WILL launches national effort to protect white people from discrimination and restrict speech in schools

By: - July 8, 2021 6:30 am
Rick Esenberg

Rick Esenberg’s conservative legal outfit, WILL, is launching a national effort to stop discrimination against white people. (Screenshot)

Rick Esenberg and Dan Lennington, general counsel and deputy counsel at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), said in a virtual webinar Wednesday that because they both witnessed incidents of racism as young children, they’re uniquely qualified to say that discrimination is no longer a problem in America. 

The conservative legal outfit, while not abandoning its efforts to restrict absentee voting and ban ballot drop boxes in Wisconsin, on Wednesday announced a new national effort to thwart policies that aim to reduce racial disparities in order to protect the rights of white Americans — while fighting to restrict the teaching of certain topics in K-12 schools. 

“We find ourselves in a situation where these principles of race blindness and color neutrality and treating people as individuals and not as archetypes or members of a group, all of this stuff has come under attack,” Esenberg said. “And, it’s come under attack in a way which is increasingly being expressed by the federal government, by Congress, by state legislatures, by local school boards across the country. And the only way for us to resist this and stop descent into a divisive realm of identity politics in this country and the racialization of our public life, is to resist it. And the way that we can resist it is through filing litigation and doing the other things that we do.”

The “Equality Under the Law Project” has already resulted in lawsuits at the state and federal level and the two lawyers said they’re looking for more plaintiffs. 

The lawsuits center on provisions in recently passed laws, such as the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), that target some federal aid toward historically disadvantaged communities — such as Black farmers. The lawsuits have so far been successful in obtaining temporary restraining orders against relief programs — and earning Esenberg appearances on Fox News. 

One of the suits, Faust v. Vilsack, targets a provision in the ARPA that provides forgivable loans to farmers of color. Adam Faust, a disabled dairy farmer from Calumet County, signed on to the lawsuit, saying he was just as harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic as farmers of different races and is just as worthy of receiving that federal aid. 

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has argued that the aid to minority farmers — who make up just 2% of American farmers — will be a step toward righting historical wrongs over the last century and in previous rounds of pandemic relief, he’s pointed to a book, “We Are Each Other’s Harvest” that shows how these policies aren’t reverse racism. 


“There’s a very specific chapter about the steps that were taken by USDA over the last 100 years, policies were implemented that specifically twisted in a way that disadvantaged socially disadvantaged producers,” Vilsack told the Washington Post. “There’s no better example of that than the covid relief efforts. Billions of dollars went to White farmers, because the system is structured in a way that gives them significant advantages.”

The loan forgiveness program would only benefit about 13,000 farmers nationwide, but Faust and a group of a dozen other white farmers have joined with WILL to halt the program. 

In 2020, through USDA subsidies and previous COVID-19 relief packages, Faust’s farm received $28,000 in federal aid — the most federal aid he has ever received in one year, records show

But for Esenberg and Lunnington, the program to help struggling minority farmers, and other policies aimed at reducing racial disparities, is a sign of creeping illiberalism. 

WILL is based in Milwaukee, one of the country’s most segregated cities, in a state that has the worst outcomes for Black mothers and infants and is among the states with the highest incarceration rate for Black men in the nation. 

The two lawyers say there are perfectly reasonable policy ideas on the left or right that could work to reduce these disparities without targeting race. 

“I’m offended by the notion that the color of your skin gives you an automatic disadvantage and makes you have an oppressive life,” Lunnington, who worked in the Wisconsin Department of Justice under Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, said. “Helping people who need the help is much more effective and targeted than just saying, ‘Well, how much melanin do you have in your skin?’ And that never can be the answer. It’s not true, it’s unconstitutional, it’s illegal, it’s immoral to say that. And I think if our goal is to help the disadvantaged we should target what’s causing the disadvantage, which is not what the color of your skin is.” 

Lunnington, says he understands discrimination because when he was growing up his neighbors were Black and he witnessed them being called racial slurs when they played on the same high school basketball team. Esenberg said he was at the state fair and saw a Black couple getting harassed as the man working at a concession stand refused to serve them — an experience he said he remembers “internalizing as a very young child, how awful this was.” 

But WILL’s Equality Under the Law Project opposes efforts to tackle racism as a systemic problem rather than one of individual attitudes. The group is also taking aim at so-called critical race theory, a school of legal and academic thought that argues racism isn’t just personal prejudice but baked into the country’s laws and institutions. 

Esenberg conceded that these ideas aren’t being taught to grade schoolers, and that they shouldn’t be banned from college classrooms — even though a proposed bill in Wisconsin would do just that. Similar laws have been introduced or passed in dozens of other states, many of them highly restrictive of what teachers and professors can discuss about race. 

He also said he doesn’t see a problem with the government legislating what a teacher can and cannot say to students — while admitting it’s very difficult to pass laws that do this effectively. But it’s important to try, Esenberg says, because he believes the threat is the ideas of critical race theory trickling down into K-12 classrooms and poisoning children.

“So in principle these efforts are perfectly appropriate,” Esenberg says. “In practice, they’re very, very difficult, because it’s very, very difficult — particularly when you’re trying to deal with local school officials who you don’t trust — to describe what it is we do and do not want to see happen, in a way which corresponds to, you know, to prohibit only what we want to prohibit and not prohibit things that we don’t want to prohibit. But I think that those efforts are perfectly appropriate and we have been working on trying to fine tune language that can be used in that type of legislation.”

In its most recent public tax filings, WILL reported more than $2 million in revenue and paid Esenberg a salary of more than $315,000. But the work to protect white farmers from being wronged and making sure legislation restricting speech in classrooms doesn’t accidentally ban lessons on the 15th Amendment is expensive, Esenberg said — so he closed the webinar by asking for donations and new plaintiffs to represent.

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.