Friday, December 24, 2021

Teaching anti-racist citizenship in a non-partisan classroom

The nation’s schools seem to be dividing themselves into two camps: anti-racist and anti-critical race theory. On one side, some schools, like the one I teach at, are declaring themselves to be “anti-racist schools,” on the other they are banning books like the one that has emerged as the bible of anti-racism, Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist.  

If we put the best face on both positions, we would conclude that anti-racist schools are not seeking to brainwash students with Marxist theories, and anti-CRT schools are not committed to maintaining a system of white supremacy. Rather, one side wants students to be taught that democratic values are incompatible with bigotry; the other, that schools should not be sites of political indoctrination.

We should all be able to agree with both of those propositions, which are not necessarily in conflict. I believe that my school is well positioned to offer a model for how to bridge the gap between the two sides and reduce the polarization that is tearing our nation, and our schools, apart. It has always been an article of faith, in my experience, that the intellectual autonomy of our students is the sine qua non of the "Harkness method"—which is used in every class at Phillips Exeter Academy.  We teach our students how to think and deliberate, not what to think. One of the great insults you could throw at a teacher in my department (history), was that their class was “Socratic”—that is, that you were leading them to a foregone conclusion. Our questions were supposed to be open to different answers.

I do worry, though, that in our zeal to become an anti-racist school, there is some danger of betraying this value. I’ve heard some colleagues say that the goal of the school should be to advance “social justice,” and instead of challenging those statements, the administration has seemed at times to endorse them.

Perhaps they consider social justice and anti-racism to be non-partisan moral goods and that any objections to them are morally indefensible and should be beyond the pale in our classrooms. But “social justice” and “antiracism” are meaningless terms until you connect them to specific policies and they have become attached to partisan policy agendas that only a small segment of the American electorate support in total (see the Hidden Tribes survey).

(How do teachers decide what is beyond the pale?)

Although I share the policy aims of much of what comes under the rubric of those terms, lots of Americans do not. And they can’t all be white supremacists. For example depending on how the question is asked, as many as 73 percent of Americans say they are opposed to affirmative action, a policy that would be at the top of most progressive activists’ list of anti-racism policies.  I’ve written a very long blog post on the diversity of thought among Black intellectuals, some of whom also oppose affirmative action, and many of whom disagree with the most popular anti-racist thinkers of the moment—Kendi, Ta Nehisi Coates, Robin DiAngelo.  We can’t write off huge swaths of the American electorate as morally illegitimate and put their views beyond the pale of what can be discussed. 

One place we might look for a way to bridge the divide between the best versions of anti-racism and anti-CRT, is a guide that has been my bible for teaching politics in the classroom: The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, by Paula McAvoy and Diana Hess. The book revolves around this question: “how can educators teach young people about politics in such a way that schools do not become partisan institutions?”

Unlike the theory-laden, top-down nature of most currently fashionable approaches to anti-racism they base their conclusions on concrete evidence gathered through numerous case studies of what happens in actual classrooms, how students engage with politics and the impact of various teaching strategies. They spoke with students and teachers, conducted surveys, observed classes, and their book is full of case studies and the recommendations of students and teachers taken from their research. Their conclusions come from the ground-up, pieced together from engaged students and skilled teachers with deep knowledge of public policy and many years of experience teaching students about democracy and its values. 

The book confronts the ethical dilemmas and complexity of teaching politics to young people and the authors do not offer easy answers. It’s a Harkness approach, not a Socratic one. Often, they conclude that a problem has no one-size-fits-all solution and that individual teachers will need to arrive at their own solutions using their own judgements. For example, in a chapter on whether or not teachers should disclose their own political views, they found that teachers they studied were evenly divided on the question and that there were good arguments on both sides. Instead of picking a side, they gave a list of compelling pros and cons so readers could make up their own minds.

Still, they arrive at some important conclusions about the aims and methods of political education. First and foremost, teachers should foster intellectual and political autonomy. And students should learn skills of deliberation—how to engage with fellow citizens who hold opposing views and how to do it in a civil manner.

