A plan to acknowledge and dismantle systemic racism at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln has become the latest punching bag for Republican politicians in the state. One of them, the gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen, is also a University of Nebraska regent.
The plan, called the Journey for Anti-Racism and Racial Equity, was announced last year in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the many protests that followed. Last week the university released a “commitment to action” outlining the goals of the plan and the steps it would take to reach them.
“Last year, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I was shaken,” wrote Ronnie Green, UNL’s chancellor, in an op-ed in the Omaha World-Herald, explaining the plan. “His death and the death of many other people of color indicated a need for organizations to focus on understanding racism and on long-term, meaningful change toward greater racial equity.”
Fairly quickly, politicians pounced. Pillen, a self-described conservative pig farmer who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor in the 2022 election, asserted in a tweet that “the initiative violates the Nebraska Constitution and the Board of Regents bylaws” and that “we must fight the crusade to implement Critical Race Theory.”
The next day, Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election, released a statement saying that the plan “will pit people against each other by conditioning everyone to see others through the lens of race.” He said the plan called for the use of “racially motivated hiring practices” and “harmful trainings.” Then on Monday, he said at a news conference that he has “lost all faith” in Green, feels misled by the university chancellor, and no longer believes anything he says. The chancellor, Ricketts implied, is discriminatory against white people.
In response to an emailed question from the Chronicle, Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesperson, noted that the university’s plan cites a definition of antiracism set forth by Ibram X. Kendi, the Boston University history professor and founder of its Center for Antiracist Research. Gage then pointed to a quotation from Kendi himself: “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”
“The Nebraska Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race,” Gage wrote.
Kendi’s words come from his 2019 book, How to Be an Antiracist, where he wrote that racial discrimination — which he defined as “treating, considering, or making a distinction in favor or against an individual based on that person’s race” — is not inherently racist.
“If discrimination is creating equity,” Kendi wrote, “then it is antiracist.”
(Kendi was not immediately available for comment.)
Critical race theory has been mischaracterized by politicians, particularly those on the right, as discriminatory and un-American. Several states have tried to pass laws outlawing it in schools and colleges. But most experts reject those lawmakers’ interpretation of the theory, which has generally been described by scholars as an intellectual approach or framework for understanding and interrogating race, racism, and racial inequity.
Under its action plan, UNL will “attract, recruit, retain, and support students, staff, and faculty from racially minoritized populations.” It does not mention hiring people based on skin color, as the governor suggested. Six UNL scholars advised on the plan, which calls for anti-racist and inclusive teaching seminars, stronger collaboration with the local police, and a Covid-19 response that offers “protections for faculty, staff, and students from racially minoritized backgrounds,” among other recommendations.
A spokeswoman for UNL said the university would not comment further.
Amid the politicians’ criticisms, the president of the University of Nebraska system, Ted Carter, released a letter supporting UNL’s plan.
“I do believe most Nebraskans agree we can do more to make our state, our university, a more welcoming and accessible place for all,” he wrote. “Too many students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not enroll in college and graduate, and those who do don’t see enough people like them in our faculty and administrative ranks.”
A spokesperson for the University of Nebraska system office referred a request for comment to UNL and said that Carter “values the good working relationship he has with the governor and elected leaders.”
The politicians’ efforts come after a resolution that said critical race theory should not be “imposed” on system campuses was voted down last summer by the University of Nebraska system’s Board of Regents. Pillen had proposed the resolution not long after announcing his run for governor. In response, the six scholars leading the university’s Journey for Anti-Racism and Racial Equity released a statement calling the resolution a “politically constructed cultural war intending to hamper progress in dismantling racism.”
“The very act of banning the dialogue that Critical Race Theory demands is indeed the promotion of silencing and repression,” they wrote. “The proposed resolution is doing exactly what it claims to oppose.”