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

Equity & Diversity Opinion

Resisting ‘Anti-Racist’ Education Is Neither Racist Nor Unreasonable

By Rick Hess — May 24, 2021 4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.

Media is ablaze with coverage of the heated resistance to “anti-racist” education and Critical Race Theory (CRT). Much of the discourse, at least in education circles, reads like an angry lament that parents and policymakers troubled by all this are playing political games, just need to be enlightened about the finer points of CRT scholarship and anti-racism, or are out-and-out racists.

While the opposition surely includes opportunists and extremists (welcome to American politics in 2021), I think the champions of anti-racism fundamentally misconstrue the legitimate concerns. This failure to appreciate what’s actually fueling the resistance is unfortunate, destructive, and obscuring opportunities for constructive engagement.

Let me start by stipulating that I myself have grave reservations regarding many of the particular policies, practices, and programs being promoted under the banner of anti-racist education but also think that this underlying anti-racist impulse obviously contains much of value. Indeed, as a onetime social studies and civics teacher (who long ago taught selections from Frantz Fanon, Lao Tse, and Marx to my high schoolers, alongside the Founders and Adam Smith), I’ve long supported efforts to look unflinchingly at American history and society, be inclusive of new perspectives, take differences more seriously, reexamine troubling practices, and do a much better job meeting the needs of all learners. (Recently, I’ve made the point here, here, here, here, here—well, you get the idea.)

Here’s the thing. I don’t think I’m unusual in my openness to all of this. In fact, having heard from a lot of concerned parents and spoken to many Republican policymakers and advocates, I feel pretty comfortable saying they mostly agree with me on all this. I find that there’s generally broad support for the premise that our schools need to be more inclusive, honest, and responsive.

The issue, I’d argue, is that the backlash is not to this broadly-supported version of anti-racist education. Rather, the opponents are reacting to the ideas and educational practices promoted by some of anti-racism’s most visible and ardent adherents—ideas at odds with the values and beliefs of most Americans.

For instance, if one asks parents—of any race—what values they want their kids to learn, more than 4 out of 5 will endorse concepts like “hard work,” “being well-mannered,” and “being responsible.” (In fact, Black parents are slightly more likely than white parents to say that traits like “hard work,” “being well-mannered,” and “persistence” are important.)

I don’t suspect most of these parents would’ve agreed with the leaders of the famed KIPP charter schools last year when they announced that the chain needed to abandon its slogan “Work Hard, Be Nice” as an “anti-racist” blow against “white supremacy” culture. Or with the Oregon Department of Education urging teachers to shed “white supremacist” practices such as requiring students to “show their work” or expecting them to get the “right answer.” Or with popular teacher training materials, which hold that “objectivity” and “politeness” are hallmarks of “white supremacy culture.”

Similarly, while anti-racist educators have sought to migrate “privilege walks” from college campuses to K-12 schools and have urged classroom teachers to adopt exercises in which students self-identify as “privileged” or “oppressed,” just 6 percent of American adults say they want schools labeling white students as “privileged” or nonwhite children as “oppressed.” Indeed, 88 percent opposed schools doing this—with 78 percent strongly opposed. Again, opposition to these things is sweeping and crosses racial lines.

In a similar vein, more than two-thirds of adults say they oppose having schools tell students that America was founded as a racist nation, 70 percent say schools should not teach students that their race is the “most important thing about them,” and more than 4 in 5 oppose using classrooms to promote political activism. I don’t believe these adults would be enthusiastic about the Biden Department of Education holding up as models of civic education a scholar who teaches “there is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy” and that “only racists say they’re not racist,” and a history program that teaches America was founded as a “slavocracy.”

Now, I’ve found that anti-racist diehards tend to respond to such numbers like undergraduates in a Gramsci seminar, by muttering about false consciousness and hegemonic schema. Well. I’d counter that those who seek to shape a public education system that uses public tax dollars to educate the public’s children are well-served by exhibiting a modicum of respect for the values and beliefs of the public.

I’ll say it again: There’s obviously much of great worth that can be located under the capacious banner of “anti-racist” education. But it is being drowned out by the troubling excesses that are loudly promoted in anti-racism’s name. Unfortunately, for reasons that escape me, the more measured and responsible proponents of anti-racism have not seemed inclined to challenge the agendas of their more fanatical brethren or even acknowledge the concerns.

When a movement appears to be visibly championing values that are regarded as wrongheaded by two-thirds or more of the nation, pushback is inevitable. In fact, that’s rather how democracy is supposed to work. And I think those troubled by the resistance they’re witnessing would do well to consider that it may be a principled and serious response, rather than an opportunistic or racist one.

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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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