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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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When “Anti-Bias Education” Feels a Lot Like Political Hardball

By Rick Hess — June 06, 2011 4 min read

I just finished the recently-released second edition of What If All the Kids Are White? Anti-Bias Multicultural Education with Young Children and Families. It reminded me how politicized and stifling edu-world notions of diversity can be.

Authors Louise Derman-Sparks and Patricia Ramsey begin by noting that participants in their workshops often exhibit “a narrow definition of diversity [while] ignoring the many kinds of differences that exist even within racially homogeneous groups.” It seems obvious that a room full of white children might have different opinions, ideologies, values, experiences, interests, strengths, weaknesses, family situations, moral upbringings, religious orientations, and such. Why might anyone need a workshop to remind them of this? Oh, right. Maybe it’s because an industry of ideologues has crusaded, with much success, to make race an organizing principle for teacher training, edu-policy, and educational delivery.

Think “organizing principle” is too strong? Just a bit later, in making their case for “anti-bias/multicultural (AB/MC) education,” Derman-Sparks and Ramsey dismiss out-of-hand those naifs and closet racists who might suggest we’re entering a post-racial society. They argue that “people in all groups, including White persons” need to “join the long-term struggle,” and that “many activists and theorists engaged in the movement for social justice” think it’s “necessary to identify the specific dynamics of ‘Whiteness’ and the role of White people in challenging racism.”

Now, I’m just speculating, but could this grand enthusiasm for treating “White” people as a monolith with “specific dynamics” encourage educators to forget that any room of kids, regardless of race, can be pretty diverse in other, more important ways? And isn’t it a little peculiar to decry “ignoring the many kinds of differences that exist even within racially homogenous groups” while seeking “the specific dynamics of ‘Whiteness’”?

I’ve a larger point I want to make about the politicization of this stuff, so I’m not going to review the book. But here’s a thumbnail. The first half focuses on “the construction of Whiteness,” “White identity,” and how to help white kids find a new identity. The second half offers a “short history” of white resistance to racism, a primer on how children learn about racism and “anti-racism,” and tips on how teachers can foster children’s (and families’) “caring and activism.”

Derman-Sparks and Ramsey explain the urgency of all this by enthusiastically demonstrating the entrenched nature of American racism. They cite “hate groups and armed anti-government militia groups” (with ominous-sounding “Patriot” groups up 244% from 2008 to 2009), “violence” (with “racial hatred, along with tactics of violence, now appear[ing] in mainstream political discourse and behavior”), “racial bigotry directed at President Obama,” and “individual acts of racial bigotry.” I was unsurprised to find that their examples frequently implied that conservative criticism of President Obama reflects nothing more than garden-variety racism--with caricatures and heated opposition to health care reform constituting evidence of racist sentiment.

My friends in schools of education and progressive circles sometimes ask me how any reasonable person could have a problem with efforts to combat racism and promote “diversity.” I always tell them that I’d be more receptive to such efforts if they didn’t so often seem to regard conservative views as little more than the product of ignorance or veiled racism. It would help, too, if the gurus of diversity seemed as interested in heterogeneity of ideas or values as they are in racial categories.

This is sometimes difficult for me to explain clearly. So let me offer an example. During the George Bush presidency, vicious verbal attacks on him were commonplace. (These didn’t bother me, though, of course, I was no great fan of Bush.) These criticisms included calls for his assassination and his arrest as a war criminal, as well as hateful caricatures of the President and his family. Such criticisms were celebrated by intellectuals who reminded us that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” They had a point. After all, hard-hitting critiques of our elected leaders, including hysterical and over-the-top attacks, are a centuries-old American tradition.

Yet, when Derman-Sparks and Ramsey see these same kinds of hurtful attacks mounted against President Obama, they argue, “Aside from whether we agree with President Obama’s agenda, we need to ask ourselves what happens when young children see racist images and messages about President Obama.” Given that the authors make it plenty clear that they regard Tea Party groups as ipso facto racist and that all but the most genteel criticism of Obama risks being deemed racist, the clear implication is that much opposition to Obama’s agenda ought to be understood as illegitimate because it risks poisoning our children’s impressionable minds. This starts to feel a lot more like Big Brother than like anti-bias education.

Tellingly, in Appendix B, Derman-Sparks and Ramsey list 31 organizations that teachers should look to for instructional materials, speakers, support, and professional development. As best as I can tell, every single one is a politically active group pushing elements of a relatively expansive liberal agenda. That’s fine, of course, it’s a free country and all that. Just don’t pretend to be shocked when a skeptic views “anti-racist education” as a cloak for a political agenda. So long as that’s the way this game is played, it’s hard to imagine a self-respecting conservative regarding “anti-racist education” as anything more than an ideological, political exercise. And I hope school board members, university trustees, and legislators keep that in mind when assessing programs and spending.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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