Here are some of their other topics and conclusions (quotes are taken from the book’s website, unless otherwise indicated by page numbers of the book):

  • Schools are, and ought to be, political sites, and educators need to learn how to teach about and respond to political controversy but they should not try to indoctrinate their students.
  • “Teaching young people to discuss political controversies is an important component of democratic education.” They conclude that the aims of the political classroom should include “political equality, tolerance, autonomy, fairness, engagement, and political literacy.” Students should learn the “the values [and norms] of deliberative democracy: reason giving, civil discourse, evaluation of arguments, and solutions for the common good.”
  • They “show how teachers should approach the question of when it is ethical to include or exclude issues that may be especially sensitive or personally challenging for some students.” (chapter 8: I posted a summary here).
  • While one of the chief aims of the book is to foster students’ autonomy, a chapter looks at the teaching of politics in conservative private religious schools which are unwilling to accept “the consequences of too much independent thought.” Parents send their children to such schools precisely to foster the religious values they have raised them to hold. The teacher in this case study has not completely abandoned the goal of autonomy, but has adopted a modified approach—“bounded autonomy—that “does not require one to critically examine all aspects of one’s life” (134). If John McWhorter and others who argue that the “woke” social justice movement is akin to a religion, then perhaps schools that are seeking to brand themselves as anti-racist should explicitly embrace the bounded autonomy model. I would be opposed to that; as Hess and McAvoy argue, students in such environments “are not getting sufficient exposure to political difference, making them susceptible to becoming politically intolerant,” thus contributing to the cancerous growth of polarization in the American body politic (146).
  • The authors borrow heavily from classics scholar Danielle Allen when they connect their findings to a theory of democratic citizenship. They call on teachers to embrace her notion of “political friendship”: “teaching toward a civic ideal with the hope that over time goodwill can transform a distrustful … political sphere.” Deeply grounded in African-American history and her study of Athenian democracy, Allen’s model of politics says that good democratic citizens must have respect and goodwill toward those they disagree with and consider the common good, not just self-interest. Elsewhere I’ve recommended Allen’s book as a key text for teaching anti-racist citizenship. 
  • Good citizens need to constantly ask themselves: “could I be wrong?”

Many of the schools that are embracing the anti-racist mission seem to be using a different guide to teaching politics: Kendi's How to be an Antiracist, which became a number one best seller during the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020.  Kendi had been the keynote speaker at my school’s annual MLK day celebration in January of that year and the administration had distributed copies of his book to any teacher who would take one.

Kendi has argued that every public policy and every idea is either racist or antiracist. There is no such thing as not racist.

If you accept this dichotomous premise, then to be a proper antiracist you need to figure out whether any policy or idea supports or opposes racism and get on the right side of it. Kendi doesn’t want every individual to make that determination for themselves but rather, we should rely on the opinions of “experts.”

He has advocated the establishment of an unelected branch of government, made up of “formally trained experts on racism,” who would have veto power over any new policy enacted by any governmental body from the local school committee all the way up to Congress. He promotes this Department of Antiracism as a way to “fix politics,” but it strikes me as a way to eliminate politics. 

According to his reasoning, just about every conservative policy idea is racist, and so by extension, presumably, is the Republican Party and its supporters. Not only that, but Democrats don’t all agree on every policy--so some of them must be supporters of racist policies.

Can we deliberate with people who support racist policies? Is there room for compromise? Can we see their demands as legitimate? Can we accept their electoral victories? Politics requires that we do. Does anti-racism require that we do not?

As far as I can tell, my school continues, for the most part, to be a site of good political teaching, where  teachers have autonomy over the content of their syllabi but refrain from indoctrinating them into any particular partisan or ideological point of view, and students can express their views in the classroom, even if the social cost of dissent may be on the rise, leading to some self-censorship.  I hope that our efforts to become an anti-racist school will not be guided by authoritarian theories and top-down methods.

I worry a little bit, though, about item number 8 of the Trustees’ list of 12 steps to make Exeter anti-racist.  It calls for creation of “a new cross-department faculty working group to focus on incorporating themes of race, equity and justice into the curriculum of each department.” So far I’m not familiar with the work of this group, if it has indeed been established, and it hasn’t affected my teaching.

But it sounds potentially analogous to Kendi’s proposed Department of Education and maybe also the  state legislatures that passed anti-CRT laws. If we are to remain true to our educational principles, the Trustees should reconsider the wisdom of having such a committee; dichotomous thinking, political litmus tests, and delegation of control to appointed “experts” are very anti-Harkness and un-Exonian. But if we must have it, I hope that it will be guided by the values implicit in The Political Classroom that have guided our school at least since the Harkness gift—respecting the intelligence of both students and faculty, and embracing collaboration, epistemic humility, open inquiry, and tolerance of dissenting views.

 (Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism)

RELATED SOURCE: Helen Pluckrose, "Should We Ban the Teaching of Critical Race Theory in the Classroom?" May 21, 2021, Counterweight. Pluckrose makes an important distinction between teaching about ideas and indoctrination in ideas and argues that teachers should do the former and not the latter.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Engaging controversy in the classroom

I recently re-read an important chapter of the excellent book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, by Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy. I think the issues and dilemmas they address in this chapter speak to the issues and dilemmas my school and many others confront when they seek to diversify the student body and foster an equitable and inclusive culture.

