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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

How to teach kids social justice?

A June 2020 protest  in Oyster Bay

A June 2020 protest  in Oyster Bay after George Floyd's death. Credit: Pablo Garcia Corradi

Anti-racist and social justice education has been on the rise in schools across America in recent years, especially since last summer’s nationwide protests against racial injustice. But now, parents, educators, activists and politicians from Texas to New York are resisting such education, saying that it has become a vehicle for ideologies and causes that promote division instead of healing.

This is widely seen as a backlash driven by racism, or at best by avoidance of difficult issues. But while these may be the motives for some, others are responding to very real problems with what gets taught and implemented as "social justice."

Take the account of Paul Rossi, a mathematics teacher at the Episcopal Grace Church School in Manhattan who has gone public after he was suspended from teaching and publicly reprimanded for running afoul of the school’s "anti-racism" effort. Rossi has since resigned.

Rossi’s offense was dissent at an all-white "self-care" Zoom meeting where students were urged to work on undoing such characteristics of "white supremacy culture" as "individualism," "objectivity" and "a right to comfort." Rossi questioned why such traits should be racialized, or considered bad — and whether one must self-define in terms of race. After his comments were reported to the administration, he was informed that he had caused "harm" to students by creating "dissonance."

A look at Grace School’s "inclusive language guide" suggests that Rossi’s concerns about excessive zealotry are well-founded. Students are told, for example, not to ask, "Where are you from?," which is supposedly a "microaggression"; not to wish "Happy holidays" at winter break; and not to use "gendered" language like "Mom and Dad." They are also warned that they can be held "accountable" for violations.

While Grace School is private, public education faces similar issues. The text on the characteristics of "white supremacy culture," for example, has been used in training for public school administrators in New York and is endorsed by the National Education Association, America’s largest teachers’ union.

Opposition to social justice education has often focused on "critical race theory" — a scholarly approach that sees white supremacy as central to American institutions and social dynamics. While "critical race theory" is becoming a catchall buzzword on the right, it is in fact very similar to the ideological framework — centered around "privilege," "whiteness," and "systems of oppression" — that informs many schools' efforts at equity. It’s a perspective that has valid insights — but can also be a crudely simplistic way to look at a complex, evolving multiracial society.

The pushback has its own problems, too. Attempts by several state legislatures to purge "critical race theory" and other "divisive concepts" from publicly funded education infringe on academic freedom and are likely unconstitutional. And some of the people who speak out against trendy "anti-racism" do seem to think that racism in the United States pretty much ended 50 years ago.

But while the opposition could do better, it is also making real points. At too many schools, the current approach to racial, gender and social equity is intensely polarizing, right down to segregated "affinity groups." It can result in shaming some kids for being "privileged" and patronizing others as perpetually victimized. It can be punitive to some while encouraging others to see degrading slights in minor missteps. It can see dissenting opinions as unacceptable "dissonance." There has to be a better way.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.