A School Plan to Cure Racism

It can be depressing. Just over fifty years ago, Thurgood Marshall announced the civil-rights victory of Brown v. Board of Education. In no more than five years, Marshall predicted, the nation’s schools would be racially integrated. Looking at America’s schools today, scholars see more and more racial segregation in schools, not less. One fancy school in New York City has embarked on a more aggressive plan to cure racism. Both liberal and conservative commentators are aghast. But can it work?

In New York Magazine, Lisa Miller reports on the new anti-racism plan of Fieldston School. At this private progressive school, the administration planned to separate kids out into racial groups. The goal was to allow kids to talk about race and ask potentially “impolite” questions without feeling subtle pressure.

As the head of the school told Miller,

We don’t want to replicate what has happened traditionally. The education that many of us have received about race has not been adequate. Hence, where are we as a nation? We are trying to pioneer, to be at the vanguard of this opportunity, to see if we can get it right.

How do the kids feel? One student in the “black” group told Miller that he liked it:

I get to be with people I can share my race with, and I don’t feel uncomfortable about it. . . . We talk about how it’s important to know what your race is. We talk about the difference between being prejudiced and being racist. So I can know when someone’s being racist to me, and I can help other people know that, too. I can say I’m proud of being black. I remember my friend saying that the affinity groups are racist, but they’re not. They put you in a group of what race you are — I don’t think that’s racist at all. We get to make jokes and stuff, and comments. When we’re talking, we get to draw, we get to laugh.

Other students weren’t so sure. A student in the “Asian” group reported, “It’s so fricking boring.”

The idea, in general, is to help students of all races talk about race and racism. Too many white liberals, the thinking goes, are trapped by their own progressive prejudices. They see themselves as enlightened and post-racial, yet they are unable to recognize the ways race and racism function. Programs like this will help make visible the ways white privilege works.

Some parents objected. How is segregating kids by race a good way to fight racial segregation? And what categories would the school use? A Jewish parent objected that his family had been persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan. Did that make him something other than “white?”

One group of progressive parents started a protest petition. The school’s plan, they insisted, would cause “irreparable harm” to their kids.

Conservatives, too, balk at such racial programs. Rod Dreher, for example, called the program a “grievance-building fun house.”

But is it the best way to teach kids about race? To help kids understand from a young age that racism is a real thing? Or does this sort of thing only promulgate racial stereotypes?