STAFF EDITORIAL: What is Excellence to Gov. Ricketts?

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has repeatedly criticized UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green for taking steps towards anti-racism. Photo courtesy of NET.

By Gateway Staff

After the University of Nebraska at Lincoln announced a plan to promote racial diversity on campus, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts repeatedly attacked and criticized UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green. Ricketts says that the plan imposes “Critical Race Theory” and would violate the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against white people.

“Critical Race Theory” (CRT) is not mentioned anywhere in the plan, and there is no indication that the plan would limit enrollment of white students. However, Ricketts said that references to the author Ibram X. Kendi and Kendi’s definition of anti-racism are evidence of CRT.

This marks the second time this semester that Nebraska Republicans have used the university as a platform to attack opposing viewpoints under the label of CRT. Now, two state senators are calling on Chancellor Green to resign.

Chancellor Green responded to Ricketts’ attacks, reasserting that CRT is not mentioned in the plan nor imposed on campus, and the goal is to recruit more diverse candidates.

On Tuesday, Gov. Ricketts wrote a column encouraging Nebraskans to speak during public comment at Friday’s Board of Regents meeting and oppose the plan, which is not on the agenda. No one showed up to oppose the plan. 

Our staff is deeply disturbed by the language and outright lies in Tuesday’s column, and we are in support of UNL’s plan. We share the sentiments of state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, who released a letter she wrote to the governor with concerns that he is leading the state down a “dark and potentially evil path.”

Challenging Ricketts’ Column

Gov. Ricketts’ column, titled “Choosing Educational Excellence Over Ideology,” came after a week of attacks on Chancellor Green. We found the claims made and language used in this piece to be egregious, misleading and at times racist. We took excerpts from the column to showcase the governor’s ignorance.

Chancellor Ronnie Green believes the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is racist.  Under his leadership, UNL recently released a plan to address “institutional racism” as part of its “Journey for Anti-Racism and Racial Equity.”  From racially motivated hiring practices to divisive trainings, the plan would inject Critical Race Theory (CRT) into every corner of campus.

Green never said that UNL is racist. American institutions, including higher education systems, were developed through generations of racism. Acknowledging that fact is not the same as pinning blame on the contemporary institution itself.

Ricketts claims that the plan’s promise to conduct a comprehensive review of hiring and retention data in the context of race and ethnicity is an example of “racially motivated hiring practices.” Green has said that the intention is to recruit a more diverse set of candidates for a job opening, in order to choose the best candidate possible. The “divisive trainings” Ricketts refers to are workshops for faculty and staff members on search committees to achieve that goal.

This plan is the product of ideologues — not thoughtful Nebraska academics. Needless to say, I could not be more disappointed in the Chancellor’s plan, and I completely disagree with the notion that UNL is a racist institution. UNL’s focus should be on educational excellence, not ideological indoctrination.

“Thoughtful Nebraska academics” absolutely did contribute to this plan. Chancellor Green received guidance from well-respected professors and community leaders, including Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and law professor Anna Shavers and Academic Retention Specialist Colette Yellow Robe. 

The plan does not involve “ideological indoctrination,” unless the governor believes recruiting candidates of all backgrounds or ensuring a welcoming environment for students of color are ideological.

UNL’s plan is also based on the flawed assumption that differences in outcomes among racial groups are the result of systemic racism and how people are treated based on skin color.  The data, however, doesn’t support this conclusion. The University’s plan makes the claim that racism is “often structural and embedded into systems,” however, it does not spell out specific examples of what this looks like at UNL besides vaguely stating there are “different outcomes for different groups.”  In reality, degree completion rates of White and Asian students at UNL are virtually identical.  In fact, Asian students in Nebraska (on average) display the highest measure of college degree readiness of any racial group.

The reality that differences in outcomes among racial groups are the result of systemic racism is not a flawed assumption. The governor selectively highlighted degree completion rates of Asian students, which is a textbook use of the model minority myth. Ricketts is correct that white and Asian students have very similar completion rates: 68% and 66%, respectively. But students who are not white or Asian have lower completion rates. For Black, Hispanic, Native American or Pacific Islander students, the six-year graduation rate averages to just over 49%, according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics. 

By putting forward the claim that Asian Americans are not affected by systemic racism, Ricketts disparages other people of color. If it isn’t a systemic issue, then the disparity must be the fault of individual people of color themselves. This claim is false and racist; Asian Americans are victims of racism, and people of color are not to blame for racial injustice.

