The Man with the Poodle: Political Theater in the Time of CRT
By Rachel HowardFebruary 22, 2022
Which is how I find myself in the wrestling gym sharing air, despite the ongoing pandemic, with several hundred adrenalized theatrical participants. The bleachers and the rows of folding chairs are full, the factions pushing up against each other like tectonic plates. A man whose T-shirt reads, “EVERYTHING WOKE TURNS TO SHIT,” stands next to a woman wearing a facemask that shouts, “JUSTICE.” Everyone wears costumes signaling their roles, though not everyone aims to be identified. Several middle-aged women are going around passing out stickers with the letters “CRT” inside a scary red no symbol, but they don’t approach anyone wearing a facemask, because the COVID-concerned are somehow de facto not of the anti-CRT tribe.
I am a white person in a white space, and I have tried to dress neutrally, in slim jeans, a cream-colored sweater, and simple flats. But my hair is up in a French twist because it is the easiest way I know to fix my hair. It must look suspicious. And I am wearing a mask. I turn to the woman next to me with the anti-CRT button and ask what brings her to the school board meeting.
“I’m taking a Constitution Class,” she says. “It’s very rigorous,” she adds. I ask where the class is offered, and she says tells me the name of the woman who teaches it. She found it “by word of mouth” and has attended seven sessions. I ask if she has children in the high schools, and she says no. She arches an eyebrow and adds, “I am a taxpayer, though.”
A man in the bleacher in front of me cranes his head around. He’s wearing a sage green quilted Patagonia jacket, no mask, and his hair is freshly cut. “You want to talk about kids in the system, I pulled my three kids out.” His face radiates the middle-age glow of someone who can afford good skin care products.
He tells me he emailed his child’s teacher after she suggested everyone in Nevada County was living on Indigenous land and said white people needed to give up privilege. “I asked whether she actually gave any of her land to Indigenous people,” he says. “I said, ‘If you’re influencing my kid, you better be living what you teach and not just shaming.’ I mean, the hypocrisy is insane!”
By way of proving this hypocrisy, he tells me the teacher’s husband is the third-highest paid employee in the county. The woman taking the Constitution classes nods meaningfully but then scrunches her eyes when her newfound ally segues to talk about the spiritual guru Ram Dass. “I mean, that man made millions of dollars and he gave all his money to the poor. I have respect for him! But this…” He gestures to the whole room but seems to mean only the social-justice-oriented in attendance. “I find it disingenuous.”
“You can’t even have your own opinion,” the Constitution woman says, as though trying to move the talk back on track.
“The teacher called me and said because I was a white male, I shouldn’t say anything,” the man says.
“It doesn’t open up conversation; it shuts down conversation!” the woman finishes, ending the conversation.
To our left, a group of teenagers has taken over a section of the bleachers. Behind us, a couple in motorcycle boots clambers in. I think about them staring at my hair in a French twist and wish I’d worn a hat.
Below us, the conservative columnist from the paper, Terry McLaughlin, is passing out buttons, smiling like a prom queen. It is time for Act One. Six school board members assume their seats on the wrestling floor. The chairwoman explains that comments on agenda item seven, the Protecting American Ideals presentation, can only be taken after that item. For now, the board will begin with comments on non-agenda items.
The public comment phase of board meetings is an open mic when just about anything on a matter of school policy can be said in three-minute bursts. Tonight seems especially prone for non sequitur soliloquies. A woman cuts through the thick field of attendees in folding chairs and is announced by the secretary. “I’m here because I need to respond to people who spoke at the last board meeting about Mr. McFadden’s antiracism task force,” she says. “I was upset about some of the things that were said and how we were portrayed?” But the board chair cuts in, “I’m sorry, this is too close to tonight’s agenda item.”
“This area is full of kindhearted people,” the woman continues, her voice on the verge of tears. The gym fills with chaotic murmurs like a World Wrestling Federation crowd waiting for the actor to deliver a line that cues discord.
“I’m sorry,” the board chair cuts in with an unapologetic tone. “We have rules we must follow, and I don’t want to be in violation of the Brown Act.”
The shaking woman retreats. The secretary announces the next speaker. He had filled out a card indicating his topic was “class attendance,” which turns into a ramble about a speech teacher being a communist. Another woman speaking on “American flag concerns” tells a story about a flag thrown into a shed at a football game. Then the man with the white standard poodle steps up.
He will be the coup de théâtre, so perfectly planted that the whole spectacle will later seem too orchestrated, but none of us know this yet. At the moment, he is just an old man in a tweed jacket over a white T-shirt, announcing in deep gentlemanly chimes that he is a former college trustee, and so, “I understand, truly, what you are facing here tonight.”
