by Christopher Paslay
Branding America’s schools as oppressive institutions steeped in ‘white supremacy’ is great for identity politics, but is it elevating children of color out of poverty and helping them succeed?
Ibram X. Kendi, winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction, believes that the racial achievement gap in the United States is a myth. The very idea itself is racist, he argues, insisting the supposed gap is simply the result of poorly designed, culturally biased standardized tests. As Jonathan Chait writes in The Intelligencer:
It does not matter to [Kendi] how many different kinds of measures of academic performance show [the achievement gap] to be true. Nor does he seem receptive to the possibility that the achievement gap reflects environmental factors (mainly worse schools, but also access to nutrition, health care, outside learning, and so on) rather than any innate differences.
To Kendi, all racial disparities are the result of only one thing: racism. Hence, the racial achievement gap in America isn’t really a gap at all, but merely the result of racist thinking.
Like White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo, Kendi is now regarded as a leading scholar and international expert on anti-racism, and has recently accepted a position at Boston University, where he will launch BU’s Center for Anti-Racist Research, and will work across disciplines to “transform how racial research is done.”
For the 37-year-old Kendi, this is quite an accomplishment; the renowned author and scholar from Queens, New York, has come a long way in the past 17 years. Back in 2003, Kendi — who went by his birth name, Ibram Henry Rogers — was writing a column for the student newspaper at Florida A&M University. “I don’t hate whites,” he wrote. “How can you hate a group of people for being who they are?”
As reported in The New Yorker:
He explained that “Europeans” had been “socialized to be aggressive people,” and “raised to be racist.” His theory was that white people were fending off racial extinction, using “psychological brainwashing” and “the aids virus.”
But suggesting whites were brainwashing people of color and using the aids virus to fend off racial extinction was a bit too progressive for 2003 audiences, so an editor demanded that Rogers discontinue his column, and Rogers agreed under protest. After graduating from Florida A&M, Rogers went on to earn a Ph.D. in African-American studies from Temple University in Philadelphia, and eventually reinvented himself with the name Ibram Xolani Kendi.
Now Kendi — a Queens native and Temple educated aids virus conspiracy theorist — will be working across disciplines at Boston University to “transform how racial research is done.” This will most likely entail using Critical Social Justice based in social constructivism, which is the concept that everything (all truth and knowledge) is simply the result of a social construct. In other words, there is no absolute truth or knowledge, rather, these things are humanly produced and constructed by social expectation and coercion and presented as “objective.”
The African-American History Museum’s page on whiteness, which summarized what it called “white culture,” is a case in point:
Under social constructivism, values such as work ethic, rational linear thinking, politeness, self-reliance, and the scientific method are no longer considered universal or objective, but are redefined as “white”—or the byproducts of a racist, Western, white supremacist culture. As Daniel Bergner writes for The New York Times:
Borrowing from feminist scholarship and critical race theory, whiteness studies challenges the very nature of knowledge, asking whether what we define as scientific research and scholarly rigor, and what we venerate as objectivity, can be ways of excluding alternate perspectives and preserving white dominance. DiAngelo likes to ask, paraphrasing the philosopher Lorraine Code: “From whose subjectivity does the ideal of objectivity come?”
Social constructivism is gaining ground, especially in American K-12 schools. Glenn E. Singleton runs an equity workshop for discussing race called Courageous Conversation. New York Times writer Daniel Bergner joined this two-day workshop in September of 2019, documenting his experiences in an article titled, “‘White Fragility’ Is Everywhere. But Does Antiracism Training Work?” Bergner writes:
Singleton . . . talks about white culture in similar ways. There is the myth of meritocracy. And valuing “written communication over other forms,” he told me, is “a hallmark of whiteness,” which leads to the denigration of Black children in school. Another “hallmark” is “scientific, linear thinking. Cause and effect.” He said, “There’s this whole group of people who are named the scientists. That’s where you get into this whole idea that if it’s not codified in scientific thought that it can’t be valid.”
Leslie Chislett, a white former executive with New York City’s Department of Education who filed a lawsuit against the department in 2019 for racial discrimination, disagrees with such beliefs. She was co-director of a drive with the goal of getting a broad slate of Advanced Placement courses into all the city’s public high schools. “The availability of A.P. classes,” she told Bergner of the New York Times, “communicates to kids that it is possible for them to exceed the regular curriculum and can help teachers see that many kids have the potential to succeed at college-level course work. It’s about creating a culture of high expectations.”
Some lessons of the antiracism trainings weren’t easy for Chislett to embrace. Colleagues on her multiracial A.P. for All team accused her, during and outside the workshops, of hindering exercises and refusing to acknowledge her own white supremacy, her own racism. . . . Chislett eventually wound up demoted from the leadership of A.P. for All, and her suit argues that the trainings created a workplace filled with antiwhite distrust and discrimination. . . .
“It’s absurd,” she said about much of the training she’s been through. “The city has tens of millions invested in A.P. for All, so my team can give kids access to A.P. classes and help them prepare for A.P. exams that will help them get college degrees, and we’re all supposed to think that writing and data are white values? How do all these people not see how inconsistent this is?”
This inconsistency is a valid point. Instructing administrators and teachers to put less value on skills like written communication and linear thinking could negatively affect students of color, especially when it comes to college readiness and competition in the labor market.
But when Times writer Bergner brought up such a point with Singleton, Kendi, and DiAngelo, none of these anti-racist educators could give a meaningful response. They all failed to explain what should replace such things as written communication and linear thinking, and could only offer circular, propagandistic ambiguities in response.
The social and academic consequences of such anti-racist training should be carefully considered before implementing such workshops in America’s schools. Believing that systemic racism is the only explanation for differences in learning — and that the supreme and almost absolute-power of white culture prevents Black kids from succeeding in school — might not be the best course of action to empower students of color and help them succeed.