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Sesame Street Surrenders to Racial-Identity Thinking

Sesame Street muppets Ernie and Bert at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

This is depressing:

“Sesame Street” is introducing two new Muppets, a Black father and son, as part of an effort to help children understand racial literacy. The two Muppets, Wes and Elijah, were introduced in a short video created by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind the long-running show. In the video, Elmo wants to know why Wes’s skin is brown, so his father Elijah explains the concept of melanin and how “the color of our skin is an important part of who we are.”

“Racial literacy” and lectures on melanin sound like something out of a 1920s handbook on eugenics. Teaching kids to see skin color as an essential part of their identity is what America spent decades fighting to get away from. And if you compare our society in the mid 2000s with, say, the mid 1940s, we made some pretty astounding progress in that direction. Far too much of the critical-race-theory movement today is aimed at reversing that. Imagine any show having white characters say, “The color of our skin is an important part of who we are.” It ought to be a point of general agreement that we should not be teaching white kids in this country to think that way. But if white kids hear that message from everybody else, how are you going to tell them it’s wrong for them to think the same thing? Maybe you could make that distinction in 1960, when white people were 88.6 percent of the population, but that’s down to around 60 percent these days, and below 50 in some parts of the country. A more diverse nation ought to be an opportunity to teach each of the component groups to de-emphasize group tribal identities and see each other as individuals. Instead, too many voices are dedicated to sending the message that racial identity is a thing of power.

The Sesame Street I grew up with in the 1970s was all about de-emphasizing race. That was the mainstream liberal/progressive vision of its day, and it was quite successful. The show’s cast was racially diverse, and plenty of white kids grew up loving Gordon, Maria, and David. Most of the Muppets were racially ambiguous, even the humanoid ones: Ernie and Bert were orange and yellow, and Prairie Dawn was pink. Yes, the game- show host Guy Smiley was obviously white, and Roosevelt Franklin, voiced by the actor who played Gordon, was obviously black and went to a gritty-looking city school:

Roosevelt Franklin was a staple of the show and a popular character until they stopped making his segments in 1975 and pulled them in the early 1980s; I can recall, for example, that he was included in the Fisher-Price Sesame Street set. But nobody talked about race on Sesame Street. Showing people together and not caring about race was the point. A lot of Americans shed a lot of blood in pursuit of that ideal. It is sad to see so much of our culture now giving up on even trying.


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