NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE S tudents are heading back to school this fall (in-person or remotely) after the longest, strangest summer on record. It’s been the summer not just of COVID but also of massive protests and rioting triggered by the police killing of George Floyd in May. Calls for racial justice have swept the land, and schools have responded by embracing the push for “anti-racist” education. This should be a wonderful thing. If there’s anything that promises to unite a divided nation, it’s joining together to advance equality and justice.
Thus, it’s no surprise that “anti-racism” has found an eager reception. It has made a television star and publishing phenom out of Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist. It’s made a best-seller out of Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, who explains, “A positive white identity is an impossible goal. White identity is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy.” (As DiAngelo puts it, her aim is to be “a little less white” every day.)
The problem: “Anti-racism” is often little more than a crude bit of rhetorical flim-flam, akin to that unlovely old Southern habit of rechristening the Civil War the “War of Northern Aggression.” In fact, much of what passes for “anti-racism” is a poisonous exercise in rank bigotry — especially when applied to education. The healthy impulse implied by “anti-racism” has been coopted by ideologues. While there are serious, practical issues to tackle, the “anti-racists” have instead declared war on the intellectual traits that equip students for personal and civic success.
The famed KIPP charter schools abandoned their longtime slogan of “Work Hard, Be Nice” after KIPP’s leadership decided that the decades-old slogan hinders efforts to “dismantle systemic racism.” This summer, the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s website featured an educational resource which described traits like “individualism,” “hard work,” “objectivity,” “progress,” “politeness,” “decision-making,” and “delayed gratification” as hallmarks of “white culture.”
The superintendent of New York’s East Harlem Scholars Academies penned a back-to-school essay for Education Week which instructed “white teachers” to steer away from talking about the individual accomplishments of black Americans, because doing so would “unintentionally teach students that ‘really good, really successful’ Black folks are exempt from racist structures.”
These cartoonish dogmas are both insulting and insane. For one thing, no one who’s been to Singapore or South Korea would view traits such as “hard work” or “politeness” as especially “white.” For another, across Africa and South America, air-traffic controllers and cardiovascular surgeons put a lot of faith in things such as “decision-making” and “objectivity.” And, for what it’s worth, black parents are a bit more likely than white parents to think it’s important to teach their kids traits such as “hard work” and “persistence.” Truth is, we’d rightly condemn as an anachronistic menace any good ol’ boy who suggested that there was something uniquely “white” about being polite or working hard.
Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist instructs us that there is one correct stance on standardized testing (it’s racist), pot legalization (it’s anti-racist), Medicare for All (it’s anti-racist), and even the capital gains tax rate (low rates are racist). To Kendi and his followers, there is no room for good-faith arguments — there are only disciples and racists. Kendi, whose August has included a $10 million donation from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and a fawning cover story in The Atlantic, has promised to “build the world anew” with antiracist research and public scholarship.
It’s one thing to work in good faith with those who disagree about pedagogy or policy, it’s another when “anti-racists” insist that pointing out that 2 + 2 = 4 “reeks of white supremacist patriarchy,” or that “whiteness is a cancer.” Yet, not only are such statements loudly and proudly shared by “anti-racist” educators, but they’re frequently conjoined with the disturbing insistence that those who disagree need to be reeducated into a more enlightened stance.
Let’s be clear. There are indeed racists who need to be fought and the American right features more than its share of lunacy. No argument. But what’s troubling is that the crazy parts of anti-racist education aren’t being spread by anonymous conspiracy-mongers or Twitter trolls but by celebrated keynote speakers and acclaimed authorities.
America’s demographics have changed. Schools have an obligation to educate, respect, and connect with the kids in their classrooms. There are any number of concrete changes that can help. We should explore how to revamp school-based policing, better prepare teachers, provide all students with access to advanced courses and essential supports, and give every family the chance to choose a safe, effective school. We should rename the 160-odd schools still named for Confederate leaders and demand that history instruction tell the whole of the American story. So there’s important, practical work to do.
Kendi’s intellectual intolerance or the Smithsonian’s embrace of racial stereotypes would seem to represent an assault on core liberal precepts, but too few on the left agree (or, perhaps, are willing to say that they do). That makes it tougher than it should be to build broad-based support for sensible, necessary change.
The “anti-racist” evangelists have little time for such considerations as they mount their self-serving culture war. Along the way, they’re creating an impossible dilemma for those who are fighting to expand opportunity for all children but unwilling to give a moral sanction to those who sow divisive, destructive calumny in the name of “justice.”