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In Defense of “Anti-Racism”

June 23, 2020

I’ve read several articles debating the merits of incorporating “anti-racism” into our classroom instruction across the country, two of which serve as a good proxy for the debate in general.

Last week, a NBC News report by Daniella Silva report offered measured support for the idea that our social studies curriculum needs to change so that children can gain a clearer understanding of how the social studies curricula in our country institutionalized racism.  The NBC report offers examples of how a sampling of textbooks downplayed the impact of slavery, completely overlooked Reconstruction when Jim Crow laws reversed all of the rights afforded African Americans at the conclusion of the Civil War, and made scant mention of any role African Americans played in the advancement of anything except the Civil Rights movement. While the report never explicitly calls for an “anti-racist” curriculum, this quote from the beginning of the report frames it’s message:

“The curriculum was never designed to be anything other than white supremacist,” Julian Hayter, a historian and an associate professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said, “and it has been very difficult to convince people that other versions of history are not only worth telling. They’re absolutely essential for us as a country to move closer to something that might reflect reconciliation but even more importantly, the truth.”

Unsurprisingly, given its conservative bent, the New York Daily News offers an op ed piece by Max Eden that pushes back against an “anti-racist” curriculum. titled The ‘anti-racist’ drive to turn schools into woke propaganda mills”, Mr. Eden’s essay describes efforts by groups as mainstream as AASA and as “radical” as Ibram X. Kendi and draws conclusions like:

Anti-racism, in this worldview, doesn’t mean equal treatment of others; it is an all-encompassing ideology that demands constant questioning of one’s own actions and motives and those of others…

This (anti-racism approach) sounds like a call for an open-ended propaganda campaign.

As he concludes his argument against “anti-racism” in schools, he decries the approach advocated by David Kirkland, the architect of New York’s framework and author of “Culturally Responsive Education: A Primer for Policy and Practice,” which, encourages teachers to:

“incorporate current events, even if they are controversial, into instruction” and to “utilize tools . . . that encourage students to engage with difficult topics (power, privilege, access, inequity) constructively.”

He goes on:

Kirkland expressed outrage that the media were using “the racist construction of criminality” to “comment upon who gets to fight for their freedom and who does not.” Referring to law enforcement, he declared: “What does it mean when your job is to enforce the law when the law is explicitly racist? It means enforcing racism.”

His bottom line conclusion is that since the NCTE insists “There is no apolitical classroom” and “the education establishment” is endorsing this idea, “…the culture war appears headed for many classrooms — whether parents like it or not.

Here’s are some questions for those like Mr. Eden who oppose the “culture war”:

  • Do you support a culture that does not accept the premise that all human beings are created equal?
  • Do you support a culture that supports a system that denies people of color the same opportunity to o good education and economic advancement as white people receive?
  • Do you support a culture that reinforces racism by ignoring it whenever it is evident?
  • Do you support a curriculum that ignores decades of legislation and systemic practice that reinforces discrimination against people of color?

As I read about the goals of anti-racism, I find myself nodding in agreement with the goals they are seeking. It isn’t enough to erase the hero worship implicit in the removal of the statues of Confederate generals, we need to imprint the reality that the current racism today is not an accident. It is the result of a decision in the 1600s to pit the white working class against their black co-workers to keep wages low. It is the result of political decisions made during the finding of this country to allow slavery to continue so that our nation could operate as a union and not a confederacy. It is the result of laws passed during Reconstruction that ensured that freed slaves would not have an opportunity to vote, to take control of their destiny, and to maintain the social order in the Confederacy. It is the result of decisions by bankers across the country to determine which neighborhoods and towns would allow blacks to acquire homes.

Racism is not in our DNA. It is in our politics. Mr. Eden’s concern about the National Council of English Teacher’s pronouncement that “there is no apolitical classroom” misses the point. Classrooms have always been political… and their politics have been steeped in racism.

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