After Sashi McEntee was elected mayor of Mill Valley, California, it wasn't too long before the first woman, and the first person of color, to be elected to the position was smeared as a racist. That smear didn't stay in the press, either, but landed fully formed as part of an anti-racism assignment at the middle school where her own daughter attends.
McEntee was made aware of the assignment by another 8th grade parent at the school. The parent alerted McEntee to it, sharing an image of the online assignment. The assignment on "Racism in America" gave 8th graders a "bingo card" of articles that they could use to explore racism in America, and more locally in Mill Valley. McEntee was one of the examples of "local racism."
The graphic links to a number of high profile news and opinion articles about racism and incidents classified as racist. These include excerpts from Peggy McIntosh's 1989 essay on "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" and an article about Amy Cooper, the notorious "Central Park Karen" whose case turned out to be far more complicated than initial reports indicated. Stories detailing systemic racism courtesy of Ben & Jerry's ice cream makers, an article describing the difference between "looting and finding," are accompanied by stories about "how to raise a black son in America."
As well as national stories, the graphic has local stories, including a few that reference McEntee's tenure as mayor, and directly identify her as racist. The basis for the claim that she is racist stems from a June 1, 2020, City Council meeting. During the open question period, Council was asked about a non-agenda items, a sign that the questioner had posted on a Mill Valley bus stop reading "white silence is violence," which was removed after 12 hours. The public commenter asked: “Our question is simple: What is Mill Valley doing to show that black lives matter?”
"It is our council policy that we do not take action on issues that are not of immediate local importance," McEntee said, "But we appreciate hearing everybody's comments."
George Floyd had just been killed by Officer Derek Chauvin in a Minneapolis parking lot only five days prior. The summer of civil unrest had barely begun, and the City Council had a policy of not commenting on national matters. The policy per the City Council reads: "The City Council will not take a position for or against issues which are State or National in scope, unless the particular issue directly relates to the City’s ability to govern and/or to provide services to its residents."
For her comment, McEntee was reported to be racist, to not care about Black Lives Matter, and to be a white supremacist. In response, McEntee, the child of South Asian immigrants, issued two apologies, which appear to have been removed from the City of Mill Valley site, the first on June 3, and the second on June 5. Both are thoughtful responses to the community that took her comments out of context. She wrote: "I deeply apologize for my choice of words at the council meeting. This is a sensitive moment, and I didn't acknowledge the community's deep sense of hurt and anger. For that I am truly sorry."
Both of the articles that the "Racism in America" lesson linked to referencing McEntee were opinion stories, not news, with obvious bias against McEntee. Local high school newspaper The Tam News called McEntee's comments "bizarre and racist," and claimed that her statement of apology did not contain an apology, despite her saying outright that she deeply apologized.
"And if your knowledge of how systemic racism affects our community," the article continued, "or your willingness to hold yourself and others accountable for that damage, begins and ends with McEntee McEntee — then Black Lives Matter is not, to you, of immediate local importance. All of us have work to do."
The Marin Independent Journal said that McEntee "apologized a non-apology at a Black Lives Matter rally," and that "...she apologized some more and last week council members gathered the community to address racial injustice and systemic racism in the city." It went on to link McEntee's comments to perceived housing and education inequity in Mill Valley.
The 8th grade assignment given by social studies teacher Kate McLaughlin went beyond the "bingo card" of local and national racism, and continued with students being asked to write on a poster board what "examples" they had seen "of racism in Mill Valley or in the Bay Area?" Others asked, "What role does white privilege play in racism in America?" and "What would you do to combat racism?"
According to a mother who had a student in that class, responses to the question of examples of local racism included "the mayor." In response to what they would do to combat racism, one student wrote "go on social media, call them out so that they can be fired from their job," the mother said.
"Our 8th grader came home from school," that mother, who declined to be named, told The Post Millennial, "and said 'in class today they asked us to give specific examples of racism that we've seen up close.' And it wasn't 'have you seen racism locally,' it was 'show me examples.' And so they gave the kids some links to source from."
McEntee heard about the posters, and the "Racism in America" assignment, from that mother, and then she called the school to find out what was going on and why McLaughlin was teaching that a Mill Valley Middle School student's mother, who was the first woman of color to serve as mayor of Mill Valley, was racist.
One of the links was "the Marin Independent Journal, and one was to Tam News, which is the local high school newspaper, written by a high school student," that mother said. When she saw the article about McEntee, calling her a racist, she said: "I was sick to my stomach, because not only is she a personal friend who was drawn and quartered in the public square because of something that she said in a 10 second response to something that wasn't on the agenda, she has a daughter at the school in the same grade."
"It made me furious that they were using that as a reference tool," she said, "a lawyer would say that's leading the witness." She believes that talking about racism is "important," but felt that this lesson was "almost making trouble where there isn't any." To this mom's way of thinking, "we've already lost nearly two years of quality education," and there's no time for this kind of lesson given the amount of learning loss during the pandemic.
This lesson, she believes, is "agenda driven," and other parents she's spoken to, including parents who have mixed-race children, also think it's "ridiculous" and "causing tribalism in a way."
As to how McEntee was treated, she said "I think the worst thing that you can say to somebody is that they're racist."
McEntee told The Post Millennial that she relayed to the school that "it really wasn't about that there were stories about me, it was that this was presented uncritically as evidence of racism, and not part of a discussion." She would have been "absolutely willing," she said, "to speak to the teacher, speak to the class," alongside someone who was opposed to her and what she had said, "so that they could have heard both sides and drawn their own conclusions."
"That's not the discussion that was had," McEntee said. "The kids were given a series of links, telling them what opinions they should have, and then they were essentially tested on those opinions."