He levels his gaze at the board members and clears his throat. “I am a Vietnam Veteran, and Arthur is my service dog.” He reaches down to tousle a floppy white ear. “He helps me through life, through the trials and tribulations of events. So I would commend to you tonight that you would consider, when you do the pledge of allegiance, you call out upon a veteran in this crowd to stand up, come forward, and do the pledge of allegiance.”
He has hit his stride; he speaks in the cadence of a movie star war hero. And in this cadence he now, against the rules, invokes the upcoming agenda item. “This is not what I fought for. This is not what men have shed their blood for in battle!” The crowd cheers and waves little flags on cocktail sticks that somebody has passed out.
“To be exposed to woke, and critical race theory!”
“I’m sorry, sir, this is an upcoming agenda item…”
He fires off a few final shots about the ineffectiveness of masks and is escorted from the podium.
I check in with the Constitution-minded woman next to me. She leans forward as though hopeful that the post-intermission action will raise further stakes. She narrows her eyes.
“Who are you writing for, anyway?” she says, and when I answer I’m not sure, she adds, “You’re being awfully elusive.”
The next act consists of reports from student representatives of each high school, and it seems to disappoint all the combatants. The Nevada Union student representative shakes nervously before she sprints to the microphone to relay that the Halloween costume contest was a success, the cross-country team won a few races, and the work to organize an outdoor fall dance paid off. A young woman from Silver Springs High School talks of co-ed volleyball, a field trip to the county library, tobacco use prevention. Ghidotti High School had an excellent cookie fundraiser, and Bear River High School rocked the canned food drive.
I must be starved for such news of goodwill because I’m leaning in to listen while the man in motorcycle boots behind me yawns. The high school principals give their reports, and then a thirtysomething man with the bright sweetness of a community organizer introduces himself as the president of the collective bargaining unit. “I want to first acknowledge that we gather on occupied land of the Nisenan people,” he begins. There’s a change of energy in the bleachers around me, a collective alert.
“We are continuing our efforts to create a diverse and inclusive culture…” The woman next to me rolls her eyes and exhales with an “Oh my gawd…”
“In this time of globalized economy…”
The woman pretends to barf.
“In a multicultural era…”
“We support culturally responsive education…”
“And anti-repressive teaching practices…”
The woman crosses her arms high on her chest as half the crowd echoes her disgust. Someone from the west side of the crowd says, “Shut up, man!” and a high school kid snaps back, “This is the part where you’re quiet!”
The union representative is continuing calmly as the crowd waits for his trigger words. “Personally I teach science, an evidence-based discipline, and…”
The motorcycle couple behind me have turned off a YouTube video to watch the main event. “I called this guy’s shit the moment he walked up,” the man says.
“Unfortunately, our taskforce presentation has been postponed again for tonight’s agenda item seven…”
“Shut the hell up,” the woman behind my head grumbles. “God, I’m starving. Honey, hand me the snacks.” The squeaking of the Mylar bag breaking open seems to echo the room’s rising energy, and soon she is crunching in my ear.
But here comes the district construction manager with updates about bond expenditures, new HVAC, hallway LEDs. The Constitution woman yawns louder. Then, at last, one hour and 15 minutes into the meeting:
“Item seven. The presenter has 15 minutes.”
Judy Wood is about five foot one, gray-haired, and bespectacled. She is accompanied to the podium by a barrel-chested man twice her size, Andre the Giant in jeans and a blazer. Only later will I realize that Judy Wood’s attire is, fittingly, a de-cultured appropriation of Indigenous textiles — she sports a gray jacket of synthetic fibers with a vaguely Native American pattern. Far more arresting than her appearance is her voice: she speaks in a smoker’s baritone.
“The goals of our group,” Judy Wood begins, “is to rid Nevada County schools of critical race theory and to promote in our schools an honest, patriotic view of America that respects our history, our ideals, our rights, and the God-given dignity of every individual.”
A PowerPoint slide flashes on the gym wall, and she asks, “What is critical race theory?” She answers: “It goes by many names.” These appear one by one on the screen as her baritone invokes them: “Equity, Culturally Responsive Teaching, Social Justice, Social and Emotional Learning, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.”
The repetition of “equity” in that list does not seem, later, to be an error. The word equity and its replacement of the word equality will form the focal point of a threat that makes me wonder if this is anything like what it felt like to live through the Red Scare, for surely there are nuances among all these ideas and words, but our current “discourse,” as the Twitter ironists would term it, has no room for nuances, and Judy Wood is seizing upon the rules of this new game, which is played by the fight-or-flight limbic brain while we all tell ourselves we are using our prefrontal cortex.
