he fight over critical race theory (CRT) in America’s schools has featured woke “anti-racists” trying to justify a variety of troubling practices by insisting they’re grounded in expertise and evidence. This has been especially noticeable when it comes to the defense of “racial affinity spaces.”
Just what are “racial affinity spaces”? Well, while President Biden likes to denounce various Republican policies as the “new Jim Crow,” affinity spaces are the old Jim Crow. Affinity spaces involve schools encouraging students or staff to separate into segregated, race-based groups. The practice usually entails one group for black participants, a second for “non-black people of color,” and a third for white participants, typically in order to discuss issues of race, “equity,” policing, and such. In all this, the “anti-racists” seem comfortable resurrecting practices clearly at odds with the 1964 Civil Rights Act — practices that would’ve been warmly cheered by segregationists of the American South or the architects of South African apartheid.
Remarkably, the CRT lobby has gotten away with asserting that there’s some science or evidence to justify all this, despite a startling lack of research or data (more on that in a moment). Madison West High School, in Madison, Wis., has hosted discussions in which students and parents were segregated into groups based on their race. This spring, after one such exercise, the local NBC outlet published “Experts explain effects of affinity groups,” an article that quoted as “experts” a district spokesperson, the high-school principal, and a University of Wisconsin sociology professor — all of whom endorsed affinity groups, but not one of whom offered a single data point to support the district’s contention that this is “a well-established method.”
In Massachusetts this spring, the Wellesley Public Schools hosted a “Healing Space for Asian and Asian American students and others in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community.” The district’s email explained, “*Note: This is a safe space for our Asian/Asian-American and Students of Color, *not* for students who identify only as White.” In response to parental concerns, administrators acknowledged “the discomfort that some members of our community have shared when learning of a practice that they perceive to be discriminatory,” but they explained that “it’s important to note that affinity spaces are not discriminatory.” Oh.
Indeed, Wellesley officials asserted, that “hosting affinity spaces is part of a long-term, evidence-based district strategy that amplifies student and faculty voices on various issues, and enhances their sense of belonging.” Again, no evidence was proffered.
The question arises: Setting aside the lack of proffered evidence, is there in fact any evidence to which they could have pointed?
As it turns out, not so much. Indeed, given the thousands of education professors in American schools of education, one might imagine there’d be a mass of research on this hot-button question. Yet a comprehensive search of the academic databases ProQuest and Google Scholar returns just five articles purporting to examine the benefits of “racial affinity” spaces in K–12 schooling (other articles on affinity groups focus on things such as video games or community centers). To grasp how astonishingly tiny this figure truly is, it’s useful to know that these same databases return more than 147,000 results on “K–12 school transportation.”
As striking as the utter dearth of research is, the dismal quality of the little that exists is even more telling. The only article that even claims to review the research literature was a 2012 “online submission” to the Education Resources Information Center by Lindsay L. Schrader and K. C. Holder. Schrader and Holder make the case for “formal affinity groups,” insisting that “these groups have shown again and again to be a powerful investment for students of color.” Yet their evidence is nowhere to be found. Of the 17 citations offered, just one supposedly justifies this strong claim. Yet that citation, “Batiste, G. (2006),” turns out not to be a study or report at all, but a data-free National Association of Independent Schools PowerPoint presentation sharing the “NAIS perspective” — for the National Association of Independent Schools — on affinity spaces.
A 2016 study by Cindy P. Chun employs a “Dynamic Narrative Approach” to interview ten “diversity practitioners” in order to identify “best practices of affinity groups,” though Chun offers no evidence regarding the efficacy of these recommended practices. There is the 2018 “ethnographic case study” by Farima Pour-Khorshid, published in Teaching Education, which examines how a “racial affinity group became an important space for learning and healing for its [dozen] members.” Pour-Khorshid concludes that “racial affinity spaces for educators of color are necessary in order to support their personal, political, relational, and pedagogical growth.”
And, in a 2019 article, Ryan Oto and Anita Chikkatur study an affinity group that a teacher created for a solitary class at a private high school. They provide no systematic data on academic, social, or other outcomes, but they opine that the group yielded a “curriculum that was culturally affirming for students of color by de-centering whiteness.”
In short, the supposed evidence is nowhere to be found. Indeed, the fifth study, Ryan Kimmet’s 2021 University of Pennsylvania dissertation on “student perceptions of white racial affinity groups,” raised some red flags. While students found value in discussing issues of race, they made clear “that the spaces created for affinity groups were not, in fact, safe spaces,” Kimmet wrote. “There were strongly negative social repercussions for making comments that the majority of students viewed as out of line with the majority’s way of thinking.”
It’s remarkable that, in 2021, even the most muddled among us would imagine that encouraging schools to resuscitate segregation is the path toward racial understanding. This would be a fantastical stance even if backed by a rich trove of “evidence.”
Yet even more bizarre is that the champions of school-sponsored racial separatism have gotten away with the assertion that this is anything other than an outlandish ideological crusade. Indeed, as best as I can discern, this short column may very well be the first attempt to examine the research in order to ascertain that there is no basis for claiming that K–12 racial-affinity groups are “evidence-based.” This kind of straightforward academic assessment is certainly nowhere to be found in the education scholarship.
The claims used to justify racial-affinity groups are a powerful reminder that much of what passes for expertise in education today is a version of what Peter Boghossian has shrewdly labeled academic “idea laundering.” Here, we see a tiny handful of academics penning profiles of like-minded teachers, or summarizing interviews with like-minded academics and bureaucrats, and then presenting the result as scholarly “evidence.” When this sort of thing passes for evidence, it’s no great trick to understand why so many Americans hesitate to docilely defer to the avowed educational experts.