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These Billionaires are Bankrolling the Booming Anti-Racism Racket
Woke consultancies are weaponizing identity claims to fight for the expansion of charter schools.
Last week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appeared on CNN to discuss the emergence of critical race theory as the newest theater of the culture war. She began by noting that the term “critical race theory” refers to a particular tradition of legal and academic scholarship - one that isn’t taught below the college level, and certainly not in public grade schools. The right wing, she said, is conflating this term with any discussion of the role of race in US history and society, with the goal of inciting a moral panic.
All true so far. But then she suggested that the left shouldn’t just play defense on the question of racial pedagogy. Even if critical race theory isn’t being taught in schools, she argued that some other kind of anti-racist education should be, and questioned the motives of anyone dissenting from that opinion: “Why don’t you want our schools to teach anti-racism? Why don’t Republicans want their kids to know the tradition of anti-racism in the United States?”
I can’t speak for Republicans, but how’s this for a reason: the models of anti-racism now dominant in the education sector are an outgrowth of the charter school industry, funded by billionaires, and deliberately minimize the importance of class analysis.
Charter advocates have long appealed to concern for black and brown students in underperforming public schools to legitimize their push for privatization. But as the power of identity has grown in liberal culture, the industry has become the locus of a sprawling network of consultancies, NGOs, and for-profit firms sowing the politics of race reductionism throughout the professional class. Back in May, I reported on Dianne Morales’ deep connections to these segments of the charter industry, and how her particularly intense brand of identitarian rhetoric was a product of that milieu.
So yes, there really is an elite conspiracy to turn public schools into re-education camps for a poisonous racial ideology. But as usual, the right is too high on its own supply to grasp the true nature of this phenomenon. It isn’t the cultural Marxists who are behind it, working to the subvert the white imperium from within. It’s all the usual Draculas of the ruling class, looking to advance a goal the right itself has pursued for decades: the privatization of public education.
To see how this racket operates, let’s trace the connections that flow from one of the charter industry’s most important nodes: an entity called NewSchools Venture Fund.
NSVF was founded in 1998 as a project of the venture capitalist duo John Doerr and Brook Byers, who made their names at the legendary Silicon Valley investment house Kleiner Perkins. Just a year after setting up NSVF, Doerr would approve $12.5 million in seed money for two enterprising young Stanford graduates to develop a company around their newfangled internet search algorithm. After the success of the Google deal, Doerr got in on the ground floor of other tech giants like Amazon, DoorDash, and Slack over the next two decades. Today, his net worth is nearly $14 billion.
What was the purpose of NSVF? According to a speech Doerr gave in February 2000, no less a task than solving the country’s single greatest challenge:
“I think education is the biggest problem we have as a nation, and we have yet to face up to it.” Doerr explained his focus on education and literacy by saying that “education is the key” for a new economy characterized by, and based upon, lifelong learning, multiple careers, and the acquisition and creation of intellectual property.
He called for the development of more charter schools and stricter standards of school accountability. He stressed the importance of private-sector organizations in helping public schools improve their curricula and their methods of working with disadvantaged children.
Doerr also spoke of his lobbying efforts in California, where he has urged state lawmakers to support legislation favorable to charter schools and to repeal laws that impede them.
Over the next 23 years, NSVF sunk close to $350 million into over 1,000 different initiatives promoting the privatization of public schools. The fund’s model involves acting as a broker between major philanthropies and the cadre of professionals tasked with implementing the charter industry’s agenda on the ground. The philanthropies - and occasionally the individual oligarchs behind them - write big checks to NSVF to do the legwork of identifying promising grantees and monitoring their efforts.
Charters were an easier sell at the end of history. The neoliberal consensus had gone bipartisan, and the “new economy” talking points in Doerr’s remarks were sufficient for almost everyone, with a few paeans to diversity thrown in for sentimental liberals. But eventually that got a little stale, and the industry began leaning more heavily into the aesthetic of racial justice to validate its goals. Just this year, NSVF announced that it would add an entire “Racial Equity” category to its core areas of investment:
People [of color] have suffered disproportionately from COVID’s impact, from police violence and hate attacks, from threats to their jobs, housing, health and more. All of this is a result of America’s structural and institutional racism.
That’s why we’ve created a new Racial Equity investment area…There is rich, hard-won wisdom in communities of color — and we trust it. We’re ceding power…We don’t pretend to have all the answers; instead, we’ll help you bring powerful, imaginative ideas to life that reach toward a racially equitable education system — a bedrock of American antiracism.
But who exactly is ceding this power? And how did they get it in the first place?
