La Mesa Spring Valley School District Board of Education Vice President Chardá Bell-Fontenot (Photo credit: Ethan Edward Coston)

Chardá Bell-Fontenot wanted answers on the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District’s (LMSVSD) proposal to reopen schools in April. Her concern was that the district’s claim that 70-80% of parents wanted to go back in-person schooling didn’t reflect how underprivileged students would be impacted. 

“We can’t just say the kids can go back into the classrooms when there’s no vaccinated teachers there willing to do that,” Bell-Fontenot said at a Feb. 23 board meeting in La Mesa, California. “That seems like a very white supremacist ideology to force people to comply … conform without thinking about all of the intersecting factors and barriers that exist for all families.”

She is now facing online harassment and demands to resign over her comments. Bell-Fontenot is the LMSVSD Board of Education vice president and is the only Black woman on the board. The backlash directed toward her reminds Black politicians and activists how viciously Black women are targeted when advocating for their community.

During the board meeting, Bell-Fontenot raised concerns about getting enough teachers vaccinated, but those concerns were dismissed. When the district claimed 70-80% of parents wanted to go back to school in-person, they were unable to provide the income and geographical data Bell-Fontenot asked for to ensure the survey was representative of the entire district and not a select few schools. 

Soon after the meeting, Bell-Fontenot began receiving angry backlash from parents and racist hate emails over her comments.

Media reports characterized the board’s discussion as a heated debate. Both the superintendent and the board president’s statements following the meeting ignored the conduct of the other board members. Instead, they zeroed in on Bell-Fontenot’s conduct, which according to Superintendent David Feliciano, was “demeaning.”

“As the board president, my concern was not with the issues raised, but rather with the tenor of the discussion which was inconsistent with the board’s adopted norms and commitment to mutual respect,” LMSVSD Board President Rebecca McRae said in an email statement.

Activist and former mayoral candidate Tasha Williamson said she was frustrated by how the actions of the superintendent and board continued to uphold white power structures and racism, even though they have had trainings on confronting implicit biases and how to work together when there is miscommunication or harm.

“It’s devastating that the superintendent decided to put a letter out, in part condemning or admonishing a Black woman dealing with death threats and outright racism from parents with kids in the district,” Williamson said.

The board later voted to reopen schools in April. Bell-Fontenot was the only dissenting member.

San Diego City Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe characterized the board members as “condescending” to Bell-Fontenot. 

“Ms. Bell-Fontenot used the words ‘white supremacy,’ and that is a phrase that is something people don’t want to talk about or call out,” Montgomery Steppe said. “There’s an immediate backlash against the phrase, which dictates the response, and it doesn’t allow us to dig through the issues together.”

State Assembly candidate Aeiramique Glass Blake said that because of white fragility, Black politicians often have to police their language. It’s an unfair burden, but Glass Blake believes it’s still important to engage with the community. 

“These are the ways in which white supremacy is upheld within our system,” Glass Blake said. “Oftentimes you don’t have to be white to uphold white supremacy, and you don’t have to be Black to help dismantle it.”

Glass Blake noted that La Mesa still deals with racial issues, which reflects the larger problem of how racist incidents are common in San Diego. Over the summer someone wore a Ku Klux Klan hood to a Vons in Santee, and others wore face masks with swastikas to protest the statewide mask mandate. In 2019, a white supremacist killed a 60-year-old woman and injured three others in a mass shooting at a synagogue in Poway. Numerous experts on disinformation and white supremacy groups also believe that San Diego is the global heart of the white supremacist movement. Defend East County, formed in response to the May 31, 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in La Mesa, became a site of right-wing conspiracy theories by groups like QAnon. The group has been listed by the FBI as a national security threat. Facebook removed the Defend East County Facebook group in October for being a hate group

It’s against this backdrop that national right-wing outlets like Breitbart, One America News Network, and The Washington Times lied and misrepresented Bell-Fontenot’s actions at the board meeting, amplifying the hate she received online. Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of Truth or Fiction, is an expert on disinformation. She noted there appeared to be “an extended disinformation campaign currently leveraged against San Diego” and linked an attempt to recall Bell-Fontenot to a national right-wing “power grab” targeting democratic officials with recalls and limitations of power. 

Reform California, one of the organizations supporting the recall of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, was also behind the attempt to recall Bell-Fontenot. Founded by perpetual political candidate Carl DeMaio, the organization launched an effort to recall Bell-Fontenot, falsely accusing her of calling LMSVSD parents and board members “racists” and “white supremacists.” Additionally, a petition demanding her resignation gathered almost 4,500 signatures before it closed; a counter petition has over 1,000 signatures.

Bell-Fontenot’s own colleagues in the district also condemned her actions and participated in the racist backlash, focusing on how “hostile” and “unproductive” her tone was, rather than the substance of her criticisms. 

“What is most concerning, and also most hurtful, is that those tropes [about aggressive Black women] can be placed on us so easily [and] unverified, [people] make decisions based on an angry woman stereotype or that Black women are incompetent,” Montgomery Steppe said. “Imagine fighting that while still trying to change policy.”

Bell-Fontenot’s supporters also pointed to how when Black women in office are subjected to these double standards, it creates even more difficulty for Black women not just to be elected into office, but to stay in office as well.

“It looks like picking apart and criticizing our words and how we said it instead of what we actually said and the intent of what we said,” Glass Blake said. “It shows up in making sure we create a narrative that when other Black women are trying to get into positions of leadership, you create fear of what will happen.”

La Mesa City Council Vice Mayor and state Assembly candidate Dr. Akilah Weber told Prism that she has experienced similar barriers and hostility in medicine and on the city council.

“People ask, am I qualified enough to hold this position or have this title [as a medical doctor]?” Weber said. “It’s not anything special to politics or San Diego County. It’s one of the many barriers that needs to be dismantled so young girls and boys coming in behind us don’t have to deal with this.”

For Black women in politics, the racism Bell-Fontenot faced is an example of the vitriol they all face while advocating for underrepresented people, but they have no plans to stop.

“We’re placed in this system—when the Constitution was written, it spelled out the rights of white male landowners,” Montgomery Steppe said. “Everything we do is counter to that origin. We’re often alone and our perspective is different than those we serve with.”

Editor’s note: The author’s brother, Max Coston, is a deputy field director for Aeiramique Glass Blake’s assembly campaign.

Ethan Edward Coston is a San Diego-based journalist. He focuses his reporting on the intersection of education and politics. Ethan was previously an inaugural College Journalism Network Fellow at CalMatters....