(For a discussion of the whole book, read this post)

Chapter 8: The Ethics of Framing and Selecting Issues.

In this chapter, the authors address two questions. How, they ask, should teachers:

1. Decide which topics to frame as open questions that should be subject to debate; and

2. Balance the goals of teaching authentic political controversies with promoting a classroom environment that is fair and welcoming to all students.

Teaching open v. closed (or settled) public issues.

Students might learn about closed questions in a history or current events class. For example, when we study the history of slavery in American history, students learn the arguments of abolitionists and defenders of slavery, but they are not generally asked to deliberate on the merits of the peculiar institution and to arrive at their own conclusions about it.*

But since the aim of the political classroom is for students to develop intellectual and political autonomy, open questions should be subject to deliberation so that students may arrive at their own conclusions.

Some issues are easy to categorize as closed: should women be allowed to vote? Should people convicted of certain crimes be sterilized? Should it be illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol? Others are certainly open: Should the US increase immigration quotas? Should states require voters to show valid identification? Should it be illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption?

It becomes more complicated when issues are “’in the tip,’ that is, moving from open to settled or settled to open” (171). Should gay marriage be legal? is an example of a question that was moving from open to settled when the book was published in 2015 and has moved further in that direction in the years since.

It also becomes difficult when the teacher has strong ethical views about a question. In his course on “contemporary controversies,” Joel Kushner asked his students to deliberate on the question of whether US military intelligence should use torture as an interrogation technique in the war on terror. But as Kushner reflected on the lesson, he came to the conclusion that his selection of materials ended up “steering” his students toward the conclusion that torture is not an acceptable method of interrogation. The authors conclude that Kushner was wrong to steer the conversation after framing it as open. It amounts to “manipulating the whole process to your own ends” (172).

On the other hand, in crafting the lesson, Kushner had faced a dilemma between two equally legitimate goals of political education: developing an authentic curriculum that deals with issues that are objects of “live political debate”—the Bush administration and its defenders argued that torture could extract confessions about impending strikes and would save innocent lives—and core democratic values like respect for human life and dignity.

An dilemma arises when a question is empirically settled, but politically open. For example, the vast majority of climate scientists agree that the climate is warming, that humans are causing it, and that it will have devastating consequences. Yet one political party has resisted these conclusions, citing a minority of scientific opinions.

Hess and McAvoy argue that when teachers treat a settled empirical issue as open, they inhibit the goal of teaching students how to make up their own minds “by suggesting that students should seriously consider evidence known to be false.” They suggest the way to deal with this situation is to “rely on actual experts” like climate scientists. But one party regularly denigrates the authority of experts, not only on climate change, but also in other areas, like vaccines and masks during the COVID pandemic (see note, below, on mask science). And as long as a significant number of people—enough, for example, to carry an election—disagree on an issue, it is politically open, regardless of the conclusiveness of the evidence.

Hess and McAvoy suggest three tests for judging whether teachers should treat it an issue as open to debate.

1. Do some people disagree?

2. Is it possible to hold opposing viewpoints that are not contrary to reason?

3. Does the issue have “traction in the public sphere, appearing on ballots, in courts, within political platforms, in legislative chambers and as part of political movements” (168-169)?

Hess and McAvoy reject test #1—you can always find someone who holds onto a fringe view in opposition to just about any proposition. They conclude that #3 offers the most promising basis for deciding what issues to treat as politically open. It serves the aims of the political classroom: “to develop in students an understanding of the political world in which they live, a willingness to deliberate issues with an eye toward fairness, a capacity to develop their own (reasonable) views, and orientation to and preparation for active engagement in the political debates of their time" (169).

But they recognize limitations to this approach, limitations which have become even more evident in the political climate that has developed since the appearance of their book—the problems of political demagoguery, polarization, denigration of experts, and the strategy of sowing epistemic confusion, characterized by Steve Bannon as “flooding the zone with shit.”

“Consequently, teachers need to use judgement when deciding which issues to introduce to students as authentically political” (169). That brings option #2 into play. But of course in these polarized times, reason seems to be increasingly irrelevant in our political discourse and teachers’ judgements are constantly being called into question, as in the recent controversies over the teaching of CRT and the 1619 project. Even as far back as 2011, 50 percent of Americans thought that social studies teachers use their classrooms as political soapboxes (205).

Balancing political authenticity and inclusivity.

The goal of creating an authentic political experience, in which students have the chance to deliberate on issues that are currently live in the public sphere, can sometimes rub up against the goal of establishing an equitable, inclusive classroom environment that is welcoming to all students and where they can fearlessly express their views.

