Local Politics: Gov. DeWine succumbs to critical race theory panic

In forcing the resignation of two Republican-appointed members of the Ohio Board of Education, DeWine again shows a refusal to stand up to his party’s extremists in the Legislature

Craig Calcaterra
Gov. Mike DeWine listens to an Ohioan voice his concern over Ohio House and Senate district draft maps during a meeting at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio on September 9, 2021. Gov. Mike DeWine is one of seven on the Ohio Redistricting Commission.

Last year's murder of George Floyd inspired many in this country to confront systemic racism, injustice and inequality. Some did so via protest. Some worked hard to influence laws or to effect tangible change in other ways. Some paused to reflect upon their own beliefs, biases and past actions. Some worked to elevate Black voices. Among the more modest (yet still welcome) things someone could do was to simply acknowledge the existence of racism and say that it's, you know, bad.

Gov. Mike DeWine just forced the resignation of two members of the Ohio Board of Education for doing just that last, modest thing.

Those resignations — of Board President Laura Kohler and board member and Eric Poklar — came after the  Republican-controlled Ohio Senate made it clear that it would not confirm the pair’s reappointment. That imminent refusal, in turn, was rooted in a July 2020 resolution passed by the Board which condemned hate speech and racism in schools and directed the Department of Education to review state curriculum to make sure it wasn't racist and to otherwise "ensure that racism and the struggle for equality are accurately addressed."

Nothing in the resolution was particularly controversial. Indeed, given that anyone who doesn't belong to literal hate group should have no trouble agreeing with the idea that (a) racism is bad; and (b) we should have less of it, the resolution, in a sane world, would've passed without notice and joined all manner of other well-meaning but mostly empty official gestures in the giant pile of things our leaders say they believe but typically fail to live up to. But not this resolution. Not in today's America. It was met, instead, with a displeasure that, over time, turned into outrage and a demand that the resolution be repealed.

The animating principle of the outrage that led to the repeal demand was the racial resentment that Republicans have made a central pillar of their political platform. The supposed excesses of anti-racism education form the base of that pillar, with the mere mention of our nation's racist past or present being branded with a once-obscure academic term — critical race theory — that has nothing to do with any of the concepts expressed in last year's Board resolution or whatever is taught about racism in Ohio's primary and secondary schools. 

In this, critical race theory is, as a concept, stripped of all meaning in order to serve as a catchall for white grievance. It's a moral panic, really, via which Republican legislators, operatives, commentators and those who take their lead can, in response to the sentiment that racism is bad and we should have less of it, say, "Well, actually..." and shield themselves from accusations of racism by cloaking it all in concern for young hearts and minds. Children who, they claim, are being taught to hate white people by radical, out-of-touch educators and educational administrators like Kohler and Poklar.

The vote to repeal the resolution was held last month and of the 19 Board members, only Kohler and Poklar voted against repealing it. A new resolution, which purports to promote academic excellence without "respect to race, ethnicity or creed" — an "all lives matter" sentiment for school-age kids — replaced it. Kohler said last week that the votes against repeal were the reason DeWine asked the two to resign. DeWine offered no substantive comment, but one suspects that, whatever DeWine's personal views of the resolution, his resignation demand was just the latest example of his refusal to stand up to the radicals in the Legislature who got extremely angry at all of this. Either way, in Ohio, in the year 2021, you can lose your job for condemning racism.

The thing is, neither Kohler nor Poklar are anyone's idea of radicals. Both are Republican appointees. For her part, Kohler said last week, quite convincingly, that she didn't even know what critical race theory was and that, in drafting the initial resolution, she was merely attempting to take notice of indisputable data showing that Black kids consistently underperform their white peers, which is not OK.

“Pointing that out and saying that is not good enough. … Why is that controversial?" she asked the Columbus Dispatch.

It's a question Mike DeWine should be asked. Even if it seems pretty clear that he has no intention of answering it.