated almost $13 million to organizations attacking Critical Race Theory. These include the American Legislative Exchange Council, $425,000; the American Enterprise Institute, $1.1 million; the Alexander Hamilton Institute, with ties to Tucker Carlson of Fox News, $150,000; the Daily Caller Foundation, also with ties to Carlson, $100,000; Turning Point, a conservative youth group, $400,000; The Federalist, a conservative publication, $150,000; Heterodox Academy, which promotes “viewpoint diversity on college campuses,” $250,000; Judicial Watch, which describes CRT as a “totalitarian assault on children,” $150,000; the Federalist Society, $720,000; and The American Spectator magazine, $210,000. An article in The Spectator described Critical Race Theory as a mechanism for “extremist indoctrination in America’s schools,” with roots in Marxism.
For the sake of clarity, Critical Race Theory was originally a legal approach to understand the lingering effects of race and racism on the American legal system. In recent decades, it has been adopted by social scientists and historians to explain how and why racial differences in income, education, law enforcement and life expectancy continue because of systemic racism.
Critical Race Theorists argue that racism and racial inequality persist because discriminatory practices and attitudes that are deeply imbedded in and reinforced by American economic and political institutions. For example, the Electoral College, while not racist by design, gives disproportionate power to smaller, largely white states. Wyoming, with fewer than 600,000 people, 92.5 percent of whom are white, has the same number of senators as California, which has over 40 million people, a little over a third of whom are non-Hispanic whites.
On Long Island, local school funding and 124 mini-school districts contribute to segregated schools and unequal educational outcomes. School choice and gifted classes in New York City have made it possible for affluent, mainly white, families to “gentrify” former minority communities, while allowing their children to attend non-minority schools.
Scott Baldwin, a Republican Indiana state senator, introduced legislation to ban Critical Race Theory and related concepts in K-12 education. Baldwin’s name, incidentally, is on a membership list of the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government militia being investigated for its role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Baldwin claims he only made a small donation to the group before it joined in the coup attempt.
Baldwin’s bill includes a provision that teachers “remain impartial in teaching curricular materials or conducting educational activities.” During a committee hearing, Baldwin acknowledged that the provision would mean teachers would have to be impartial when teaching topics like the European Holocaust, in which Nazi Germany systematically exterminated 12 million people, including 6 million Jews. Baldwin does not believe teachers should be permitted to express their views on Nazism or any other “ism” in the classroom. When pressed by a local newspaper, Baldwin later said he objected to “Nazism, Marxism and fascism,” but did not agree to revise the bill.
The Baldwin bill mirrors others promoted in state legislatures by the conservative Heritage Foundation, American Legislative Exchange Council and Goldwater Institute of Arizona. Teachers would be subject to censure and schools and school districts to civil lawsuits if a teacher expressed a prohibited opinion in class. The bills also would require “all classroom curricula” to be posted online so parents could review them for possible CRT content, which would mean extremist groups would have access to them as well.
Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies. Follow him on Twitter, @AlanJSinger1.