Surveys conducted by Hess and McAvoy found that English language learners, immigrants and “low-SES” students “were significantly more likely” than their peers to say that they “hesitated to speak in class because classmates would think their ideas were unworthy of consideration.” In case studies of classes that discussed affirmative action and immigration, Anna, a Black student, and Gabe, a Mexican-American student said they were offended by comments made during the lesson. Anna was driven to tears in the discussion.

“We are concerned that it is distressingly easy to predict who will feel silenced in class discussion, and we wonder whether it can possibly be fair that students who are already vulnerable in US society are being asked, once again, to make a sacrifice for others who occupy a more privileged status,” Hess and McAvoy write (173-174).

The last few pages of the chapter are spent exploring the rationale of teachers who simply choose to avoid issues “that are especially sensitive to some students” and those who choose to engage with such issues in their classes in spite of the risks. They conclude with a five-point strategy for mitigating the harm that might occur when those risks are taken.

The avoiders say it is impossible to cover every issue, so why not choose ones that will be least likely to cause emotional distress. Students will learn the skills of civil discourse best by discussing issues that aren’t linked to the social circumstances of students in the class. It will be easier for students to practice detachment in those kinds of situations.

The authors reject these rationales, and suggest that if those discussions don’t take place in a classroom under the supervision of the teacher, they will take place “in the hallways” without guardrails, a point raised by Gabe, the Mexican-American student who was “rightfully offended” by classmates’ “bigoted comments” in an immigration discussion. Gabe’s reflections and the survey data led the authors to conclude that the avoiders over-estimate the sensitivity of their students and underestimate the ability of teenagers to engage in sensitive discussions.

Gabe’s view was common among students who had taken classes in which challenging conversations took place. “You have to force yourself to feel uncomfortable. And you take the best out of it that you can,” said a Puerto Rican student who was enthusiastic about Mr. Kushner’s class. “I think that is society” (175). Even Anna, who was moved to tears by the discussion of affirmative action, said that the benefits of the lesson outweighed the emotional cost (127).

Teachers who challenged their students to deliberate sensitive issues rather than avoid them also assumed that the benefits of deliberation outweighed the consequences and sacrifices that some students would have to make. They reasoned that it is impossible to know how every issue will relate to each student’s experience, and when students do encounter peers with direct relevant experience of an issue it bolsters the learning about fairness and tolerance.

Still, the deliberating teachers were aware that some students would be more likely to be insulted by comments made during discussion of certain issues, so they suggest a variety of mitigation strategies derived from their observations (179-180):

1. Gather information about students through surveys at the start of the term so they can get a better sense of the class dynamics and how to take care of each student.

2. Establish and enforce strong norms of civil discourse in the classroom. Some teachers asked the students to construct the norms at the start of the term as a group project.

3. Put off discussion of the more sensitive issues until later in the term when the norms had been well established and students have gotten to know each other and the teacher and built rapport and trust.

4. Get to know the issues very well so the teacher can anticipate sensitive reactions, more effectively facilitate conversations, and correct students who use questionable evidence.

5. Conduct surveys after the class is over to find out how the students experienced the class.


(Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism) 

*Actually, a history teacher might stage a debate on a now-closed question and ask some students to take the side of the wrong answer. There would be no expectation, however, that anyone would emerge from such an exercise on the wrong side of the debate. Most teachers these days, I assume, would shy away from such an exercise. (Go back to where you were reading in the essay.)

I would be curious to know what Ibram X. Kendi would say about Chapter 8 of the Political Classroom. He asserts that every public policy that’s not anti-racist is racist and that any policy that has a disparate negative impact on Black people is racist. Hess and McAvoy say that voter ID laws should be treated as open (163). In a Kendi-inspired anti-racist school, would students be permitted to argue in favor of—and even end up supporting—voter ID laws that most certainly have a disparate negative impact on Black voters?

I generally agree with Hess and McAvoy that teachers should generally not avoid sensitive subjects, and that our students are more resilient than we might think. But I once decided not to set up a Supreme Court role play on an affirmative action case in my law course because of the demographics and the particular dynamics in that class, which I observed in a preliminary discussion of the topic. For me, this reinforces the difficulty of the questions they raised and the need for teachers to develop and be allowed to exercise their own judgements based on actual circumstances and conditions, rather than simplistic one-size-fits-all mandates imposed from above. 

