I am dubious about the idea of addressing the teaching of “anti-racism” through a state-level law, but I sure am seeing a lot of dumb arguments against it. Some critics of these bills actively want white kids to feel distress because they are white. Take this piece in the San Antonio Current by someone named Kevin Sanchez, which quotes very sensible restrictions from the Texas law and makes the following arguments against them:
Decree #5: “A teacher may not make part of a course the concept that an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race.”
How, pray tell, can one study the dispossession and slaughter of Native Americans, the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, the legacy of lynching and segregation and housing discrimination with which we’re still living, the racial wealth gap, mass incarceration or the murder of an unarmed Black suspect in custody without feeling some measure of distress?
These injustices should break our hearts, and when teachers are allowed to teach, they can walk the line between letting kids know that while racism was not their idea, many of us are its inheritors and beneficiaries and therefore have a moral obligation to face uncomfortable truths. Being “colorblind,” sadly, is not enough.
There is a difference between feeling distress because something awful happened in the past, and feeling distress because of the color of one’s skin. Must we allow the deliberate infliction of distress on young schoolkids because of their skin color? I say no, but Sanchez wants these kids to feel personally guilty for past injustice because they are white:
Decree #4: “A teacher may not make part of a course the concept that an individual bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race.”
Imagine if a right-wing government in South Africa or Germany passed a malleable restriction like this regarding education about racial apartheid or atrocities during Word War II. In 1946, philosopher Karl Jaspers published The Question of German Guilt, evocatively arguing that “an acknowledgment of national guilt was a necessary condition for the moral and political rebirth of Germany.” Can we ever truly heal from our wounds as a country without admitting that racism remains a problem the white majority must honestly confront?
It is hardly a squashing of freedom to mandate that teachers not tell young children to feel bad due to their skin color. Nor should they be taught to expect special or adverse treatment due to skin color, although Sanchez of course disagrees with that too:
Decree #6: “A teacher may not make part of a course the concept that an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual’s race.”
“Reverse discrimination” and “special treatment” are how Fox News pundits have recently spun COVID-19 relief aid to Black farmers, despite the fact that over the past century the Agriculture Department stole tens of billions of dollars from them thanks to actual racial discrimination. This edict ostensibly declares off limits any teacher-led discussion of affirmative action to redress past wrongs — and that in itself is a wrong.
Let adults debate the merits of government-sanctioned race discrimination. I oppose it, and unlike this writer I do not want some woke teacher telling young children “that an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment” because of their skin color.
FIRE put out an excellent piece on these laws recently, which was highlighted by John Sexton at Hot Air. It highlights some of the common things that are prohibited by these laws, and argues (as has David French) that many of these things are already prohibited:
With the exception of the vague kinds of clauses mentioned above, most of what these bills prohibit are speech or patterns of behavior by teachers that even many of the critics of these bills would find problematic, and arguably would already run afoul of laws prohibiting racial discrimination and harassment. For example, North Carolina’s HB 324, mentioned above, prohibits public K-12 schools from “promoting” the following concepts:
(1) One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.
(2) An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
(3) An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.
(4) An individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex.
(5) An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.
(6) Any individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress. […]
But as the Sanchez piece shows, the left’s attacks on these laws are not limited to the concept that we already have laws in place to address these problems. They also argue that children need to be made uncomfortable because of their skin color. And as the FIRE report makes clear, there are some actual examples out there. This is not just a Fox News made-up bogeyman:
I was disturbed to read some of the examples in my co-author — and FIRE colleague — Bonnie Snyder’s forthcoming book Undoctrinate: How Politicized Classrooms Harm Kids and Ruin Our Schools—And What We Can Do About It, such as:
1. A biracial high school student in Las Vegas was allegedly singled out in class for his appearance and called derogatory names by his teacher. In a lawsuit, the student’s family alleges he was labelled an oppressor, told denying that status was “internalized privilege,” and told he needed to “unlearn” the Judeo-Christian principles imparted by his mother. When he refused to complete certain “identity confession” assignments, the lawsuit claims, the school gave him a failing grade. He has had to attend counseling.
2. Third grade students in California were forced to analyze their racial and other “identities,” rank themselves according to their supposed “power and privilege,” and were informed that those in the “dominant” culture categories created and continue to maintain this culture to uphold power.
3. Parents in North Carolina allege that middle school students were forced to stand up in class and apologize to other students for their “privilege.”
4. Buffalo public schools teach students that all white people perpetuate systemic racism and are guilty of implicit racial bias.
5. Elementary children at the Fieldston School in Manhattan were sorted by race for mandatory classroom exercises.
6. A head teacher in Manhattan was caught on tape acknowledging that the curriculum at his school teaches white students that they’re inherently “evil” and saying, “we’re demonizing white people for being born.”
While there is some debate to be had over how widespread the phenomenon is, some students are being made to feel, in class, that their mere existence is problematic and requires an apology or explanation. These bills, wise or not, are intended to address this problem. If your argument against these bills is that they’re much ado about nothing, or a solution in search of a problem, I think you should look deeper and think more critically about what proponents of these laws are worried about.
I am going to need some time to digest the entire FIRE piece, but I remain appalled at the way so many people act as though it is a civil rights violation to tell teachers they are not allowed to humiliate young children just because of the color of their skin.