Conservative Minnesota think tank decries equity studies in education in Marshall

By: - October 8, 2021 5:30 am

Sheila Qualls spoke out against critical race theory during an event in Marshall, Minnesota. Schools in Marshall do not teach CRT. Photo by Ruthe Thompson

MARSHALL — Kendall and Sheila Qualls appeared at an event organized by the Center of the American Experiment here recently, offering dark warnings about Marxism and the decline of the two-parent Black family, while encouraging action plans for influencing public school curriculum. 

They spoke to a crowd of about 100 at the Marshall Golf Club, eliciting applause and murmurs of assent from about half the audience. The other half looked grim. 

The Center of the American Experiment, a conservative Minnesota think tank based in Golden Valley, is working furiously in suburban and rural areas like Marshall to shape new public school social studies standards under review by the Minnesota Department of Education. 

Right wing opponents to equity and inclusion pedagogy have stirred up opposition using the term “critical race theory,” or CRT.

Critical race theory is a once little-known branch of legal scholarship that emphasizes the role of the nation’s racial history and institutions in maintaining a racial hierarchy in which white people are perpetually preeminent.  

Marshall Public School Superintendent Jeremy Williams said in an email that the school system does not teach critical race theory. 

“While I was unable to attend the event myself, we did have representation from the school,” he said. “Critical Race Theory is not something that is taught in our schools, and is not a part of our curriculum. We teach to the Minnesota state standards as we work toward our mission ‘to educate, support, and prepare all learners for success.’”

William continued: “Our world is in a state where many topics have become very controversial. When such divisive[ness] comes up, we present multiple perspectives and encourage our students to respectfully form their own opinions and viewpoints.”

The Qualls have their own organization that aims to counter the idea that systemic racism has held Black Americans back from economic and social progress. 

Sheila Qualls, who maintains a blog advocating strong Christian marriages and offers marriage coaching to women, claims CRT grew out of Marxism.

According to Qualls, “CRT is not about reducing or studying the effects of racism. It uses race as a facade to attack America [and] transforms education from the free exchange of ideas to indoctrination.”

John Coulter, a retired history teacher from the small town of Tracy near Marshall, agreed with the Qualls’ argument. 

“America has made so much progress. [CRT] is basically a system to divide us.” He described having seen segregated drinking fountains and bathrooms in his youth. “It’s important that we teach how the Army was segregated,” he said. “But people have filled themselves with hate and anger. It’s insanity.”

Kendall Qualls

The Center of the American Experiment and TakeCharge Minnesota, an organization founded by Kendall Qualls in 2020 after an unsuccessful bid against U.S. House Rep. Dean Phillips to represent Minnesota’s 3rd District, maintain that racism is less common than being portrayed in the media and can be overcome. The solution to Black poverty, they argue, is a two-parent family.  

Both organizations are urging local conservatives to run for school boards and city council seats and encouraging local activism to fight discussions of systemic racism as part of the public-school curriculum. 

In her Marshall presentation, Sheila Qualls asserted that “Critical theorists had to find a way to package [their ideas] so their Marxist ideology would not only seem acceptable but necessary in our society. They inserted the little emotionally charged word race.” 

She added: “Critical theory morphed in its entirety into critical race theory, and it worked its way into an academic discipline in our country in 1989.” 

Qualls’s history is inaccurate: Studies of systemic racism began in the legal field, as scholars began to examine how race affected the justice system. An article by the American Bar Association states that CRT 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.” 

Sheila Qualls’ remarks, along with Kendall Qualls’ story of having come from poverty to find professional and economic success in the corporate world, brought half the audience to their feet in brief ovations. The other half of the audience remained largely muted. 

A group of Southwest Minnesota State University professors there were unimpressed, noting that the Qualls event did not include a question-and-answer period for the free exchange of ideas. SMSU Communications Studies professor Rich Herder said that while the Qualls’ life stories were inspiring, their claims about critical race theory do not add up. 

“The bottom line for me is that they made apocalyptic claims, but failed to back them up with compelling evidence. In the academy as in the courts, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” he said. 

Herder said they were engaging in red-baiting. 

“We have seen this show before. In the 1950s Sen. Joseph McCarthy inspired some Americans to see Communist conspirators around every corner,” he said. “In the end, of course, Sen. McCarthy was proven wrong. The message we heard may have been shot through with distorted claims and obvious fallacies, but as happened with Joe McCarthy half a century ago, that is not going to keep some people from believing it.”

When I hear this kind of a discussion, I feel like I’m grading a C- paper.

– Joan Gittens, an emeritus professor of history

Matt Coleman, a Marshall school board member who attended the presentation, said he’s not concerned about critical race theory, for now. “[CRT] is so new to me that I don’t really know much about it. In this part of the state, I’m not concerned about it yet. The way the Qualls talk about it, I got the sense that it’s a problem in the city schools.”    

Marshall is a conservative farming community of 13,000 and overwhelmingly favored Republican candidates in the 2016 and 2020 elections. The Qualls’ presentation was held mid-day. Few people with full-time jobs attended. The crowd was composed primarily of people in their mid-60s and older. 

“They’re preaching to the choir,” said Joan Gittens, an emeritus professor of history now teaching adjunct courses at SMSU. 

“When I hear this kind of a discussion, I feel like I’m grading a C- paper. All the struggles that you have, first of all trying to understand what they’re saying, and secondly trying to parse it so that it becomes at least semi-coherent: I’ve done that so many times in teaching that I can’t bear to do it in my civilian life.”

TakeCharge Minnesota and the Center of the American Experiment will continue their talking tour in rural communities throughout the state as the Department of Education’s revision of social studies standards proceeds. 

Thus far, they have no plans for presentations in urban Minnesota, according to their organizational staff.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ruthe Thompson
Ruthe Thompson

Ruthe Thompson teaches a variety of classes in literature, writing and composition at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.