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Teaching children that racism is structural is key to eradicating it

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Bogdan Populov

In a controversial 7-to-5 vote in February, North Carolina's State Board of Education affirmed a new standard requiring K-12 social studies teachers to discuss racism and discrimination in their classrooms. To pass, the word "systemic" had to be removed from "racism," but opponents nevertheless charged the standard was "anti-American."

This vote is emblematic of a wider reckoning in American education. One side, galvanized by the Trump administration's 1776 Commission, insists that teaching about systemic racism is un-American. Another argues that teaching children about how policies and practices embedded in American society and law have long disadvantaged people based on race is crucial to ameliorating their pernicious — and continuing — effects. While the phrase "systemic racism" has become controversial, the history of the 1920s teaches us that without such language we risk perpetuating the very laws, structures and legacies that have imposed such a burden on communities of color.

Against a backdrop of racial violence, Jim Crow laws and immigration restrictions, educators in the 1920s agitated for some of the first "antiprejudice" curriculums to serve the most diverse body of students enrolled in American schools to date. While most common in urban centers in the Northeast and West due to their large immigrant populations, the national organization of the Junior Red Cross ensured that antiprejudice lessons reached more than four million students in every U.S. state and territory. As historian Diana Selig writes, "these efforts were a dynamic, widespread phenomenon" by the 1930s.

The mainly White educators leading this effort built on the work of cultural anthropologists like Franz Boas. In a repudiation of the scientific racism of the times, Boas argued that human difference resulted from culture and environment, not genetics. This new understanding of difference led to a growing consensus among educators: children were not inherently racist. Instead, they learned this behavior and carried it into adulthood. With proper guidance, children could unlearn their prejudice and learn to appreciate those different from themselves.

Believing native-born White people's prejudice to be at the root of contemporary racism and nativism, educators largely set out to change this group's behavior by teaching children about their nonnative born and non-White peers. They designed activities meant to imbue students with intercultural appreciation and racial tolerance. Children visited immigrant neighborhoods, exchanged letters with peers throughout the United States and abroad and toured the world via books and pageants. Through these activities, students were to "look for differences in surroundings, but for likeness in people," as civics education specialist and national director of the Junior Red Cross Arthur Dunn put it.

In an irony that continues to plague American education, by emphasizing intercultural tolerance and children's behavior, antiprejudice teaching ignored structural racism. At the time, communities of color, especially African Americans, suffered not only from the highly visible Jim Crow laws in the South, but also from less obvious restrictions — like those consigning African-Americans in the North and Asian Americans and Mexican Americans in the West to ghettos and depriving them of the ability to build wealth through homeownership. Students also attended legally segregated schools and students of color overwhelmingly lacked the funding and resources of their White peers — a fact not lost on students themselves. For instance, students at a predominantly Mexican American school in California explained to correspondents in Spain: "We are not a typical American school. In our homes 12 of us speak Spanish, two speak Spanish and English and five speak only English. We cannot show the usual trees, green lawn and neat yard of most American schools . . . The shining white washrooms so common elsewhere with water for everyone — alas! we do not have them."

Rather than address these realities, the child-centered antiprejudice lessons touted individual actions as the building blocks of a more inclusive society. In 1923, for example, 7-year-old Carl Hayes won Child Life's "Good Citizens' League" contest with his submission: "I played with a colored boy because other children teased him." The well-meaning antiprejudice lessons thus encouraged personal acts of good will but did nothing to equip students with the knowledge and skills necessary to fight systemic injustice, or even acknowledge its existence. And individual actions could not in and of themselves displace the structural inequalities.

In the following decades, students continued to learn that reformed personal behaviors would lead to a more inclusive society. Exemplifying this, a student writing to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the midst of World War II proposed "good-will clubs," which would "help people have better understanding of their neighbors and friends" as the solution to people making fun "of the colored people or even other races of people." Yet, exposing that the nation's problems were structural, not simply attitudinal, Black Girl Scouts writing to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt argued: "At a time when our country faces a grave crisis . . . We feel that the integration of Negro girls into the Girl Scout program in Birmingham would do much to advance unity in our community."

Yet, White Americans continued to cling to the belief that America's ills were the product of personal failings, not systemic racism. And when schools remained segregated in the years following Brown v. Board of Education, this line of reasoning informed arguments that school segregation, at least outside of the South, was de facto — the result of private choices and individual action — as opposed to de jure — caused by laws — as it had been during Jim Crow. Take, for example, Detroit, where White suburbanites successfully opposed desegregation by insisting that segregation in Detroit's schools had nothing to do with the suburban school districts their children attended. Refusing to acknowledge that school segregation was deeply entwined with discriminatory housing policies at the local, state and national level, these White suburbanites cast the problem as one of personal preference and individual behavior — despite ample evidence that this was not true.

Today, segregation persists in Detroit and across the country and students of color continue to attend schools that disproportionately lack funding and resources. A century after educators first tried their hand at antiprejudice teaching, Americans are still grappling with a failure to acknowledge systemic racism. This history tells us that lessons meant to uproot prejudice must acknowledge structural inequalities built on that prejudice. In today's parlance, this is a warning against teaching students to be "colorblind." Teaching students to see race is not un-American. In fact, we need legislated curriculums that teach about systemic racism so that our children are not blind to the systems of privilege and oppression that continue to inform the American experience.

Katherine Cartwright is completing her PhD in history at William & Mary where she specializes in the history of the U.S., education, and children & youth. This piece was written for The Washington Post.

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