OPINION — State Senator Reynold Nesiba spoke to the Oceti Sakowin Caucus about Governor Kristi Noem’s anti-critical race theory rhetoric, attacks on diversity, and the future of South Dakota’s higher education institutions. The outspoken Democratic legislator, who serves as Professor of Economics at Augustana University, has called the governor’s assault on academic freedom un-American.

At the heart of the discussion was Noem’s letter to the Department of Education in which she said South Dakota’s public universities should not teach certain concepts of race and racism. The letter was released on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.

This calculated move is part of the latest culture war on critical race theory (CRT) by conservatives who are attempting to suppress free thought about American history. But what is CRT? According to the American Bar Association, it is a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship.

The senator shared that he sent Tiffany Sanderson, South Dakota Secretary of Education, an article he co-authored and published in 2003 titled, The Changing Face of Inequality. The article, which was funded by the National Sound Science Foundation and published in a sociology journal, talks about how segregation led to discrimination in mortgage lending.

 “I asked, ‘Would this article count as critical race theory? Is this an idea that you’re banning? Are my ideas so dangerous that nobody at our Board of Regents institutions could be talking about it?’”

Anderson, who was appointed as the education secretary by Gov. Noem, has been outspoken against CRT, publicly slamming purposed outlines for educational and civics grants, singling out example activities for “Projects That Incorporate Racially, Ethnically, Culturally, and Linguistically Diverse Perspectives into Teaching and Learning.”

Nesiba said the actions of the Republican supermajority legislature, governor, and education secretary are “problematic” and even if their push to ban CRT is successful, the prohibition is unenforceable.

“You are saying you’re banning an idea, but Noem doesn’t tell us who’s in, who’s out, what you can teach, and what ideas are in or out. It’s not clear who decides that these ideas are un-American. Are we going to have an un-American committee to see if these ideas are dangerous?”

Teaching about broken treaties, racially-based tribal tax agreements, and Indigenous history may soon be deemed un-American if conservatives have their way.

“What if a student raises a question about a Jim Crow law or raises a question about segregation or criminal justice policies, or the legacy of slavery? Our colleges need to be a place where there is open and free debate. This movement across the country to try and stifle debate is really deeply problematic.”

Sen. Nesiba explained that when he moved to his district 26 years ago, the Sioux Falls School District was 90 percent white and 10 percent diverse. It is now 60 percent white and 40 percent diverse, and while it’s becoming one or two percent more diverse every year, the number of white high school students is flat or declining. Given this trend, in another five years, the state’s largest school district will be majority-diverse.

“We need people of color to succeed in South Dakota. We need them to be embraced. They are our future leaders. They are going to be in the labor market. We need our white students to be able to learn intercultural communication skills to be able to get along with their Native boss or their African American boss or their Jewish boss. We need people to have cross-cultural competencies. You can’t just say that we can’t talk about racial issues.”

Republican legislators, including the governor, have routinely talked about wanting to ban funding for diversity, equity and inclusion at South Dakota’s public universities. This past legislative session, Rep. Liz May introduced a proposal to strip $275,000 in general funds from the University of South Dakota’s diversity office, while Gov. Noem issued a letter to the Board of Regents instructing them to investigate whether diversity offices have experienced “mission creep”.

These actions have already negatively impacted South Dakota’s higher education institutions — employees at one university said that people have been withdrawing their employment applications, according to the Democratic senator.

 “If you are overtly speaking against critical race theory, you’re saying diversity, equity and inclusion is not important in your state. What happens is your diversity, equity, and inclusion people leave. You don’t even have to make the decision at the legislative level, because the governor has chilled the environment in such a way that it’s really difficult to be able to fill those jobs. Noem wins already, simply by talking about it.”

 Gov. Noem’s radical right-wing agenda of assaulting academic freedom and diversity have been an audible whistle for her prospects as a national candidate.

 “She is saying, ‘Hey, if you are a white nationalist somewhere in America, I’m your candidate. You should be sending me a check because I’m the one standing up for white people and white nationalism.’ As a white progressive-minded person, I find that frightening. I can only imagine what that feels like for people of color across the country and in South Dakota. It feels chilling for anybody who isn’t white and conservative in South Dakota. I think that must be her goal — maybe she doesn’t want us here.”

These coordinated attacks by Republicans will have dire consequences for South Dakota, and the outlook isn’t good, said Nesiba.

“If we are not more successful at recruiting and retaining students of color at our universities, universities are going to close. This is an existential crisis for our universities.”

The South Dakota Democratic Party believes the people of South Dakota have the right to a quality public education and that investing in life-long education is crucial to our democracy and our state’s economic development. The SDDP advocates for academic freedom and respect of all cultures, religions and languages across all levels of our public education system, including implementing the adoption of the Oceti Sakowin standards.

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