What we know about the anti-CRT ads running in Wisconsin, attacking a Milwaukee teacher

Milwaukee teacher Angela Harris leads an African American pledge during a morning meeting at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, an African American immersion school.

A shadowy group has dropped over $1.7 million on Wisconsin TV ads opposing critical race theory, some of which use video of a Milwaukee teacher without her permission and out of context. 

The ads have run over 1,500 times across Wisconsin during football games, news broadcasts and game shows, according to a Journal Sentinel review of Federal Communications Commission records. The ads have also been in circulation on Hulu, where they can’t be tracked publicly. 

The focus of the ads, critical race theory, is a framework for understanding how certain public policies have caused or upheld racial inequality. The ads paint critical race theory, or CRT, as seeking to “divide” people by race.

Those who oppose critical race theory have pushed to end programs that address racial inequality, such as University of Wisconsin offices of diversity, equity and inclusion. 

The group behind the ads, Be Good To Kids LLC, has stayed quiet about its funders.

Because the ads don’t encourage viewers to vote for specific candidates, they fall in a category of political messaging where the advertisers aren’t required to share much about who they are.

“It could be anyone,” said Sarah Bryner, director of research and strategy for OpenSecrets, a national organization that tracks spending on politics. “You have a biased actor manipulating public opinion without any public accountability.”

Ads like this can be “incredibly politically consequential,” Bryner said. She pointed to anti-CRT ads in Virginia, which ran in the run-up to the election of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who made CRT a central focus of his campaign.

While the Wisconsin ads aren’t airing during an election, Bryner said they could set up candidates in the next election to capitalize on the CRT issue.

“They’re probably trying to make it part of the conversation,” Bryner said. “They think it’s an issue they can win on.”

Here’s what we know about the ads.

Who is Kory Yeshua, the man in the ‘be good to kids’ anti-CRT ads?  

Kory Yeshua speaks with his daughter in a TikTok video he posted in 2021, which is being used in ads across Wisconsin.

The ads open with a 2021 TikTok video by Kory Yeshua, a conservative social media influencer who frequently speaks against critical race theory.

In the video, Yeshua tells his daughter people can be “anything in this world” regardless of skin color. Yeshua says critical race theory “seeks to end” that way of thinking. 

Who is the Milwaukee teacher in the ‘be good to kids’ anti-CRT ads?

The longer version of the ad cuts to a 2022 TikTok video by Angela Harris, who was teaching at Milwaukee Public Schools’ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School. 

The ad implies that Harris is using critical race theory and that she “seeks to divide” by race. 

In the video, Harris is leading her students in a pledge “to the Afro-American people.” 

The school where Harris teaches is an African American immersion school, which specifically focuses on the history and culture of African Americans. 

The clip is a small portion of Harris’ longer video of the students’ morning routine, which also involves a pledge to the American flag and a morning meeting called Mbongi, where students talk about their values and goals for the day.  

Harris said she does not teach her students about critical race theory. The pledge is an opportunity for students to honor and take pride in their lineage. 

“The point of the pledge is to talk about us being kind to our community, taking care of our community and taking care of each other, and honoring our ancestors,” she said in an interview. “Being able to share that generation to generation not only impacts the students but the surrounding community.”

Stephen Davis, media relations manager for MPS, shared a district statement noting that the district does not teach critical race theory.

“An ad that recently aired utilizes video out of context and spreads misinformation about Milwaukee Public Schools and its curriculum,” the statement said.

What is critical race theory? 

“Critical race theory” is a term that dates to the 1980s, when scholars were examining why civil rights legislation had failed to end racial inequality. The term described their area of study, which sought to understand where public policies went wrong and what could be done about it.

Its founding scholars — most prominently, law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw — have reasoned that race-conscious responses, such as affirmative action, are necessary to create fairness in the face of centuries of policies upholding racial oppression. Crenshaw teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Columbia Law School.

In recent years, right-wing figures who reject the framework have galvanized campaigns against race-conscious programs, books and classes. In Wisconsin, state lawmakers have tried to ban teaching about systemic racism and dismantle offices of diversity, equity and inclusion. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty has tried to shut down scholarships and academic support prioritizing students of color. 

