In their attack on anti-racist education, conservatives insist that discussing racism’s historical and contemporary role in shaping America is destructive to young people and their self-image.
But given their nonchalance towards racial injustice itself, right-wing pearl-clutching about merely discussing it is transparently disingenuous — like a serial burglar complaining on Nextdoor that all this talk about crime in the neighborhood might drive down property values.
Not to mention, their arguments are flatly wrong.
First, the right suggests such material is intended to make white students feel shame for the actions of our ancestors.
Although this argument is based on no actual curriculum used in schools or any instructional approach used by teachers, it has captured the imaginations of the white grievance cult watching FOX nightly.
And second, according to the right, Black students are also harmed by focusing on systemic racism throughout history — encouraged to view themselves as permanent victims, lacking agency and the ability to succeed.
But while talking about mistreatment can prove frightening to young people who belong to the targeted group — whether Black children or Jewish kids learning about the Hitlerian Holocaust — this material need not instill a sense of permanent victimhood.
In fact, anti-racist education can empower students of color, strengthening their resolve to forge ahead regardless of the obstacles they face. And that’s what anti-racist educators are always looking to do. Much as we speak of survivors of sexual assault (rather than victims), we honor and acknowledge that those subjected to racism have persevered, accomplishing amazing things despite the hurdles in their way.
In contrast, soft-pedaling injustice as some psychological trick to foster a positive outlook among Black people is not only dishonest; it doesn’t work.
Just because you don’t talk about the pothole in the street before heading out in your car on a foggy morning doesn’t mean it isn’t there or that it won’t do what a pothole does.
It isn’t either/or — either self-help and personal responsibility or fostering awareness of injustice. Both can co-exist and have for as long as Black folks have been in America. Isolated from the opportunity structure for hundreds of years, Black folks always had to turn inward and take responsibility for themselves. But they did that, all the while knowing full well why they had to.
Historically, the recognition of systemic racism didn’t paralyze Black communities; instead, it served as the impetus to work especially hard, knowing that there was little room for error in an unjust system.
Ironically, while the right claims anti-racist education and Critical Race Theory encourage Black folks to adopt a victim mentality, the traditional curriculum would more readily do that.
Historically, most schools have spoken of Black people only in relation to oppression, as if their history didn’t begin until the white man stumbled into Africa and discovered them.
If you teach history that way — ignoring the civilizations that existed in Africa while Europeans were basically still shitting in the woods — you’ll foster the impression that this is a people with nothing to show for itself but pain.
It’s no wonder that with that kind of presentation, some Black kids might view themselves through a victim lens.
And if you don’t know what I mean when I mention African civilizations, because you’re under the impression there were none — or at least none other than Egypt, which you swear is different — you prove my point about what’s broken in our schools.
You don’t need to take my word for it, by the way. And if your racism leads you to dismiss the work of African scholars on this subject — because it is only racism that would prompt you to do so out of hand — so be it, for now. You can start with the scholarship of a right proper white Brit, Basil Davidson if that’s more to your liking.
Please note, I am not endorsing the simplistic and frankly reactionary approach of those who think we should inspire Black kids by telling them their ancestors were “Kings and Queens.” Whether European or African, most people in history have been peasants — not the elite — and there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, royals were often the most mercenary of persons in a community, rather than the most enlightened or worthy of emulation. We need not encourage the embrace of classism and hierarchy to refute white supremacy.
That said, if students recognized the true universality of achievement, they might come to understand Blackness as larger and more storied than a one-dimensional narrative of oppression. A different, less Eurocentric lens would encourage all students to see Black people as subjects of history rather than merely objects acted upon by others.
The latter is what a traditional curriculum provides and is far more likely than an actively anti-racist approach to instill a sense of victimhood in Black youth.
Most importantly, whatever anxieties about victimization could theoretically develop in the minds of Black youth exposed to anti-racist instruction pales in comparison to being the victim of racial mistreatment.
And this is something that begins quite early, as does Black knowledge of it.
Black children are typically aware of the stereotypes held about their group by the time they’re in elementary school. And this awareness — which can drive down their academic performance independent of ability or preparation — comes not from leftists raising the issue with them during recess but from their exposure to mistreatment based on those stereotypes.
Thanks to internalized racial biases that have been ingrained over multiple generations, teachers often misperceive Black kids as angry and disruptive. These perceptions, in turn, lead to their disproportionate suspension and expulsion from school, at roughly three times the rate for whites.
This disparity begins as early as pre-school, despite no evidence that their classroom behavior, then or in later years, can justify this disparity. Contrary to popular belief, Black students do not violate school rules nearly as disproportionately as their suspension and expulsion rates would suggest.
Although Black students are more likely than whites to get in a fight at school, it is not mostly this kind of infraction for which suspensions and expulsions are given. Nor are they principally the product of having a weapon on campus or drugs — infractions that Blacks and whites commit at equal rates.
Most suspensions are for “discretionary” offenses, far more subjective than fighting, possessing drugs, or having a gun in your locker. These infractions, like disrupting class or “willful defiance,” present considerable leeway for interpretation and punishment. Yet, despite that fact (or perhaps because of it), punishment for these types of violations tends to be wildly disparate.
One Texas study found that only three percent of out-of-school punishments were for infractions where zero-tolerance requires such a response. The rest were up to administrators, whose biases led them to suspend and expel Black kids at a rate one-third higher than whites, even after controlling for 83 possible factors that might otherwise account for the disparity.
And considering the well-established correlation between out-of-school suspensions and later arrest — even after controlling for other factors that can lead to offending — such disparity becomes the entry-point for many Black youth into the carceral system. It is, in effect, their introduction to a racist apparatus of state control.
Rather than address this persistent disparity in the treatment of Black students relative to whites, conservatives seem only concerned that we might talk about that disparity or call it what it is.
But surely, if Black kids are old enough to experience racism, they’re old enough to learn about it and understand what’s happening to them. It isn’t teaching them about racism that causes a sense of victimization, but victimization itself that does that.
And just as food doesn’t miraculously appear on the plates of the starving by neglecting to speak of world hunger, neither will racism end simply because we’ve resolved not to discuss it.
Such silence will do only one thing — leave Black youth without the systemic analysis needed to understand their lives and the life of their community. This, in turn, will leave them with only self-blame and self-doubt as a way to process ongoing inequities of well-being between themselves and whites in America.
And if you wish to assault the self-image of Black people, there is no better way to do it than that.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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