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At the direction of the Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, New York City Public Schools have taken the opportunity of the protests surrounding George Floyd’s murder to teach fourth graders about systemic racism and white privilege. But for the children who are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants—which is much of the class—and for my son who is the only white kid in the class, this was not a lesson that decreases racism, but one that verges on instilling it.
For the kids who are Chinese, Arab, or whose families come from Mexico, Central and South America, the lesson on racism between whites and blacks was just another study section that came with right and wrong answers. They learned that the country to which their parents had decided to journey from their homes abroad was founded on racist ideology and that, because it is permanently ingrained, there’s nothing that can be done about it. My son learned that he is perpetuating the problem of racism, and that he doesn’t even know how he’s doing it, and that his whole family is racist, even if they don’t think they are. The kids also learned that there’s no way to fix it.
Other than a few packets during Black History Month, fourth graders have not yet learned about the Civil Rights movement or the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in bondage. But they are now learning that the United States is founded on racism, that racism is the pervasive undercurrent in American governance, law enforcement, social interaction, employment, literature, arts, entertainment, real estate, and education.
What this means is that the school is teaching kids how to interpret history before they learn the history they are meant to interpret. They’re telling kids what opinions to have before they’re giving the facts about which that opinion should be formed. Educators are making sure that these fourth graders look at history through the lens of critical race theory before they even know what that history is.
The lessons on George Floyd, the protests, the ensuing riots, police brutality, anti-black racism by whites, and systemic racism focussed solely on the issues between white and black Americans. There are no black kids in the class, so for everyone except my son, who was asked to consider problematic whiteness on a personal and familial level, this was an intellectual exercise.
This was a two part lesson, and as it happened over video conference, I listened in. The fourth grade teachers first wanted to assess how much the kids knew about what was going on, asking questions as to if they knew what protests are, and what happened to George Floyd a few weeks ago. One kid got big laughs when he made the mistake of thinking that a protest was a professional level test.
His teacher asked if they knew why this was happening, and another boy piped up to say that it was because “a cop accidentally killed George Floyd, and now they’re protesting and stuff.”
My son said, “No, that wasn’t an accident. He did that with his free will.”
Another teacher asked him a direct question, “The looting, the thing where they’re stealing things from stores and protesting, do you think that is the same thing or two separate things?”
“Two separate things,” he said.
“I was just curious,” she replied. “The protesting is marching, and the looting is something different.”
The instructors spoke at length about the difference between protests and rioting. One teacher piped up, and said “It’s very important to remember too that a lot of the people who are doing the looting and rioting are different than the people who are doing the peaceful protesting.”
“Rioting,” his teacher explained, “is when people are vandalizing property, they’re burning buildings, they’re breaking stores, like the front display windows… looting is when people go into a store and they steal from the store.”
A little girl said that George Floyd was chased by police. The teacher corrected her. “So they didn’t chase him, what happened is they had him on the ground, and one of the police officers had his knee on George Floyd’s neck, so it was actually like they were crushing his throat, so it was very difficult for him to breathe.”
I don’t know how many kids watched the video of a man being murdered. I did not show the video to my son. It is a gruesome, and horrible video to watch, and I find it unlikely that the parents of these fourth graders showed them the video of a man’s death.
The teacher described the killing in graphic terms before saying “but today what we’re going to talk about is systemic racism. Does anybody have anything that they might know about systemic racism? I know you’ve heard of racism, but this is a little different, it’s called systemic racism. And we’re going to watch a video on it, because this video does a good job of explaining it all to you.”
With that, they put on the video. It was one of a selection of video resources that were provided by the New York City Department of Education. This is that video:
It shows the social differences between a white boy and a black boy in terms of education and wealth due to prejudicial practices on the parts of banks, realtors, school funding, and employers. The video points out the barbaric practices of redlining, whereby black families were kept out of certain neighborhoods, and how property taxes have a direct impact on school funding. Those are facts. The analysis was not.
“A big part of systemic racism,” the video says, “is implicit bias. These are prejudices in society that people are not aware that they have.” It states that “Unfortunately, the biggest problem of systemic racism is that there’s no single person or entity responsible for it. Which makes it very hard to solve.”