Controversies over mask mandates in schools illustrate the growing difficulty of judging whether an issue is empirically closed in a polarized electorate.  In this Atlantic piece, David Zweig shows how experts at the CDC based a masking recommendation for schools on a flawed study, undermining their credibility.  My guess is that most people in the liberal bubble will treat this example as an anomaly and continue to trust CDC recommendations and experts generally, while folks on the other side will use it as evidence that experts can't be trusted.  In his book The Quick Fix, journalist Jesse Singal has written about the "replication crisis" in science, undermining the the validity of scientific studies that have not been repeated and confirmed. See also, Ross Douthat's discussion of the inadequacy of medical science in the face of chronic illness like long-term Lyme disease and how it undermines faith in mainstream medicine. The film "Inside Job" suggested that expert economists were paid off by financial institution to exaggerate the safety of investments in housing and helped to inflate the real estate bubble that precipitated the Great Recession of 2008.

Monday, December 13, 2021

White privilege and solidarity

Race or class privilege?

Back in 2015, my employer invested quite a bit of money to expose staff and students to the anti-racist work of author Debby Irving. They handed out copies of her book, Waking up White, and set up a book group for faculty and staff, which I joined. They also invited her to campus and she delivered an assembly address to the student body. I was invited to join her for dinner that evening at a nice restaurant.

It turns out, I learned over dinner, that Ms. Irving and I had lived parallel lives. We were born and raised in neighboring Massachusetts towns, our fathers were both World War II vets who got married at the end of the war and benefited from the GI Bill of Rights.  We were both the youngest of five children (my younger sister, number 6, was born much later), and we were born in the same year, 1960. And we ere both white people who wrote books about race in the United States.

Unlike me, though, Debby had not given much thought to race until relatively late in life, and in the process of “waking up white," she came to see how she was a product of a system of racial oppression and "white privilege."

I had been studying Black history for most of my adult life, but had been exposed to the concept of "white privilege” only recently.

As a student of history, I understood the advantages of a white skin in America, but for me, Debby was not the best messenger to explain the concept.

That's because of some important differences in our parallel lives. The two Massachusetts towns we grew up in were close in geography but quite different in socioeconomic makeup. Her World-War-Two-veteran dad was a top administrator of one of the most prestigious hospitals in the world, Massachusetts General; my father was a janitor in the public schools. Her father used the GI bill to put himself through medical school and buy a 6-bedroom house in Winchester, where a "typical home" currently goes for $1.2 million according to Zillow; my dad use it to buy a 900-square-foot 3-bedroom (1 bath) ranch in Burlington. Given these contrasts, as I read the book it became perhaps more obvious than to most readers that many of the blessings and advantages she enjoyed—like the country club membership and the vacation home on the lake Maine—had more to do with class than race privilege.

Even the photos on the front (see above) and back book covers scream “class privilege,” and say nothing discernible about race, aside from the color of young Debby’s skin.

Early in her book, Irving wrote that she understood class to be an important factor to consider when talking about inequality in America, and that the reader should expect her to “often conflate classism and racism.” Still, she hoped that white people with less class privilege would not assume they did not enjoy similar kinds of white privilege.

Fair enough. She was writing about her own experience and I do recognize that I have enjoyed blessings that come with a white complexion—or rather, that were not denied to me because of my race.

I am grateful to have grown up in a cozy home, next to a park, owned by my parents, in a safe suburban neighborhood. Most Black World War II vets didn't manage to use their GI benefits to get home mortgages. That injustice had been driven home to me when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s famous Atlantic article on reparations, which explained the practice of redlining that made it near impossible for Black people to qualify for VA-subsidized mortgages.

But Debby seemed to think that acknowledging her conflation of class and race in chapter 3 would allow her to do it for the next 43 chapters without distorting reality or alienating any white readers. Imagine a white, single, working class mother with a full-time job reading that Debby's ability to shuttle her children from “one after-school activity after another had a lot to do with the time and money that whiteness afforded me” (209).

Irving didn’t invent the concept of white privilege. Getting white Americans to “check their privilege” is one of the more common strategies of diversity trainers. There is even an annual “White Privilege Conference,” which I once attended. But from what I’ve seen, it seems like the strategy is more effective with people who have a healthy amount of class privilege, like Debby and most of the people associated with elite educational institutions like the one I teach at, which spent a couple of thousand dollars to send me to the WPC in Kansas City.*

Debby’s work—which is largely focused on getting white folks to use the right words and avoid micro-aggressions, like mixing up the names of two black kids—is helpful in those spaces, where the usually small number of Black folks also have a fair amount of class privilege compared to the general population. But it doesn’t do much for the people of color who disproportionately suffer from the deprivations and indignities of the lower classes—or the whites who account for twice as many of the American poor as Blacks. 

