Somewhere over there a school board candidate is quoting Charles Murray.
Somewhere over there a school board candidate is quoting Charles Murray. PHILAUGUSTAVO / GETTY

This November voters will choose between two Bellevue School Board candidates who expressed wildly different views on the issue of reducing systemic racism in schools.

Joyce Shui, an attorney and business owner with four kids, supports the principles behind the district's 2019 equity and accountability policy, which aims to "eliminate racial inequalities and inequities for all marginalized students."

Meanwhile, her opponent, Faye Yang, a dietitian and first-generation immigrant with two kids, has criticized the policy. (Update 9/1 11:15 am: In an email, Yang said she criticized the "rollout of the policy" but supports the final policy itself. See more updates below.) In a 2018 email to several Bellevue School Board directors, Yang, whose legal name is Zhifang Yang-Denor, argued that a policy designed to reduce racial disparities would be "non-viable" because it wouldn't serve enough white and Asian students and could run afoul of a state law prohibiting discrimination.

Though Black and Latino students in the district graduated at lower rates than white and Asian students, Yang argued that higher numbers of white and Asian students failed to graduate, and so trying to increase graduation rates among Black and Latino students would "clearly" fail to address the "district's largest needs."

Yang went on to argue that graduation rates for Black and Latino students were predictably lower "most likely" due to the "immovable element of genetic disparity between the races when it comes to IQ scores," and cited The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray to support that claim. (Update 9/1 11:15 am: Yang now claims she "no longer favors that hypothesis, vis a vis Blacks and Latinos have lower IQ due to genetics." See more updates below.)

Several academics debunked that book long ago, and the Southern Poverty Law Center calls Murray's work "racist pseudoscience," but Yang described The Bell Curve as "a book whose scientific validity has never been successfully assailed lo’ these 24 years since first publication."

If Bellevue schools enacted the equity policy regardless of her wishes, Yang threatened to crowdsource money to retain a lawyer and sue the district "in the name of true social justice," emphasis hers.

"It is outrageous that taxpayer money would pay for what always seems the logical end of diversity programs that teach enmity toward white students, and in Bellevue’s case it would be used to weaken the alliance forged between the whites and Asians who comprise the vast majority of this community," she wrote.

In an email, Yang didn't answer questions about whether she still holds Murray's book in high esteem nor whether she still planned to sue the district. Instead, she argued her email was "actually following the foundation of Courageous Conversations," an equity coaching company that offers "a comprehensive educational curriculum" that the district incorporated into its equity policy. That claim doesn't appear to hold up, given the organization's support for affirmative action and its efforts to instill within others a "passion for racial equity work."

In any event, Yang also credited her vision to "unite, not to divide" the community as the reason she stands out as a candidate. (Update 9/1 11:15 am: After this piece published, she sent two follow up emails directly responding to some of my questions. See more details below.)

Over the phone, Shui said, "If true, her comments [in the email to the board] are offensive and they speak for themselves. Equity needs to be at the center of how we educate children in our community, and I find it troubling that someone running for a leadership position serving children would say that."

Though Yang took second in the race for the District 3 seat, which Bellevue School Board director Erica Melief left open earlier this year after declining to run for reelection, she currently leads Shui in fundraising by about $7,000. And though she finished well behind Shui (50.5 to 29), voters who supported the other guy in the race (the stridently anti-union Leo Novsky) will likely send their votes to Yang in the general, which should make for a pretty close race.

(Update 9/1 11:15 am: In an email, Novsky said he's "in fact pro-union and strongly supports our teachers" but "stridently against the current BEA union leadership attacks on the Board and the Superintendent." Last winter, the union fought to stall a return to in-person instruction until teachers and staff could get vaccinated, but the district filled positions with scabs and sued the union. The two sides eventually came to an agreement to slow the return. Later on, Bellevue superintendent Ivan Duran stepped down amid a lot of acrimony, and the board appointed Art Jarvis, who has also faced strong criticism from unions, to serve as interim superintendent.)

Yang first started making headlines in 2017, when she threatened to sue BSD for not providing enough time for students to eat lunch. She then worked with State House Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-Bellevue) on a bill to study the effects of requiring districts to give students 20 minutes to eat lunch. The bill didn't make it out of the senate.

She later advocated for other issues. After speaking out against the equity programs in 2018, she threw her support behind a petition to Support Bellevue Police in schools in response to other Bellevue parents leading an effort to remove cops from schools. In an email to the school board on June 18, 2020, Yang said pulling cops from schools would remove "a valuable experience from our students of all ethnic backgrounds, who will all encounter the reality of law enforcement in some form through their adult lives, whether they stay in the Seattle area or move to a place where law enforcement stays intact."

In case you were wondering, though they ultimately endorsed Shui, the Seattle Times Editorial Board heaped praise on the whole field: "All are impressive candidates with important objectives."

Update 9/1 11:15 am:

After this post published on Monday, Yang offered a second response to my questions. She said the "main intent" of the 2018 email was to "highlight the fact that based on the demographics of BSD at the time, more at-risk students were still of white or Asian heritage due to their over-representation in BSD." She also stressed that "we believed at the time that BSD was committed to abandoning the needs of these students based on immutable characteristics."

Yang also said the following regarding the citation to The Bell Curve:

We regrettably referenced The Bell Curve as an example to demonstrate a hypothesis other than institutional racism to explain disparities in outcomes between ethnic groups. At the time, references to The Bell Curve on social media were still quite easy to find and suited our need for an example. However, I later learned about the Flynn effect, which points to recent IQ increases in all American populations, meaning that population IQs are, in fact, a movable element. So no, I do not believe anymore in an immovable element of genetic disparity. We still advocate, however, keeping an open mind and exploring why there are disparities in social outcomes between ethnic groups.

In answer to a question about why she didn't follow through on her threat to sue the district, she said, "BSD better explained their position in subsequent months and we did not see a need to organize against them."

Yang's interchangeable use of the words "we" and "I" in that email confused me. Though Yang sent the 2018 email from her own address, her husband's name, Joseph Denor, appeared alongside her own in the sign-off. But other parents also sent emails to the board about this policy at that time, so Yang may have used "we" to indicate her involvement in a movement of parents citing Murray in their criticism of the discussions around the equity program. I also had trouble squaring Yang's new claim about citing The Bell Curve merely "as an example to demonstrate a hypothesis other than institutional racism to explain disparities" with her 2018 judgements of Murray's racist pseudoscience as "extensive," unassailed, and "most likely" true, so I asked a couple clarifying questions.

In response to those questions, in an email on Tuesday night Yang emphasized that her 2018 comments only applied to the discussion leading up to the 2019 equity policy and not to the final product. In her view, "the rollout implied that at-risk students of white and Asian ethnicity would have all services removed."

She also said she disavows "the findings of The Bell Curve based on new information."

As for the pronouns, Yang said, "'We' and 'us' were referring to the large group of parents who were involved in the discussion with the district. There were literally hundreds of parents who participated."

Since Yang's second response claimed that "We regrettably referenced The Bell Curve as an example..." in the 2018 email but her third response claimed that she disavowed the "findings" of the book, I've asked for further clarification about who's disavowing what and when that happened. I've also asked Denor for comment through Yang and via an email I believe to be his.

In any event, given Yang's disavowal, I've updated the headline to read in the past tense.