The chancellor’s resource list features the writings of Critical Race Theorists like Ibram Kendi and the New York Times’ 1619 Project, while excluding the scholarly work of conservative Black intellectuals like Glenn Loury, Shelby Steele, and Robert Woodson who strongly disagree with CRT. The University’s plan gives the impression that CRT has universal scholarly support, when it clearly does not. In fact, some respected academics, including John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, have gone so far as to call CRT a new form of racism.

Gov. Ricketts cherry-picks academics who only appear to agree with him on the boogeyman of CRT, which again is not a part of the plan. John McWhorter, for example, has said systemic racism exists and should be fought, but he has disagreements with the path for doing so. Ricketts’ position hinges on the belief that systemic racism is not an issue. The governor also hypocritically ignores Black academics from the University of Nebraska because they disagree with him. 

The University’s misguided focus on achieving equity of outcomes, rather than equality of opportunities, is pushing a Marxist and communist ideology. It fails to honor our American values of respecting individual rights and focusing on excellence. And it betrays the legacy of our country’s great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who dedicated his life to the dream of Americans judging one another according to the content of their character and not skin color.

It is frankly insulting to use the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to justify a crusade against equity and education. Conservatives have made a habit out of misrepresenting King’s views, ignoring his calls for action against systemic racism.

Ricketts has also made a habit of using the words “Marxist” and “Communist” to describe anything he disagrees with, in line with right-wing media pundits. These words, of course, describe political and economic ideologies and have nothing to do with a university’s hiring practices and campus environment. But the governor has demonstrated that definitions aren’t important as long as they make a provocative headline.

Our kids deserve an education that’s free from narrow-minded ideology. Together, let’s work to keep the educational focus on excellence, not identity politics, in Nebraska.

It should not be political to advocate for anti-racist ideas, but it is not the fault of UNL that it has become politicized. It is the fault of Gov. Ricketts and other right-wing ideologues by calling his supporters to rally against the university. He has bastardized an educational debate into a political one, at the expense of Nebraska’s students, staff and faculty. 

Green has pushed the university towards taking actionable steps against racism. The governor presents this as the opposite of excellence.

What is excellence to Gov. Ricketts?

What is Critical Race Theory?
Omaha Human Rights and Relations director and part-time UNO professor Franklin Thompson said that he has taught Critical Race Theory for a long time. As a Black man, a member of the Republican party, and an educator, Thompson has a unique perspective on CRT.

Thompson said there are three ways to talk about CRT: a right way, and two wrong ways. The right way, Thompson said, is that CRT is more about power dynamics than it is about skin color.

“Every nation has an in-group and multiple out-groups,” Thompson said. “A member of the in-group has privilege, not because of skin color, but because of their position within society.”

That privilege manifests not only itself in blatantly racist institutions like slavery and segregation, but also in more subtle ways. Thompson said members of the out-group have “more hoops to jump through” to decide, and the in-group can define what is healthy, sacred and normal.

Thompson said that race is only the “lowest hanging fruit used to stratify people,” and that CRT can be used to analyze other forms of majority group privilege. Thompson used ethnic conflicts in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia as examples.

“In Rwanda, you had the Hutus as the in-group and the Tutsis were marginalized, but they were all Black,” Thompson said. “In Yugoslavia, the Serbs dogged at Albanians, even though they were all white. It’s the same principle as CRT.”
The wrong ways to talk about CRT exist on both sides of the political spectrum. Thompson said that media pundits, be it on MSNBC or Fox News, have used CRT to earn “political points.”

“Political people got a hold of a solid theory and bastardized it,” Thompson said.

Thompson said some Republicans believe that CRT is a “trick by Marxists” to start a Communist revolution. Thompson, himself a Republican who teaches CRT, said he’s a capitalist.

“If whites want to be fragile, I can’t do anything about it,” Thompson said.

Debate over CRT is a “predictable dysfunction,” Thompson said. He said those in the in-group are often blind to their own privilege, so they find ways to justify staying in that privileged position.

Thompson said those on the left sometimes mistake the point of CRT being that there’s “a snake under every rock, and the color of that snake is white.” Thompson said that the academic theory  “couldn’t care less” about an individual’s race or political affiliation, and focuses more on systems.

Originally published in a previous story for The Gateway.