On its website, NSVF gives the names of 38 donors who contributed to the fund from 2018-2021, and notes three more who are anonymous. Among those whose identities are public, at least 16 are billionaires or the personal foundations of billionaires.
Bill Oberndorf is a major Republican donor and chair of the American Federation for Children, the pro-charter lobby group led by Betsy DeVos until Oberndorf took over in 2017. Charles Schwab is another top GOP donor who’s given tens of millions to far-right candidates, and helped bankroll Donald Trump’s legal defense. John Overdeck dropped a quarter million to help Republicans keep the House in 2016.
But don’t think it’s only the GOP looking to invest in anti-racism. Oil and gas barons Lynn and Stacy Schusterman are major Democratic donors (though they also support a bevy of right-wing Zionist organizations). NSVF founder John Doerr has given millions to Democratic candidates for federal office, and so has Sheryl Sandberg.
And let’s not forget the ultra-millionaires who support NSVF. Jesse Rogers is an investor who made a killing by suckering low-income borrowers into car loans they couldn’t afford, and gutting companies like Payless Shoes through leveraged buyouts. He dropped a quarter million of his own trying to elect Mitt Romney in 2012. David G. Bradley is the former publisher of The Atlantic, notorious for his lavish parties popular with famous journalists and politicians. He organizes seminars for corporations like Citigroup and AstraZeneca, which pay him for access to his influential friends.
As it turns out, the project of anti-racism in education is being advanced by fortunes built on the exploitation of the working class, the immiseration of communities of color, the destruction of the environment, and the erosion of democracy. That begs the question: what exactly do they mean when they say they’re committed to anti-racism?
In 2018, NSVF awarded a grant of $102,500 to Diversity Talks LLC, a consultancy that sells anti-racism workshops and related professional development services, primarily to clients in the education sector. The grant was its first national investment and enabled it to hire its first two full-time employees, including a CEO. NSVF gave another $180,000 the following year.
Diversity Talks’ virtual anti-racism training includes such seminars as: “White Folks (Part I): We Have to Talk About Race,” and “White Folks (Part II): A Call to Action.” According to their website:
“Our workshops offer meaningful learning and reflection opportunities for participants of all racial identities, while issuing a clear call to action for those upholding current systems of white supremacy. By examining how the concept of ‘whiteness’ influences various existent systems within the United States, this training creates space for white folks and people of color alike to reflect on their individual and collective contributions to the larger systems around us.
It challenges folks to have the courage to lean into discomfort and engage in conversation-based learning through a lens of empathy; especially for white folks who may be grappling with racial privilege and the responsibilities associated with those privileges.”
This year, the firm debuted a new program called the “National Abolitionist Leader Fellowship,” which it describes as “a 12-month intensive fellowship aimed at training and supporting teachers looking to decolonize themselves and their classrooms.” Abolition and decolonization, brought to you by Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Microsoft.
Two elements of Diversity Talks’ work are important to note. First, it doesn’t provide services to students or children. Instead, it focuses on recruiting educators who can serve as vectors for the transmission of its ideas in their classrooms. Second, while Diversity Talks primarily works with schools, school districts, and colleges, it also peddles its wares to businesses and nonprofit organizations. Similar consultancies do the same thing, which is how this particular strain of esoteric vernacular has leaked from its charter school laboratories and spread to the rest of the professional class.
For example, in 2018, NSVF made a grant of $205,000 to the Fellowship for Race and Equity in Education as one of its founding investors. Perhaps realizing this name limited is potential client base, the firm quickly rebranded as The Equity Lab, and now provides consulting services to “organizations that are ready and committed to becoming anti-racist leaders for equity.” How does one become an anti-racist leader? Here’s how The Equity Lab describe its theory of change:
We believe that individuals' mindsets will serve as the primary engine for disrupting and positively changing the organizations, institutions, structures, and systems that maintain racism and oppression.
We believe that change comes from within…We work to transform the knowledge base, mindsets, and daily behavior of cross-sector organizations and individuals so they view and act in their roles, both present and future, with an equity lens.
Turns out white supremacy really is all in your head. The firm also promotes the mindfulness solution to racial oppression through a series of fellowship programs offered exclusively to educators and school administrators. Past participants include executives at dozens of charter schools and major charter management networks all over the country, and high-level administrators in public school districts like Chicago, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Washington DC.
Also in 2018, NSVF approved a grant of $387,500 to the National Equity Project, yet another anti-racism consultancy that works with a broad range of organizations to help them “acknowledge and make meaning of the historical and ongoing impacts of racism and white supremacy.” According to Lashawn Chatmon, the project’s Executive Director, this is especially critical in the realm of public education:
“From the beginning, schools in the United States were designed to benefit and affirm the values and culture of the white people in power. Over time, this white dominant culture shaped the educational structures and policies that articulate how children are expected to behave, communicate, and interact.
