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: Chloé 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."

1 comment:

  1. Quite an ambitious and important project, a book waiting to be published and read.