Education Opinion

The Need for ‘Anti-Racism’ Education

By Janet Caldwell — September 20, 1989 7 min read

After a series of racial confrontations--both verbal and physical--and the appearance of Ku Klux Klan literature, the 7th and 8th grades of a rural Georgia school gathered for an assembly, where a guest speaker gave a presentation on the Klan. The students’ anonymous response forms included the question, “What did you like best about the class today?” While many students offered such comments as “I liked learning about the Klan and how to stay away from them” or “The Klan can get you in trouble,” one child articulated his faith in the process itself. What he liked best about the class, he wrote, was: “Black and white united together in a friendly way.”

Students at the middle- and high-school levels need--and deserve--anti-racism education. For the health of our society, their concerns should be answered.

During the past several years, bias crime and hate violence have become more and more the province of young people. A number of young whites have adopted the “skinhead” image, with an accompanying “white power” or neo-Nazi ideology. Many of these teenagers, spewing racist rhetoric and adorning themselves with swastikas, have carried out brutal, random attacks on blacks, Asian Americans, Jews, and others. In some instances, students as young as 8 and 9 have begun to emulate the overtly racist skinheads.

Cross burnings, robes and hoods, assaults, and slurs are no longer relics of the Deep South in the 1920’s or Germany in the 1930’s--they are part of the fabric of life at schools across the country, including many colleges. According to the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence, 174 universities publicly reported incidents of violence against ethnic groups during the school years 1986-87 and 1987-88.

Most observers agree on two phenomena: first, that underreporting of such episodes is likely; second, that no easily defined factor exempts a college from incidents of blatant racism and bigotry. Neither regional location nor reputation mitigates or exacerbates racial tension.

How do we account for reactionary behavior in collegiate settings, where there should be a reasonable expectation of enlightenment and sophistication? What is the basis for the increase in racist violence among young people?

This year’s college freshmen are only last year’s high-school students. All too frequently, their experience has been segregated--in their neighborhoods, places of worship, and homes. Even students who have sat side by side with classmates of different races have not automatically learned respect for other cultures and ethnicities.

Unprecedented social and economic changes, shrinking resources, and the erosion of the American middle class magnify the stress, confusion, and search for identity that attend adolescence. Some white children have inherited a backlash from an adult population that resents a perceived loss of white-skin privilege; many teenagers feel victimized and threatened by any assertions on the part of people of color.

Our young people are arriving on college campuses with baggage containing prejudice and ignorance along with wardrobe, tennis racquets, and cassette players. Of the youngsters who drop out of school or go directly from graduation into the job market, too many have an incomplete understanding of the multicultural nature of our society, and many fall into hostility and scapegoating. A disturbing number of white students harbor the idea that somehow they have been given permission to act out racist attitudes.

Teenagers who show disaffection from traditional institutions--such as church, family, or school--are primary targets for dedicated and sophisticated white supremacists. From the crudest cartoons to the most explicit “white power” rock music, with videos and with clothing, the Klan and neo-Nazis persist in their attempts to reach out to children.

Sometimes these efforts take the form of direct-mail initiatives to students’ home addresses. This year in Oregon, for example, mass mailings have been sent to public high-school students inviting them to join the “National Socialists.” For private preparatory-school students, the mailing is a glossier, more subtle white-supremacist book, accompanied by a letter containing intellectualized insinuations that encouragement of minorities constrains whites’ chances of being admitted to “better colleges.” Education in racism is, at least to some extent, being made available to students.

Most school administrators find it difficult to acknowledge publicly that racial tensions or bigoted attitudes are prevalent in their schools. After a week of fights between whites and blacks in one high school, absences more than doubled--but the system’s superintendent said that the “incident” had been “blown out of proportion.”

Black students in another high school who had skipped classes to observe the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. were directed by their school-bus driver to sit at the back of the bus, whereupon they were jeered by white students. After the second day, when the black students refused to move to the back of the bus, they were punished for disobeying the driver. The system’s board of education concluded that “it cannot be said ... that the actions were racially motivated discrimination.”

Individual teachers are sometimes hesitant to confront even clearly destructive racist behavior. In a Wyoming community where a self-avowed white supremacist was running for public office, one 6th-grade teacher wondered how to address a white student’s intimidation of a mixed-blood child--because of the “politically sensitive” atmosphere. In a California middle school, white students passed around several dolls dressed in the Klan costume and another depicting a hanged black person. The teacher confiscated the dolls without comment. A black student said she reported the incident to the principal, “but he wouldn’t do anything.” Yet despite such efforts to downplay or ignore racist behavior, schools from Georgia to Wisconsin have had to close for one or more days because of “racial tensions.”

A conspiracy of silence also seems to surround the issue of race relations in most schools’ curricula. In comparatively few academic settings are the history and development of racism in the United States addressed in a comprehensive, pro-active manner. For some high schools, Black History Week signals a heightening of group tensions rather than an opportunity for honest interaction and conflict resolution.

The empirical experience of most children contradicts assurances that ours is a “color blind” society. Most youngsters have been told that equal opportunity has been achieved--and as a result, many white students view affirmative-action policies as an unfair special concession. And to deny the reality of a historical legacy of racism is to saddle students of color with an additional burden of alienation and self-doubt.

To improve racial harmony, anti-racism education is imperative. Though moralistic intervention may not be appropriate in all settings, our schools must teach the American democratic ideal of pluralism, the fascistic nature of white supremacy, and the inherent justice of defending minority rights. And while there is no shame in celebrating our European-American heritage, educators must also wholeheartedly address the role of blacks, Asian Americans, and others whose concerns and contributions have been consistently treated as marginal both by society at large and by our educational system.

The most effective point to undertake anti-racism education may be the early secondary-school years, when students are receptive and are old enough to understand the issues. School systems should design lessons and strategies appropriate for their own needs; at the same time, they can draw on a wide range of existing resources. These include such curricula and materials as the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s “Anti-Bias Curriculum"; the National Education Association’s “Violence, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Struggle for Equality"; the holocaust-education materials of the “Facing History and Ourselves” group; and the Center for Community Change’s “Bibliography on Racism.” Professionals are available to conduct training and give technical assistance.

Students who have participated in such programs report that they have begun to change their behaviors and convictions. And anti-racism education helps prepare high-school graduates for the confluence of cultural diversity and competition they will meet in the workplace or on the college campus.

Multicultural education in elementary school can lay an important foundation. But by the time students reach junior high or middle school, the harsh and pervasive reality of racism has touched most of them. They look to their teachers and school administrators for guidance and explanation. If they are not given honest answers, confusion and anxiety mount.

Left to their own devices, or to the ministrations of confirmed racists, both students of target populations and perpetrators of bias crime are at risk of having their lives blighted. The traditional “three R’s” will not suffice for the 1990’s. Our children need the new “three R’s": racism, respect, responsibility.

A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 1989 edition of Education Week