“Systemic problems,” the video says, “require systemic solutions. Luckily, we’re all part of the system, which means that we all have a role to play in making it better.”
The kids were asked what systemic racism meant, one boy said “I think it means like a system if your grandparents are rich or poor, then they pass that whatever they’re experiencing onto you so it makes the cycle harder to break, I think?”
“Yes,” one of them said, “it’s actually like racism in our system that has been passed on for centuries. So stemming all the way back to when black people were slaves, to when there was segregation in the world, I don't know if you guys learned about that yet. In fifth grade you’re going to learn about how African-Americans during the time of segregation everything was separate… So even though that has changed, there’s still things in our system in our world that are reflecting on racism. So what were some things that you learned from the video?”
My son answered “that it’s bad.”
“Okay, how so?”
“Black kids don’t get as much stuff as white kids, therefore making it harder for them to have an education, a job, or any money, even a house.”
Another girl said “systemic racism affects black people’s wealth, income, criminal justice, and basically everything.”
These kids in class felt bad for the kid in the video. The teachers and students ran down the ways that black people in the US have a hard time. They were discussed as a people in peril, as victims, as other. The lesson was that generations of racism have made people themselves unequal. The kids in class expressed pity for the boy in the video. One boy asked why there is still racism, since everyone knows about it.
“Unfortunately,” a teacher said, “a lot of racism stems from the home. And just like the video, a lot of people’s grandparents were raised a certain way, and things were different back then, and then their parents learn it and their children learn it, and we need to stop it. And it’s hard, too, because you learn first from your parents and from your family, and we need to learn how to love everyone, and skin color should not matter at all, so this is what we’re trying to do, we need to be the change, and we need to make a difference. And you need to form your own opinions.”
What my son heard was that he is racist and doesn’t even know it, and that his parents and grandparents provided this legacy to him. I told him that we need to treat all people with respect, kindness, and with a generosity of heart, and that skin colour is not indicative of a person’s heart.
The second part of the lesson took place the following school day. The teachers recapped Friday’s lesson, saying that white people are more likely to get a job, a house, and a decent education than a black person, because this has been "built into our system for generations and generations."
This time they showed videos from The New York Times. The final video shows a series of self-flagellating white people who twist themselves into pretzel shapes to try to imagine that they are both not racist and very, very racist at the same time.
It was when the teachers raised the issue of white privilege that my son said he felt weird being the only white kid in the conference. He couldn’t tell if he was supposed to feel bad for the kids who are mistreated or feel bad about himself for being racist or if there was anything he could do about it anyway since these problems are ingrained and that he would be racist even if he didn’t think he was.
No answer was given as to what action these kids should take to either be not racist or to see that racism does not throttle our country for generations onward.
If racism is a systemic problem, and we’re teaching kids to create systemic solutions, what does that look like to a ten year old? Instead of teaching kids about all of the disadvantages their peers have, which basically leads to pity, why not teach kids about how all people are created equally, and we should meet each other where we stand? What are 10 year olds supposed to do about systemic racism, or racism at all? Aren’t they better positioned to simply not be racist?
This kind of indoctrination will not make white kids think differently about their own biases, but will instead create biases where there perhaps were none before, and that goes doubly for the children who are in immigrant families. Dividing kids by race leads kids to think they should divide themselves by race, emotionally, socially, and institutionally. It’s easy to prove this, just look at the segregated graduation ceremonies and proms in schools today.
There’s no evidence to suggest that making students pity other students for their economic disadvantages will lead to a mindset of equality. Yet New York City Schools are not alone in thinking that this is the way to go. Brown University, as well as so many other academic institutions, jumped on board as well.
I reached out to my son’s teachers for comment, and they responded saying, “I am not comfortable and cannot comment on the record but I would be happy to discuss any concerns you have as a parent and not as a journalist. For the conversations we had we followed the Chancellor’s regulations and guidelines on addressing the issue… I feel that it's not really appropriate to be using our classroom as research.”
I can totally relate, since the indoctrination of my 10-year-old into the world of critical race theory seems “not really appropriate” to me.