"If you're telling kids what opinion to have," McEntee said, "that's indoctrination. If you're talking about issues and helping them break it down and analyze it, and look at it from different angles, that is practicing critical thinking skills."
McEntee said that most parents won't speak up about social justice lessons that they think go to far into indoctrination as opposed to education because they fear the same kind of retaliation that McEntee received, or backlash against their children. McEntee has been called "a white supremacist" and told that she's been "internally colonized."
But because she's not white and not male, she's able to continue speaking out despite these accusations, and believes it would be substantially harder for white parents. "I can say something," she said, "and so I have felt an obligation to do so. But it is exhausting. I can't be the only one. And there's no place for people to voice any of these objections."
If discrimination exists in Mill Valley, McEntee believes it is one of class discrimination. During the summer of 2020, when civil unrest swept across the US, those McEntee heard from workers in her community that felt looked down on by the snobby elitism of some in what is colloquially known as "Me Valley."
After the City Council meeting in June 2020, local 18-year-old, Paul Law, who had just graduated from Tamalpais High School, saw the video of McEntee saying, essentially, that City Council would not be commenting on the national Black Lives Matter movement, and started a petition for her removal. It did not reach the necessary number of signatures on Change.org, but it got within 1,300.
He was quoted in one of the articles linked, in the Marin Independent Journal, about his own activism and his calls for McEntee to be removed. "It made me frustrated," Law said of McEntee's comments. "As a colored kid in a town that is not diverse, I wished that the council members were more vocal and would take a stand to fight against racial injustices."
McEntee, fully believing that she was upholding City Council bylaws in saying that the Council would not be giving a comment on the national movement, did apologize for what she had said. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle called "Mill Valley mayor apologizes amid backlash for dismissing Black Lives Matter," the apology was essentially deemed to be not enough.
Mill Valley is an 89.08 percent white town in the uber rich Bay Area. 4.97 percent of the population is Asian, 4.64 percent are two or more races, and 1.17 percent are black. The median income in Mill Valley is nearly $90,000, and the median home price is $1.7 million.
Another petition was launched for McEntee's removal, calling for her to "take a pledge created by President Barack Obama that calls on local leaders to commit to addressing police use-of-force policies." The two petitions combined were signed by more people than live in Mill Valley.
In McEntee's statement after the meeting, she wrote that she personally stands "with the protesters and those calling for justice for the Floyd family." And "As to the question of how Mill Valley shows that black lives matter," she wrote, "I ask the community to join with me in the conversation."
And then she, and the Council, took action. They created a public portal to encourage citizens to come forward and bring their suggestions, so that "that those who live and work in Mill Valley can assist us in identifying and developing solutions to address systemic inequities and injustices in our communities." McEntee was open, direct, and forthright, despite the fact that what she said, and how it was interpreted, were two drastically and dramatically different things.
McEntee put together a gathering only a few days later where the community could come together, albeit socially distanced, share their experiences, and bring their ideas to "make meaningful change towards ending systemic inequities and injustices" in this small town. She again noted her regret at her choice of words at the meeting, saying "I recognize the pain that my comments caused, and I am committed to bring positive action to our community."
Despite all this, or perhaps because McEntee was so open to working with the community on making Black Lives Matter a local issue, the news about her comments, and dragging her through the proverbial mud, did not stop.
Almost a year later, the matter was still a sticking point for activists who wanted to alleviate what they believed was the racism in Mill Valley. On a March 2021 podcast with KQED called "'All Eyes Should Be on Marin': A Racial Reckoning in the Bay’s Whitest County," the matter was again raised. Host Devin Katayama asked his guest "Marin County is white and wealthy by design. So after the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests for racial justice, what went down in the Bay Area's whitest county?"
Amber Allen-Peirson, a local activist who had protested against McEntee after that meeting, said: "It's like there's no Black people here, so we don't have to worry about this issue." And the duo tracked through the previous year's comment during the June 1, 2020, City Council meeting.
Katayama said: "Residents in Mill Valley have been in a back and forth with its local city council to make systemic change. And it hasn't been easy. Today, what it's like trying to undo systemic racism in the whitest counties in the Bay Area. I'm Devin Katayama. Welcome to The Bay."
Allen-Peirson said: "In Marin County in general and in Mill Valley, there is no accountability for racism."
McEntee shared the details of that phone call with The Post Millennial, saying that the school told her they would look into it and would take the links referencing McEntee out of the google classroom "bingo card" assignment.
Dr. Kimberly Berman, Superintendent of the Mill Valley School District emailed McEntee on Nov. 12, saying: "The article link has been removed and an [sic] alternate material will be in the future. Both teachers were apologetic to have caused an uncomfortable situation."
McEntee was relieved. She likes the school. She's happy with the education her daughter is receiving, and she loves the community in Mill Valley.
But on Nov. 18, the links were still live. McEntee reached back out to Dr. Berman, letting her know that it was still up. "The link is still active on Google Classroom as of today," she wrote, "as reported by a parent in that class. This parent reported that her child was uncomfortable and felt he had to answer that the mayor of Mill Valley was an example of racism in Mill Valley."
McEntee told Berman that her daughter had asked Ms. McLaughlin about it, "and was given a dismissive answer." McEntee had additional concerns about the "anti-racist" curriculum at the school, and told Berman that she had reached out to another teacher to talk about that, and "teaching of the 1619 Project as fact," but that she is "supportive of teachers having different views" than she does. Her primary concern, too, about the "bingo card" and McLaughlin's lesson is that "the kids are being told what opinions to have rather than being taught to examine their own value and look for evidence to support their views."
Berman replied that one of the articles was removed, and another was not removed due to an oversight. The issue of indoctrination versus education was not addressed. When asked about the incident, Berman told The Post Millennial that "When staff were made aware that an article included information on a current parent, the materials were removed."
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