Opinion
Social Studies Commentary

Civics Education Must Put Racial Equity First

By Scott Warren & Andrew Wilkes — September 25, 2018 4 min read
Civics Education Must Put Racial Equity First

Civics education is popular again. As our democracy itself sits on a historic precipice, people from around the country are calling for a national renewal of civics education. However, more civics education by itself is not sufficient. This new political moment requires a new civics: one in which a quest for racial equity is front and center.

When it is taught at all, civics is predominantly presented as a stale and monotonous topic, in which democracy feels irrelevant to the majority of students’ lives. Conventional civics focuses primarily on how government works and does not acknowledge the lived experiences of many of today’s students.

That approach can harm our very politics. By definition, an effective democracy requires equal representation from all segments of the population. It demands the robust political participation from all voices and communities—a goal that we can only achieve through a shared commitment to racial equity. That promise does not yet ring true in our country.

A new civics education, which centers racial equity as a cornerstone of American democracy, must explicitly address the political and social marginalization of communities that have traditionally been excluded from the formal democratic process. In doing so, we can begin to dismantle the barriers to civic identity and participation faced by so many young people in this country, particularly by young people of color. In this equity-focused civics education, students can develop an understanding of democracy’s relevance to their own lives.

Unfortunately, the word “equity” itself is now widely understood as a partisan ideal. In consequence, many education leaders and civics educators choose to approach the subject from a broad perspective, believing that a rising tide in civics will lift all boats. Without an explicit focus on educating for the promise of racial equity, however, there is a danger in perpetuating a democracy led by a privileged, often white minority, instead of a diverse, inclusive majority.

Civics education should reflect the needs and demographics of the nation's public school children."

Civics education should reflect the needs and demographics of the nation’s public school children, the majority of whom are students of color. In a country that has historically oppressed people who are not white, acknowledging this real history is crucial in cultivating an effective civics education.

Teachers can make civics education feel relevant by connecting the discipline to local issues and challenges that students encounter every day. Civics educators should use a pedagogy informed by racial equity to engage students in critical thinking and problem-solving. This project-based approach rooted in political participation is particularly necessary for students of color, who have traditionally been excluded from the formal democratic process. Our ultimate goal should be to create a democracy in which every civic actor can meaningfully take part in our political system.

Every school must foster a democratic culture in which every young person feels valued and respected. Many schools attended predominately by youths of color, such as “no excuse” charter schools, employ overly harsh school disciplinary policies. These policies are correlated to decreased community engagement, voter turnout, and trust in government. In contrast, private and suburban majority-white schools often have a reputation for progressive and liberating pedagogy that allows more student voice.

To bridge this gap, every school must equip and empower students to care for their school community. District leaders, principals, and teachers can begin by instituting peer mediation, teaching social and emotional skills, and working with students on minor disciplinary incidents rather than taking punitive measures.

Before putting racial equity front and center, the field of civics education providers and advocates must also address the racial leadership gap within its own ranks. Districts whose leadership is primarily white may find it difficult to make equity a priority in their civics work—a difficulty compounded by the reality that many teachers have received little critical pedagogical support in the topic.

Additionally, the executive leadership and governance of many civics education organizations are also disproportionately white, male, and older. These organizations are therefore missing the insight and experience that people of color and women could bring to the field. We do not highlight this reality to induce shame, but rather to invite all civics education organizations—including our own—to prioritize equity in their staffing, messaging, and organizational practice.

We work at Generation Citizen, an organization that was originally founded by mainly white leadership. Through the organization’s evolution, it has faced an internal struggle to elevate equity and diversify its staff and leadership. And through our work in places as different as New York and California to Oklahoma and Texas, we have come to recognize that the entire country does not think monolithically regarding equity work.

Centering racial equity in how civics education is led and taught is an imperative for the field to be democratic. A new civics education must incorporate racial equity into our assessment of academic standards, curricula, policies, civic disposition, and school culture. Nothing less, and nothing else, will prepare a generation of young people to lead as inclusive civic actors in our increasingly diverse society.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2018 edition of Education Week as Civics Education Must Put Racial Equity First

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