The latest iteration of the culture wars roiling our country concerns the education of children. Some, believing that we have not achieved our founders’ goal of liberty and justice for all, insist that systemic barriers to health, education and economic success suffered by people of color must be discussed and remediated. Others say these barriers no longer exist and the excessive focus on racial injustice makes white children feel guilty about their privilege and ashamed of their heritage.
Last month, in a webinar hosted by Scarsdale Republicans, Dr. Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, decried the Critical Race Theory that he claims underlies the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiative promulgated by the New York State Education Department. The SED is urging school districts to develop policies that advance diversity, equity and inclusion with “fidelity and urgency.”
Wood went beyond criticism of the state’s goals to urge his listeners to “get involved and vote out school board members who support DEI initiatives.” He said current board members should either resign or take a stand against the state.
And advocate for what, we wonder? Homogeneity, inequity and exclusion?
Wood is probably right that American Blacks have more opportunity and a better standard of living today than Blacks in many other countries. He’s certainly right that conditions in the United States have improved in the past 50 years. But “better” is not good enough. His claim that someone “would have to go hunting far and wide to find anyone who would avow racist attitudes” is preposterous. Is Wood unaware of the threats of white supremacists and the police shootings of unarmed Black men that have become a staple of nightly news? Or does he think these threats and shootings are the actions of a few bad apples without wider significance?
We wonder if Wood is aware of the thoughtful, open-minded and inclusive deliberation that goes into educational decisions in Scarsdale. Individual teachers enjoy broad discretion in how they approach their subject matter. The PTA and Scarsdale Teachers Institute have hosted speakers on social justice; student groups work to advance the cause and address incidents of bias. Issues of diversity, equity and inclusion have long been discussed and included in the curriculum, especially in the past year.
In January, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Edgar McIntosh said the district aims to provide a “culturally responsive-sustaining education” in classrooms that are “safe spaces for all students to be themselves, while striving for protocols in which students are entitled to respectfully express their opinions, while building resilience to be in the same room as those with ideas and opinions which offend them.”
This doesn’t sound like hardcore indoctrination to us. While Wood would muzzle liberals, Scarsdale’s approach allows for conservatives to express their opinions and be treated with respect, however much they diverge from the views of the majority.
Teaching school children about the abuses of the past and the distasteful compromises that went into the making of our Constitution should not make them feel guilty. They are not responsible for the attitudes and actions of their ancestors. As they learn about the suffering inflicted on Blacks, they should also take pride in the progress that has been made in overcoming bigotry and expanding opportunity. Far from being anti-American, progressives care enough about our national ideals to continue the hard work of living up to them.
Scarsdale teachers help students develop skills to evaluate sources as well as think critically and analytically, skills made more important in the age of internet conspiracy theories and viral falsehoods.
Both sides in the culture wars take the most extreme views of the other side and use fear and outrage to rile up their bases. We all have to learn not to take the bait and reexamine the present without either repudiating or whitewashing the past.
Yes, we have laws protecting the rights of minorities (not always enforced). The worst excesses of the Jim Crow era are behind us (though some are trying to revive them). On television we see distinguished Black leaders in every field and discipline, living proof that minorities can rise to the top of any profession. But the success of some determined and talented people does not mean that the playing field has been leveled for all. With the most easily surmounted barriers addressed, the harder work of identifying and addressing subtler forms of discrimination and disadvantage remains to be done.
It’s the ultimate expression of American patriotism. We can only succeed if we pursue it together.