The California Department of Education announced new anti-racism lessons and teacher training for school districts (Education to End Hate initiative). This comes just days after President Donald Trump announced the 1776 Commission to counter The New York Times’ 1619 Project. The 1619 project has been adapted into a curriculum guide for schools. The The 1619 Project Curriculum, promoted by the Pulitzer Center, obsesses over the history of slavery, portraying it as the root of alleged systemic racism in the United States. The project, which is fraught with errors, has gained momentum with the media-hyped moral panic over the debunked claim of racial disparities in lethal officer-civilian encounters (see The Myth of Systemic Racism in Lethal Police Officer-Civilian Encounters).
Facts appear to be unimportant to those pushing the narrative that portrayed the United States as a racially oppressive society. “We have continued to watch unspeakable acts of racism play out on our television screens, whether it be police brutality or those who want to hold on to symbols that represent hate against African Americans that go back to slavery,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said at a news conference announcing the lessons and trainings. “Sometimes I’m not sure what to do,” he continued. “But in those moments, I’m reminded education continues to be one of our most powerful tools to countering hate.” Translation: The institution of public education is a powerful instrument of indoctrination.
During his September 17 remarks at the White House Conference on American History, President Trump said that the 1619 project “rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.” Decrying the project, he said, “Nothing could be further from the truth. America’s founding set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated communism and fascism, and built the most fair, equal, and prosperous nation in human history.”
The president identified critical race theory as informing antiracist curriculum in our schools and workplace trainings. I have critiqued critical race theory in several essays on Freedom and Reason (see, for example, “Committing the Crime it Condemns,” “The New Left’s War on Imaginary Structures of Oppression,” and “Race and Democracy”) as well as discussed its role in racial diversity training programs. “A perfect example of critical race theory was recently published by the Smithsonian Institution,” Trump told his audience. “This document alleged that concepts such as hard work, rational thinking, the nuclear family, and belief in God were not values that unite all Americans, but were instead aspects of ‘whiteness.’ This is offensive and outrageous to Americans of every ethnicity, and it is especially harmful to children of minority backgrounds who should be uplifted, not disparaged.” (I discuss the document at length in “The Myth of White Culture.”)
As with most of his speeches, the president’s remarks White House Conference on American History were at moments inelegant, but in substance correct. Antiracism “education” socializes children to (1) see and treat people not as concrete individuals but as personifications of racialized categories; (2) assume all blacks are victims of white supremacy; (3) assume all whites are responsible for black despair, immiseration, and suffering; and (4) believe the American Republic was designed to secure and perpetuate the privileges of white power.
These are false teachings. Race is a social construction produced and sustained by racial thinking. There are millions of black Americans in positions of power and privilege. There are millions of white Americans suffering from poverty and in distress. No white person alive today is responsible for anything her or his ancestors did. Any white person who engages in discrimination is potentially subject to consequences under the law. Testifying to the power of its creed, the American Republic abolished the slave trade, chattel slavery, and de jure segregation, while instituting affirmative action. Attempting to deny this history, antiracist teachers sow the seeds of racial antagonisms and resentments in the nation’s children. The harvest of their toil is more social conflict in the future, conflict that harms the interests of all members of the working class. White children are made to feel guilty for things they have not done, while black children are taught that, no matter what they do, they will always face systemic racism. Unless, of course, the “structures of oppression” are dismantled, i.e., the principles of the American Republic are abolished or dead letters.
We won’t get rid of racism by telling little white kids that they’re responsible for the situation of the little black kids sitting next to them (as if their situations are monolithic). That story is a variation on the blue eyed/brown eyed experiment that shows how easy it is to create in-group/out-group conflict. It is unethical. But, also, the function, if not the purpose, of antiracist education is to sow racial division and perpetuate race-based antagonism. We won’t make progress on race relations by teaching our kids—in the face of a grand history of progress—that the republic is incapable of realizing its creed. We will get rid of racism when we teach our children that they are individuals who have a right to expect that they will each be treated equally before the law and that the story of their nation has been one of overcoming racism.
What public instruction should do is teach children the skills they need to thrive in a rapidly changing world, make them aware that they live in a constitutional republic with a bill of rights where every individual is equal before the law, and inspire them to chart a path towards self-actualization and the realizations of their aspirations. To be sure, not every person can rise to the highest stations of their communities (not everybody aspires to reach for these heights), but adults do not help children make the most of themselves by teaching them that they are victims, that all those with their phenotypic features suffer the same fate and at the hands of those who don’t look like them, and that their situation is hopeless until the country they live in is no longer recognizable.