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Black 'whitesplaining'? DEI dogma prompts legal threats from ideologically disparate legal groups

Community college says it's ditching DEI faculty director, who challenges "critical social justice orthodoxy" and claims retaliation, because she's not collegial enough.

Published: March 14, 2023 4:30pm

Updated: March 14, 2023 11:09pm

Diversity, equity and inclusion policies and practices are in the crosshairs of ideologically disparate public interest law groups, showing the campaign against institutionalized race essentialism and "neoracism" has legs beyond the political right.

The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, cofounded by black intellectuals including "Woke Racism" author and Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, is representing Tabia Lee, tenure-track faculty director of the Office of Equity, Social Justice, and Multicultural Education at Silicon Valley's De Anza College. 

The college declined to renew Lee's contract due to her advocacy of "multiple approaches in performing anti-racism work" and refusing to coddle a Black Lives Matter founder, among other violations of the "critical social justice orthodoxy at De Anza," Lee, who is black, wrote in a statement.

Neither the job description nor the hiring process mentioned "working only under certain ideological frameworks for anti-racism," she wrote in an email. "I have not ruled out a lawsuit." FAIR staff attorney Leigh Ann O'Neill said Lee would have a "very strong" case.

The Legal Insurrection Foundation, the nonprofit research arm of Cornell law professor William Jacobson's conservative website, recently launched the Equal Protection Project to handle its DEI-related advocacy and litigation, including a suit against a Rhode Island school district's racially exclusive loan forgiveness program.

Jacobson told Just the News the project "is a way to focus our actions moving forward and to generate tips and new cases (which are already coming in but not filed yet since we just launched)." Its litigation director Ameer Benno is a former Manhattan assistant district attorney.

Lee's March 6 nonrenewal letter from Foothill-De Anza Community College District, which Just the News reviewed among many other materials she shared, cited her "[p]ersistent inability" to cooperate with colleagues and staff and "[u]nwillingness to accept constructive criticism," now or in the future. 

Her troubles with De Anza go back to her first quarter in fall 2021, when Lee initially approached FAIR. She thanked the group in a Jan. 15 video for its help as she "navigated hostility, harassment and bullying" from employees who have "adapted a neo-Reconstructionist ideology" and tried to get her fired.

Lee's Nov. 29, 2021 report to the Academic Senate said a colleague accused her of inhibiting antiracist work because of her advocacy for "our state and local senates to remain ideologically neutral" or at least "inclusive in their resolutions and actions" and warned Lee that her words "have a large impact" on the college. 

She asked the Senate to not treat her as "the great Black hope for Equity" and to understand she could be let go "if I upset or trigger the wrong person" during the four-year tenure track process, her "director" title notwithstanding.

Her written statement says Lee's request for a "clear definition" of antiracism prompted accusations of "whitesplaining," and her calls for promptness and meeting agendas were deemed "white supremacy culture."

Lee claims she's "never had access to my office budget" or other critical information from Dean Alicia Cortez and was excluded from the Equity Action Council despite being its faculty lead.

She describes herself on the equity office page as "a tireless advocate for Faculty Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech and Expression," and her faculty page includes her record of De Anza communications and calls for her termination.

The faculty page notes she's a board member of Free Black Thought and shares her essay on the "race ideologies ... that underlie teacher training programs, socialization, and professionalism," while making clear her emphasis on broadening the notion of inclusion.

She cochaired a "Heritage Month Workgroup" that recognized Arab American, Jewish and Sikh community members, which Lee claims the Academic Senate resisted out of fear it would make De Anza "a religious school," and organized a monthlong "Jewish Inclusion and Anti-Semitism" summit partly prompted by reports to equity council.

Cortez and office staff didn't support the anti-Semitism summit, Lee wrote in an email, despite "video testimonies" from Jewish students that they were "shouted down" when presenting an anti-Semitism resolution to the student government. Lee said she was told "Jewish people were not marginalized because they are White Oppressors."

De Anza Latinx Association and Asian Pacific American Staff Association leaders called for Lee's termination after she challenged the "discriminatory racialized worldview" set forth in De Anza's proposed Educational Master Plan, citing the "invented racial terms and capitalization norms that represent and serve as Woke signifiers," such as Latinx, Filipinx and Black.

"Nobody could give me a cogent or meaningful answer" about why the Office of Research was "renaming racial categories" from the state education system, Lee told Just the News. Cortez allegedly claimed Latinos preferred Latinx, which Central Valley native Lee claimed was foreign to those working-class communities.

She also provoked opposition with a proposed moratorium on land acknowledgments as "pseudo-religious exercises that often stray far from signaling solidarity with Native Peoples" and represent "empty political posturing" that "potentially promotes racism and historical mistruths."

When she rejected BLM cofounder Alicia Garza's demand at a Zoom "fireside chat" that questions be limited to those "written by her PR handlers," Lee was accused of "disrespecting" Garza and deemed a "right-wing extremist," according to Lee's written statement.

She made last-ditch efforts to save her job this year, including an impassioned letter to the Board of Trustees alleging retaliation for filing "complaints about contractual violations, harassment, discrimination, and bullying and for my California Public Records Act Request."

Cortez's presence on her tenure review committee, which issued a "defamatory and slanderous evaluative report," is improper given that the dean and "her aligned colleagues have made every possible effort to marginalize me, undermine my leadership, and ostracize my capacity to lead" at the school, she wrote.

FAIR's O'Neill intervened days before a March meeting to consider Chancellor Judy Miner's recommendation to not renew Lee's contract, calling on De Anza to "commission an independent, private, third-party investigation" of her tenure review process and complaints.

"Lee's experience and interactions with De Anza administrators and faculty provide a possible explanation" for the charges against her, O'Neill wrote — "it seems to be their position that teaching about multiple ideologies around equity work is unacceptable."

The Foothill-De Anza Community College District "has an obligation to protect privacy in personnel matters," spokesperson Paula Norsell said. "Without commenting on any specific matter, we can share that faculty members have comprehensive due process and appeals rights both under the law and negotiated through their bargaining unit."

Cortez and the Academic Senate didn't respond to queries.

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