Today, how learning is organized and evaluated is still rooted in an acceptance of whiteness as “natural” and “normal.” The presumption that students from a culture outside this “norm” come to school with deficits—in their intelligence, families, culture, or communities—is built into the DNA of public education.”
Would it surprise you to learn that before it adopted its current branding, the National Equity Project was called the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, and received nearly $50 million from the Gates Foundation to administer the partial privatization of the Oakland Unified School District? This resulted in the achievement gap between white and Hispanic students decreasing by 18 points from 2005-2012, while the gap between white and black students increased by nine points, thanks to resources getting sucked out of black neighborhoods and funneled to the rest of the city. Chatmon took over as Executive Director in 2007, and the group changed its name in 2010 to appeal to a national anti-racism market.
Today, the organization that presided over this miscarriage of racial justice is raking in cash to teach school districts and local governments across the country about how to combat the white supremacy inherent in public education.
This would all be bad enough if it were purely a money grab by the striver class, or even a power grab by the ruling class, that had no additional antisocial consequences. But there’s actually a large body of evidence to suggest that most diversity training is wildly counterproductive. Columbia University sociologist Musa al-Gharbi provides a comprehensive review of the literature on this topic:
Many of the approaches to training people how to navigate and utilize diversity were implemented by corporations, non-profits and universities before their effectiveness had been tested rigorously (if at all).
Generally speaking, they do not increase diversity in the workplace, they do not reduce harassment or discrimination, they do not lead to greater intergroup cooperation and cohesion – consequently, they do not increase productivity.
Other times, they can fail to improve negative perceptions about the target group, yet increase negative views about others. For instance, an empirical investigation of ‘white privilege’ training found that it did nothing to make participants more sympathetic to minorities – it just increased resentment towards lower-income whites.
Implicit attitudes are one of the most commonly relied-upon constructs in contemporary diversity-related training. However, there are severe problems with these constructs…it is not clear precisely what is being measured on implicit attitude tests; implicit attitudes do not effectively predict actual discriminatory behavior; most interventions to attempt to change implicit attitudes are ineffective.
Its own ineffectiveness might not be such a bad thing for the anti-racism industrial complex, all things considered. Actually reducing the scope of racial oppression in society would be bad for business. And for that matter, so would dwelling too much on another kind of oppression shared by the vast majority of people in every racial group.
In 2007, NSVF partnered with the Aspen Institute to launch a new joint project called the Aspen-NewSchools Fellowship. Essentially, it was a training camp to equip pro-charter professionals with research and talking points to push for the privatization of public schools within their own networks. Kim Smith, the nonprofit administrator John Doerr recruited to co-found NSVF with him and actually run the thing, led its development. In 2012, the fellowship was spun off as a separate entity and rebranded as the Pahara Institute, though its work remained the same. Smith departed NSVF to be Pahara’s first CEO the same year.
While the race reductionism of all the various entities we’ve discussed so far is fairly explicit, Pahara really takes it to the next level. From their website:
“While we are committed to eradicating all types of inequity, we center issues of race and racism as first order priorities...It has been posited that centering race is insufficient as a means to fighting inequity and that centering and prioritizing wealth, or economic equity would, in fact, be the greatest lever for positive change.
Given the disproportionate economic outcomes in America based on race, we adhere to a different theory and order of operations. We believe that eradicating racism is perhaps the most powerful thing we can do in service of economic equity.”
Over the past decade, the institute has trained hundreds of education professionals in class eliminationism through its fellowship program. As I reported back in May, one of them was Dianne Morales, which accounts for the particularly intense identitarian rhetoric that became the hallmark of her campaign. Guess who else was in Morales’ 2016 fellowship cohort: Lashawn Chatmon, Executive Director of the National Equity Project, and Michelle Molitor, Executive Director of The Equity Lab.
So not only are key figures responsible for the development of anti-racism curricula in public schools financially backed by some of the most wicked elements of the ruling class, their ideological posture explicitly deemphasizes the role of class analysis in ameliorating educational disparities.
That will come as a relief to Reed Hastings, the billionaire founder and CEO of Netflix, who serves on Pahara’s board. He can rake in the obscene wealth he pours into pro-charter advocacy without worrying that any will be confiscated until racism has been extirpated from the hearts and minds of a sufficient number of his fellow Americans. It’s not bad for Pahara either. Hastings is personally bankrolling the construction of its new home on a 2,100-acre luxury ranch in Colorado to serve as the permanent retreat location for its fellowship. No wonder they’re so interested in catering to “leaders identifying as right-of-center politically.”