“It is an ideology,” Wood says to conclude her CRT definitions. “If it exists in an organization, those beliefs permeate an organization.”
She offers a list of core beliefs: “America is systemically and irredeemably racist.” Pause.
“Skin color drives beliefs and behaviors. And, because you are in a group, you are collectively responsible and collectively guilty, not individually.” Pause. “Equity replaces equality.” She defines equity as “equal outcomes” and equality as “equal opportunity.” She hits a dignified cadence as she soliloquizes on the centrality of equality in the Declaration of Independence. And then something unintended happens.
A slide flashes on the screen reading, “IDENTITY POLITICS → MARXISM.” The smaller text reads, “Identity is the means, Marxism is the end.”
Half the crowd laughs loudly, like a circus audience reacting to a clown whose pants have fallen down. Judy Wood says, “Excuse me. My helper with the presentation got the slides wrong,” and looks to Andre the Giant in a blazer to click “next.” They have accidentally shown us the presentation intended for the insiders.
But Judy Wood is not a clown. She is a woman with a battle plan, and so she keeps her smoker’s voice firm as she goes on to a slide about “Constitutional Fundamentals” versus “CRT Fundamentals.” She speaks slowly and unflappably as she invokes former football star Clarence Burgess Owens, now United States representative for Utah’s fourth congressional district, and says that he, an African American, declared that equity “always lowers expectations for Black people” and is “as racist as you can get.”
She then turns the presentation over to the tall man in the blazer, who reads through statements issued by the school district in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a white police officer, statements that the district would “dismantle systemic racism” and work for “equitable outcomes.” As Andre the Giant reads these phrases, half the crowd in the wrestling gym holds up their hands and waggles their fingers, signifying support for the aims he is exhibiting as sheer evil. The other half scowls at their pro-equity enemies.
And I sit among them feeling conflicted, having long appreciated Chekhov’s position: “I am not a liberal, a conservative, not a gradualist or a monk or an indifferentist; I should like to be a free artist and nothing more.” The truth is, though, that I believe ethics in such times does force us to choose sides, and I have chosen: I am a liberal. I am at peace with my choice. And yet, like James Baldwin disappointed by a homeland that fails its own ideals — “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” — I feel perpetually critical of my chosen side.
I am troubled, for instance, by the spectacle of a Democratic activist, well known in our town, grabbing the microphone and shouting at the school board chair, as Protecting American Ideals cedes the floor, and we await public comment, “Come on, Madame Chair, let’s get this show on the road!” I do not share this activist’s unassailable sense of rightness and complete dismissal of those who feel threatened by the movement to dismantle white privilege. I have sat in diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings that taught a strict orthodoxy about the white attendees’ essential whiteness and allowed no questions about how we should both realistically recognize and yet also seek to move beyond the toxic construction of “whiteness.”
The truth is that I appreciate Ibram X. Kendi — and his insight that racism isn’t driven as much by fear of “otherness” as by the desire to justify abusive power — and I also agree with John McWhorter, Columbia University linguist and the author of Woke Racism, who has seen enough of white guilt that leads only to “virtue signaling.” In other words, there are good-faith critiques of “woke” culture that I believe have merit. But this presentation is not one of them.
Later, describing all that I have seen to my husband, the sympathies I feel for those at the meeting who would call out leftist hypocrisy and coercion will be obliterated by the larger picture of the right-wing crowd’s bad faith — by the rabidity of their self-glorifying nationalism, intended to shut down any modern-age James Baldwins — and by, yes, their racist assumptions. What I will remember most vividly later, as I relay the post-presentation commentary, is the white man who seizes the microphone and speaks about merit. He gives a hypothetical: if an AP class has a waitlist, and nine students who got in had the highest scores, and one spot is left, and one of the applicants is Black and one is white, who do we think will get that last spot?
The question that stays with me, the question my husband asked as I relayed everything that happened, is this: why did that indignant white man assume that the Black student would have less “merit”?
Mercifully, few such arguments are actually heard during the allotted 30 minutes of public response. The right-wing anti-CRT tribe came ready for a sporting match with their flags and buttons, but they didn’t come ready for formalities: the board is letting respondents speak in the order in which attendees submitted requests to comment. Almost all the speakers are asking that the country’s history of racism continue to be addressed frankly in our schools. Some commenters advocate this falteringly, some with confidence. And then, up at the microphone, there’s quiet-voiced Bill Drake, a self-identified former white supremacist who co-founded Creating Communities Beyond Bias with Black community leader Jamal Walker here in 2011.