White privilege workshops and Debby’s book ask us to change our thinking—to get woke, as they say. Acknowledgment of class privilege might require the better off to give up some wealth or income through, say, higher taxes and redistribution of income. Maybe that’s why the concept of “white privilege” is so much more popular than “class privilege” at places like Exeter.

Toward the end of her book, Irving calls for “solidarity” between Black and white people, which she frames as “sharing the burden of race.” As an example, she tells a story of a grade-school class where all the children shaved their heads in solidarity with a classmate undergoing chemotherapy. Debby describes her own efforts at racial solidarity: she has stopped snacking on food in her shopping cart before paying for it, because Black friends get into trouble when they do that; she doesn’t try to “sweet talk” her way out of speeding tickets (223). I’m not sure what she does with the royalties from her book or her speaking fees from places like Exeter.

Debby’s notion of solidarity echoes the calls by many contemporary advocates of racial justice for people to become “white allies.” 

When she reaches beyond race relations on the personal level to talk about systems, Debby cites an example of a county in Maryland that sought to lower the achievement gap among school children by redistributing funding from affluent to less affluent districts. Her reflection on the solution is revealing:

Could I have been convinced to have my county's resources shifted from my child's school to a Red Zone school if I didn't understand the achievement gap’s historical roots? I can't know for sure, but I think it may have been a hard concept for me to embrace (209).
I don’t know many parents—especially not among the upper classes that I mingle with—who are willing to sacrifice their own kids’ best interests for the advancement of other peoples’ children. That’s true of wealthy people, as the so-called varsity blues scandal illustrates all-too clearly.

And as J. Anthony Lukas shows in his vivid account of the Boston busing fiasco of the 1970s, Common Ground, it’s also true of working-class people like the white parents of Charlestown, who resisted having their children transferred to what they assumed were worse schools across town in Black neighborhoods they perceived as unsafe. They resisted ferociously, but in the end they had no choice. Lukas’s account does not conflate race and class and if you read it you will understand why you can’t fully understand one without the other.

And of course the better suburban schools of Boston, like Winchester, were excluded from Judge Garrity’s integration order.

If we want to promote interracial solidarity and support for racial justice among white people we should not frame racial equity as a zero-sum game in which parents must sacrifice their children.

One way is to stop using the term “privilege.”

Debby’s father and mine both put their lives on the line to fight the Nazis. I consider the pay they got for their military service—like the pay any wage-worker gets after doing the job—not as a privilege, but as an earned right. Once Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights, getting those benefits also became a right.

My father's use of his GI Bill of Rights to subsidize a mortgage was an earned right. It was not a “perk” that comes with a white skin (13). Calling it a privilege makes it sound like he didn't earn it or that there was something wrong with him getting it.

There was something wrong with Black veterans not getting it.

When we refer to the exercising of a right as a privilege, we are assisting those who call welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare “entitlements” to undermine support for them. Like “privilege,” it carries negative connotations. It means “the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment” and “privilege” seems to implicitly include the adjective “unearned.”  It conjures up the spoiled child.

“Rights,” puts the onus back where it belongs, on the policies and systems denying them, not on people exercising them appropriately. The problem isn't the granting of privileges, it's the denial of rights. It’s not a privilege to be able to walk around the store without being harassed or to drive down the street without being pulled over for no reason. It’s a right of due process—a right that should never be denied to anyone. It’s deserved if not earned.

Irving makes a reference in her book to “the long history of white people mistaking one black person for another” (225). Over dinner after her assembly, I suggested that she read more history, especially Edmund Morgan's book, American Slavery and American Freedom. As I've written elsewhere on this blog it’s an essential book for understanding the origins of slavery and racism in America, one that critics and defenders of the 1619 project cited as a model work of history that is helpful for understanding how race works in America today.

Morgan and other historians have shown how white people came to enjoy rights that Black people were denied. In short, Virginia planters propped up slavery and encouraged racism by establishing a government that gave certain privileges to white workers while denying them to Black ones. But no one today should call them privileges. They are basic rights: to vote, to not be whipped by your boss, to own land. The tragedy of Morgan’s story is not that white people got those rights, but that their Black fellow workers were denied them at the same time—and that the enjoyment of those rights were framed as a zero-sum game—a framing we've never been able to escape and that contemporary anti-racism sometimes seems to reinforce.

It’s important to point out that this happened not primarily because white laborers asked for it, any more than Debby’s father asked for Black veterans to be denied GI benefits so he could go to medical school.

Virginia planters were the ones who enacted these labor laws over the course of several decades in the 17th century to serve their economic interests—their need for a cheap, cooperative labor force to tend the tobacco crop.

