Two days after voters declared them finalists to become Chicago’s next mayor, Brandon Johnson raised issues with Paul Vallas’ past remarks where he said critical race theory in schools was harming families and taking emphasis off more important subjects.
Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, and Johnson, a Cook County commissioner and an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, have feuded over their stark differences on crime and public education. But the latest controversy highlights that race will play a role in the face-off between them.
Since he declared victory Tuesday for the April 4 runoff election, Johnson has gone on the offensive against Vallas in an attempt to define him as an ineffective leader who won’t represent Chicago’s minority community. Vallas, meanwhile, has been working to build support from Black political leaders, including unveiling an endorsement Thursday from former Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, one of the most popular Black politicians in Illinois history.
Johnson’s campaign issued a news release Thursday that criticized Vallas for comments he made in 2021 that include saying critical race theory is “giving people an excuse for bad behavior.” Vallas would not address those comments during a news conference but suggested Johnson was dredging up that issue because he lacks “substance.”
While his campaign statement accused Vallas of having “Racist Beliefs About Black Families and Teaching Black History in CPS,” the candidate was less forceful during Thursday’s appearances on the campaign trail.
Responding to a question asking him to expand on which comments were racist, Johnson said: “This is really not about -isms in this moment. This is about having a public education system that is committed to educating the wholeness of child.”
Then he paraphrased a quote from civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, a quote the candidate has employed often.
“Public education at the expense of the state, after all, is a Negro idea,” Johnson said. “Those are the words of W.E.B. Du Bois. But I would imagine that in Paul Vallas’ Chicago, he wouldn’t want people to know that.”
Vallas’ comments on critical race theory came from a November 2021 podcast episode from the conservative Wirepoints news outlet. Midway through an interview, the host asks Vallas to talk about “critical race theory — or call it whatever you want, woke-ism, anti-racism.”
Vallas responds by summing up that CPS did teach African-American history year-round, “but No. 1: When it distracts from quality instruction in the core subject areas — which it is, because we seem to be too preoccupied, too much focusing on those things rather than focusing on a core curriculum — our standards suffer and damage is done.”
Then Vallas decried unspecified curricula that are “divisive” and that “further undermines the relationship of children with their parents.”
“For white parents, I mean, how are you going to discipline your child when your child comes home and your child has basically been told that their generation — their race, their parents, their grandparents — they have discriminated against others, and they have somehow victimized another person’s race?” Vallas said.
The host then muses, “I often wonder, if you’re a Black kid, why wouldn’t you become a criminal if you’re hearing this stuff in school? … That makes it pretty easy to justify pretty bad conduct, in my opinion.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Vallas responded. “But what you’re also doing, you’re giving people an excuse for bad behavior. You’re almost justifying,” Vallas said before comparing that to “the attitude” in Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office. “ … So you’re right, you’re absolutely right. I mean, why, I mean, where’s the accountability? You know, you’re a victim. What’s happening is it becomes a justification for everything. And I think that’s a very dangerous thing.”
At an unrelated news conference, Vallas declined to address his 2021 comments on the podcast and insisted that “the bottom line is, I think my record of serving minority communities in four different cities is clear.”
“I have no response to Brandon Johnson, and he’s going to have his own record to explain or lack of record to explain,” Vallas said. “Brandon is going to attack because, you know, he can’t offer anything of substance so I’m going to continue to run an issue-oriented campaign.”
Vallas went on to say he has built schools that taught African American history year-round and allowed CPS local school schools to have their campaigns “develop even more Afrocentric curriculums.”
“I mean, at the end of the day, my record speaks for itself,” Vallas said.
White also defended Vallas.
“Well, first of all, I’ve done this job, as I indicated before, for over 40 years, and so I’m speaking on behalf of myself and not taking the consideration, the opinion, of someone else,” White said. “I make no apologies for my endorsement.”