“If we want a just society that works to end discrimination and is protecting American ideals of liberty and justice for all, we have to be honest about America’s successes and failures,” Drake says, and it actually feels like the room is listening.
“We have to face hard truths about our history and our society and look at ways we perpetuate bias and racism, consciously or unconsciously,” he continues. “Critical race theory, which I’ve only heard of recently, is often misunderstood and misused by those fearing the truth. Attacks on CRT are not meant to rebut its arguments but to paint it with such broad strokes that any effort to recognize the causes and impact of racism can be demonized and dismissed. Education that acknowledges racism is not about whites having shame and guilt but acknowledging the good and bad parts of history and society and making it better for an equitable America, enriching the lives of everyone.”
The supporters of antiracism in education wave their hands. Somebody behind me belches.
And then the public comment portion of the meeting ends just as gracelessly. A board member notes that almost all the speakers have supported antiracism in education and says, “I would like to provide an opportunity for those in support of the presentation.” Taking over, without permission from the chair, he apologizes for taking commenters in the order received. There’s a kerfuffle as the next man at the microphone tries to give his time to someone the board chair recognizes, apparently as a past rabble-rouser. The chair begs this woman to stay civil, and when the woman refuses to step away from the mic, the chair declares that public comment time is up anyway.
The chair says, “Now I would like to, uh, give each board member the opportunity to, uh, make a statement?”
The first board member allowed to speak is the student representative, Anthony Pritchett, a broad-chested boy with curly short hair, who speaks without hesitation. “There pervades, at this moment, embarrassment, stemming from myself for allowing the board to host your presentation, and from yourself, the so-called Protectors of American Ideals.” The “shenanigans” do nothing but polarize the community and politicize an issue irrelevant to politics, he says, “under the umbrella of a concept that I am not sure your group entirely understands.” Antiracism proponents wave their hands. Anti-CRT people begin to stand up and clear out.
Arms crossed, Pritchett concludes: “This entire endeavor is an exercise in futility and inefficiency and strawman arguments and ignorance. I do sincerely hope you rethink your operations and return next time only if your aim is to advance support for the children.”
And then, because Chekhov’s rule dictates that any pistol shown in the first act must subsequently fire, the Vietnam veteran with the white poodle reappears at the commenters’ podium. As the crowd murmurs, and the chair beseeches everyone to quiet down, he strides to the middle of the floor, Arthur’s soft white ears flapping as the pom-pommed dog looks about innocently.
The chair: “You need to respect our board meeting.”
The man with the poodle: “I do not respect your board meeting.”
“The board is going into recess!”
It looks like the show is over, but a stranger rushes over to show me a screenshot. “Did you know they were posting about you?” he says. It’s some kind of social media app, and there’s my hair in a French twist, with some text below about “this total uptight hard-ass sitting in front of us.” How did this stranger now flashing this screen at me find this? I don’t want to know. I force a laugh and wave a hand, then turn around. The motorcycle couple has left behind their trash: an empty bag of Sweet & Salty Caramel Bugles.
The gymnasium is now nearly empty, but to my left the high school students remain, and they are not goofing off — they are waiting studiously for the school board to resume. After a good 15 minutes, the school board members do reseat, speaking now mainly to the young students, who listen keenly, even as Jim Drew, the member who placed Protecting American Ideals on the agenda, chastises. He tells them disrupting a board’s work is a misdemeanor, and they could be arrested for “all this,” waggling his hands. “Democracy is messy,” he chides. “You have to accept some of the other side and give them some of yours.”
The kids are not militant. But neither do they cede unquestioningly. When another board member flails about and then sputters, “We have to tolerate each other, don’t we?” a student calls back, “Not if someone’s being racist.” I have not come to this meeting anticipating anything other than dismay about the state of our society, yet I feel tenderly toward these kids as the final gavel falls. I pick up the Bugles bag and tuck it inside my purse, wanting a relic that will later convince me this surreal night happened. Then I walk out into the night, expecting solitude.
The sidewalks are crowded with people wearing anti-CRT stickers. I linger beneath the cold clear sky. “This is just ground one,” someone says to the circle, and another laughs in celebration: “Only the beginning.”
Rachel Howard is the author of a novel, The Risk of Us, and a memoir about her father’s unsolved murder, The Lost Night. She is also a dance critic and arts writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and Fjord Review. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, StoryQuarterly, ZYZZYVA, Gulf Coast, Berfrois, and elsewhere.
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