This tried and true method of dividing and conquering workers by granting rights unequally has been repeated again and again. In a new book I happened to crack open recently, labor historian Joe William Trotter notes how it worked in the development of the urban labor force in early America:
Both free black and white laborers lived "a hand-to-mouth existence characterized by minimal control” over the fruits of their own labor. But early white wage earners enjoyed gradually increasing access to the vote, state power, and their own political, social, and labor organizations, while the vast majority of their African-American counterparts remained linked to their enslaved brothers and sisters through systems of legal and extralegal disfranchisement, economic exploitation, and racial inequality.
Replacing “rights” with “white privilege” suggests that racism is good for white people–that our rights depend on others being denied them. In fact, when white and black people with similar interests unite, when they achieve solidarity on the basis of common interests rather than the shaky foundations of white guilt implied in “white privilege” and altruism implied in “white allies,” they create a powerful coalition. Such a coalition might not only prevent the erosion of benefits like Social Security, but might also lead to an expansion of such "rights," perhaps reviving President Roosevelt’s 1944 plan for a “second bill of rights” that would include a right to economic security, including “the right of every family to a decent home,” and every American to a living wage, "adequate medical care," and "a good education."

Notes and Sources:

(Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism) 

The GI Bill of Rights “was the most concrete result of the second bill of rights,” but it “fell far short of what Roosevelt sought to provide” (15-16). Although his successor tried to enact universal access to health care—and government-supported health benefits have been expanded to a widening circle of citizens ever since—it still does not exist as a right of citizenship. “Roosevelt’s second bill of rights speech captured the extraordinary 20th century revolution in the conception of rights in America and elsewhere. It marked the utter collapse of the (ludicrous) idea that freedom comes from an absence of government. …[While many Americans then and now accepted the conception of rights embedded in Roosevelt’s speech,] it has come under pressure from powerful private groups with an intense interest in burying or delegitimating the second bill—and in recovering the kind of confused, self-serving, and even incoherent thinking that immediately preceded Roosevelt's New Deal” (16). See Cass Sunstein, The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why we need it More than Ever (2004).

Debby Irving, Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race (2014).

*Peggy MacIntosh, who popularized the “White Privilege” concept, also seems to have been the recipient of a great deal of class privilege. As a student, she attended private schools whose current tuition ranges from $43,000 to $66,000 per year and went on to earn degrees from elite colleges, including Harvard. She taught for a time at the Brearley School in Manhattan, which was ranked by one survey, as the second-best girls' school in the country and the fifth-best private K-12 school. Current tuition is $56,000, which 80 percent of students pay for without financial aid. MacIntosh certainly had the chance to observe plenty of class privilege in action.

I understated the case when I said that affluent parents aren’t willing to sacrifice their own kids’ advancement for those of others. Consider the “varsity blues scandal.”  Matthew Stewart has written in more detail about the efforts of Americans in the upper classes to maintain their class privilege here. and here. Others have coined the term “opportunity hoarders.” 

Joe William Trotter, Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America (2019), xvi.

Morgan’s thesis is often pitted against that of Winthrop Jordan, whose book White Over Black, suggests that racism pre-dated the origin of slavery in Virginia.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Essays on anti-racism in the classroom

"Being on the side of antiracism is no inoculation against error” (Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law professor and 1999 PEA Martin Luther King Day keynote speaker).

© Tim Pierce

In a letter to the community toward the end of June of 2021, the Board of Trustees of Phillips Exeter Academy pledged to make Exeter “an anti-racist school” and asked every member of the community to contribute their “best thinking” to the effort.

At the time I happened to be in the middle of about five months of time off (a sabbatical plus summer) during which I was doing as much reading as I could, most of it involving African-American history, which was the subject of my graduate research.

I also happened to be writing about what I was reading and posting it on this blog, which I had started in 2017.

Before the Trustee’s appeal, my writing had often dealt with the history of the struggle for Black equality—the subject of my published scholarship—and some of those essays may be of relevance to the contemporary struggle against racism.

I speculated about the role of violence in advancing or undermining progressive causes.  I contrasted Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Afro-pessimism” against what I believed was the more politically useful hope-oriented stance of Martin Luther King  (I spent the greater part of my reading time that spring reading about the Civil Rights Movement, especially Taylor Branch’s three-volume history, America in the King Years).* I wrote about how some tactics of contemporary movements were not sufficiently concerned with building coalitions capable of winning elections.  I wrote a tribute to John Lewis after his death attributing his willingness to reach out to and win over a former opponent of civil rights to an “unwavering faith in democracy.”  But most of my time during the rest of that summer went into a long post on ideological diversity among African Americans, a topic I had explored in the 1990s, during research for the dissertation that eventually became a book.  That essay shows that the main strain of anti-racism in America today does not represent the only thinking among Black Americans about how to advance racial justice—and it may not represent the best thinking either.

