Racial Essentialism Has No Place in Education

In the public schools of Evanston, Illinois, they came for the 14-year-old son of parents of Congolese and African-Amercian descent. He had foolishly harbored a desire to one day become a lawyer. They told him, sorry, not gonna happen. Systemic racism, see? You’re less able. Injured. Please harbor no such dreams. Whitey still has his boot on your back.

His mother Ndona Muboyayi told her story to a writer from The Atlantic. She went to teachers to ask, is this true? The answer in so many words was, yes. And that won’t be changing. She was appalled.

Forbidden thoughts are actionable. In post-election high dudgeon, New York Times columnist Gail Collins described blowback to racial essentialism in Virginia schools this way: “. . . given Republicans’ crazed howling about teaching the history of racism in America, voters were being misled in the way they were being urged to think there was something wrong with the schools.” 

Similarly, an old and dear friend, long a progressive, wrote to me of recent schools-based revolt: “a handful of hysterical parents, whipped up by political campaigns, cannot and must not be allowed to dictate policy. 

But as Muboyayi told The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, “Of course I want my children to know about slavery and Jim Crow. But I want it to be balanced out with the rest of the truth. They’re not taught about Black people who accomplished things in spite of white supremacy; or about the Black people today who got ahead, built things, achieved things; and those who had opportunities that their ancestors fought for.”

Chicago public schools, too, are in the front lines of the racial pity parade that progressives need in order to feel whole. CPS declares that in 2020 one of “multiple traumatic crises” affecting families, one for which it must correct on a daily and deep basis, is “lasting legacies of systemic racism.” 

Chicago public schools believe a big problem for underachievers is the pigmentation of students who, on the whole, do better. Which includes whites. And so the CPS website features a video called “Whiteness” from noted consultant Glenn E. Singleton. It’s a word salad of racialized NuSpeak.

“Whiteness” includes gems such as this one:

a place for me of still some disappointment, is how hard it is for our society . . . to navigate, negotiate, this idea of racial dominance, and to talk about what it means to be white . . . I am saying to notice, to really notice, how does it feel when you say ‘white’? And what part of the compass does that take you to? And what would it mean to get centered on the conversation of white as a color, culture, and consciousness?

I’ve got an idea for Glenn E. Singleton, and the Chicago public schools. And for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who appointed the current president, board, and CEO of the schools. Get all students, teachers  and administrators centered on the “culture and consciousness” of mastering the actual academic skills and workplace practices necessary to have a successful career.

In Chicago in 2019, fewer than one in five black 4th and 8th grade public school students reached the level of “proficient” in reading or math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It’s known as “the Nation’s Report Card.” On the 2019 SAT, taken by Chicago’s 11th graders, only 14 percent of black students could reach the state benchmark level of 540 or higher in English and only 13 percent in math.  

Too many of today’s helpers are actually the enemy. A Waukegan, Illinois high school history teacher named Frank McCormick has seen what Ndona Muboyayi saw in Evanston. McCormick explains that the point is not whether one can find the words “critical race theory” in a school district’s materials. Rather, he says, the concern is with these kinds of things, baked into district operations and thinking: assuming that disparate outcomes inherently reflect bias; insisting on racialized perspectives; and espousing that our nation and its institutions are still significantly and harmfully racist. 

He adds teachers bent on activism should find new jobs.

Too many educators are living in a bubble. A top official of the association of school superintendents sanctimoniously told the Washington Post that the rabble—the activist parents—might inhibit the future hiring in some districts of school chiefs who, in the paper’s words, “support robust racial equity work.”

Sorry. Equity is not programmatic. You do not distribute, decree, declare, or dispense equity. There are no shortcuts. Many parents and students get it. Equity is earned. There is sweat involved.

Equity need not entail ownership of property or a business. But it does demand ownership of your future. And no amount of racialized propaganda in K-12 public schools can change that.

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