Those who oppose critical race theory often claim a “colorblind” worldview. They invoke Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” to have his children judged not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Crenshaw has said that King’s words were aspirational, not a reflection of the world, adding: “King set his sights on institutional-level change, calling for solutions built on the race-conscious analysis of inequalities across our society.”

Who is behind the anti-CRT ads in Wisconsin?

The ads include text that notes they were paid for by Be Good To Kids, LLC, and they link to a website under the same name, begoodtokids.com. 

The website doesn’t share any information about the individuals behind the group or offer any contact information. The domain was registered in February by Domains By Proxy, which conceals the identity of the buyer. 

Records filed with the Federal Communications Commission show that the group lists a PO Box in Washington state and the name of a treasurer, Tom Pahlke. Neither Pahlke nor the LLC show up in incorporation records in Washington or with the IRS. Calls to numbers listed for Pahlke were not returned. 

One of the most prominent CRT opponents, Christopher Rufo, lives in Washington state. He hasn’t responded to an inquiry from the Journal Sentinel.

There is an LLC under the same name registered in Ohio. The only name on the paperwork for that LLC is David Langdon, an Ohio attorney who is also listed as the registered agent for numerous organizations engaged in conservative politics. 

A 2015 Politico story referred to Langdon as a “critical behind-the-scenes player among the small army of lawyers working to keep secret the origins of millions of dollars coursing through the American political system.” Langdon didn’t return voicemails from the Journal Sentinel. 

Langdon’s connections include Midwest conservative power-player Richard Uihlein, whose Restoration political action committee funded mailers around Wisconsin in March opposing critical race theory. Langdon was listed as a contact for the Restoration PAC on a filing with the Federal Election Commission. Uihlein did not return an email from the Journal Sentinel about whether he was involved in the ads.

It’s possible that contributions to the Be Good To Kids LLC, could show up in future nonprofit or political action committee filings.

Michael Buelow, research director for the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks political spending in the state, said there should be more reporting requirements for issue-based political ads, so groups like Be Good To Kids would have to share more information.

“It’s remarkable how little you can find out about these groups,” Buelow said. “It’s a transparency problem because people should know who the messenger is and be able to judge who the messenger is and the motives behind it,”

How has the Milwaukee teacher responded?

Harris’ video has gained national attention before, when she posted it last year. Conservative influencers reposted the video, and it went viral. Soon, her school address and home address were being posted across social media, she said. 

Harris wasn’t asked or notified by Be Good to Kids LLC, about her video being used in the TV ads. At first, she said she got calls from people congratulating her for being in a commercial. 

“I was like, that’s weird, because I haven’t shot a commercial,” she said. “And then a few more people reached out to me and were like oh, it’s an anti-CRT commercial.” 

Harris said the ad seemed deliberately crafted to confuse people. 

“You use literally three seconds of a clip to use as an example of creating a racial divide — and why? Because I said something about Afro-American people?” Harris said. 

Harris said it’s important to understand that her school is designed to offer an African American Immersion environment. As MPS materials note: “AAI, the arts, and parental/community involvement are essential parts of the beloved community of Dr. King School.”

Harris said the school’s morning Mbongi routine instills pride in her students, especially as students take turns leading it for the whole school once a month. 

“Just the looks on their faces when they are standing up in front of the whole entire school, you can tell it’s something really meaningful to them,” she said. 

Harris has received messages from people saying she should be fired. 

“A lot of ‘you’re indoctrinating children,’ ‘you should lose your job,’ calling me a racist, different things like that,” said Harris, who is on leave because of an injury. “I’m on leave right now, and I’m so thankful because I don’t know if I would have been able to handle all of this and everything I would have had to have been doing in the classroom right now.” 

Harris said her experience is emblematic of what many teachers are experiencing or are worried about experiencing. She pointed to Melissa Tempel, who was fired from a Waukesha school after posting on social media about her frustrations over students not being allowed to sing “Rainbowland.” 

“Even if we are trying to do the right thing and teach children to be kind and inclusive and to love themselves, that can be used as a way to say we’re teaching CRT or indoctrinating children,” Harris said. “To know that something you say on social media or a video you post could be turned around and used against you to defame you is really scary.”

Contact Rory Linnane at rory.linnane@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RoryLinnane

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