This fall, during a second sabbatical, I continued writing on the topic. What follows is a list of posts, with brief descriptions, that perhaps speak more directly to the Trustees’ request.

1. “The gauntlet of blackness”: There is no “Black Hive Mind.” A student commenting on the Black@Exeter Instagram page recounted a conversation in which a white student told him that Black people can’t be conservative. My post of August 2020 illustrated in some detail the diversity among African-American intellectuals and the Black US population. Although Blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic, they are the most conservative voting block within the Democratic Party. They were responsible for ending Bernie Sanders’ presidential ambitions twice and election results in the 2020 general election and the 2021 New York City mayoral primary have further backed up that claim.

2. “A better approach to anti-racism.” The nation’s “racial reckoning” and institutional approaches to anti-racism and racial justice have been dominated by a narrow group of authors and advocates, including Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Kimberle Crenshaw. There are other approaches that might work better. This essay identifies two: ChloĆ© Valdary (who spoke in the Exeter assembly last year) and Heather McGhee. 

3. “Historical ignorance is the soil in which racism grows” argues that the best way make people hate racism is to teach them the true facts of history. 

4. “1619: Teaching history, teaching contingency.” On the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia, The New York Times published a 100-page Sunday Magazine exploring the origins and legacy of slavery in America. Now the 1619 Project is being promoted as a way to transform the way that American history is taught in the nation’s schools. Is this a good thing? 

5. “Racecraft and the 1619 origin story.” What actually happened in late August of 1619 that the Times is promoting as “A New Origin Story” of the United States? It’s more complicated—and more interesting—than the Times reporting suggests.

6. “1619: Notes and sources.” A list of sources used for the previous posts with some comments on and excerpts from the sources and the issues they raised.

7. “Labor and race, then and now.” If you want a more accurate discussion of the history of race in America, you have to link it to the history of labor. 

 8. “WEIRD supremacy culture” makes an attempt to place European racism and antiracism into the context of the broad sweep of human history (including pre-history). 

9. “White privilege and solidarity” is a reflection on the work of one of the many diversity consultants my school has hired over the years, and examines the relationship between race and class and the anti-racist strategy of getting white people to “check their white privilege.” 

10. “Engaging controversy in the classroom” is a summary of a chapter in The Political Classroom, which grapples with dilemma's teachers face when choosing controversial issues to discuss.  How should teachers weigh the sometimes conflicting aims of preparing students for the political world they inhabit, with ensuring a classroom environment that is fair and welcoming to all students. 

11. “Teaching anti-racist citizenship in a non-partisan classroom.” How can educators teach young people about politics in such a way that schools do not become partisan institutions? This post looks at a book that provides a compelling answer to that question.

12. “Viewpoint diversity supports anti-racism” cites evidence that education institutions are sorting themselves into ideological monocultures characterized by “epistemic closure” and that this is bad not only for the core mission of education—conveying knowledge and wisdom—but also for advancing the cause of anti-racism.  

13. "Anti-authoritarianism is anti-racist." We need to oppose authoritarian impulses on both the right and the left.

I’m under no illusion that the ideas expressed in these posts are the final word on anti-racism or how Exeter should be an anti-racist school. They certainly do not provide a road map for the Trustees.  

As professor Kennedy's comment suggests, my good intentions provide no inoculation against error.  I do think these ideas tend to be under-represented in our campus discussions. I offer them in the spirit of “epistemic humility,” which I wrote about in a post entitled “Hope and Epistemic Humility,”  and which pervades this blog and my teaching. It’s an essential attitude if we really want to hear “every voice” in the discussion of how to make Exeter an anti-racist school and how to make sure our good intentions lead to positive impacts.


*I also wrote at least seven posts (#1; #2; #3; #4; #5; #6; #7) in the spring and summer of 2020 on the role of hope in politics and those posts are relevant to the contrast between King’s hopeful “arc of justice” and Coates’ “Afro-pessimism.” This essay is particularly relevant. It considers a democratic value quite different than hope: sacrifice. It is based on Danielle Allen’s book on citizenship, which I would recommend as a key text in any anti-racism curriculum.

Kennedy's quote at the top is from his new collection of essays: Say it Loud! On Race, Law, History, and Culture (2021), xii-xiii and 94.  He adds: "The thinking and conduct of those challenging injustice must be carefully examined because they, too, like all of us, are prone to narcissism, thoughtlessness, and abuse of power."