Schools are one of the primary places where political socialization takes place in a given society. They are indoctrination centers that reproduce the values of a culture. Most folks do not want to think of "education" in that way.
In "post racial" America this poses a dilemma: do you teach young people the truth about this country's history and the semi-permanence of the colorline? As an educator, do you discuss how American society is structured hierarchically and where race, class, and gender over-determine life outcomes?
It would seem that if you are a teacher at Delavan-Darien High School in Wisconsin, you should not dare to broach such questions.
Over the last few decades, there has been an Orwellian turn in American education. It extends from grade school to the university level.
What counts as educational content is being dictated by the logic of the capitalist marketplace, teachers are being subjected to onerous surveillance and harassment, intellectual freedom is being made subject to the political aims of outside actors, and the value of teachers is being undermined by destroying public unions, eliminating tenure, and forcing college professors into a permanent contingent labor force.
In total, the response to Delavan-Darien High School's course "American Diversity" is indicative of the impact of hyper-conservatism on public schools. Ultimately, the students (and by extension all of us) lose because they are not being given the critical thinking tools to be active, reflective, and engaged citizens.
Ideally, any controversy over teaching students about an obvious fact--such as how "race matters" in American society--should be dismissed as silliness.
However, conservatives are prone to authoritarian thinking and a binary worldview that is highly resistant to change and new information. Any critique of their personal mythologies--such as the idea that America is a true meritocracy--is bound to cause howls of complaint, and cries of "indoctrination." When personal mythologies intersect with self-serving narratives about colorblindness, Whiteness and Conservatism cannot help but to overreact in the form of a manufactured crisis.
The Fox News story about Delavan-Darien High School's discussion of White Privilege is also a rich object lesson in the magical thinking and anti-intellectualism which has infected the Right, and America's public discourse, more generally, since the Culture Wars of the 1990s (and which reached a fever pitch with the election of President Obama in 2008 through to the present).
Conservatives have repeatedly complained about the nefarious field of "anti-white" scholarship known as Critical Race Theory. However, they cannot define its range of study. Nor, have those on the Right likely done any vigorous research about its intellectual terrain or scope.
Moreover, there is a deep suspicion of the Academy and "intellectuals" by those on the populist Right. Hostility to Critical Race Theory is really about an unwillingness to discuss racial inequality coupled with a disdain for any type of trained expertise in matters of the mind or intellect.
The ability of outside agitators such as the Tea Party, Young America's Foundation, David Horowitz, and the Koch Brothers to monitor educational content, to bully and harass teachers and professors with whom they disagree, and to interject their "learning materials" into classrooms, is part of a decades-long project to remake education (on every level) in the service of a neoliberal, far-Right agenda.
The lie of false equivalency, where all sides of an argument are considered legitimate and of equal merit, is a product of a corporate news media entertainment complex that has rejected any responsibility for truth-telling.
For example, Fox News is a professional outlet for distorted information that is legitimated under the guise of being "fair and balanced." The other news networks reinforce the fact free universe of the Right by engaging Fox News' willful distortions of reality as truths.
The lie of false equivalency has been disseminated down to the public as a type of common sense. In turn, this has hamstrung the American people's capacity to engage in critical thought on matters of public concern:
Superintendent Robert Crist says there is merit to parental concern.
“A lot of red flags go up in my mind when I look at the materials," Crist told Fox News. "Ideally, you would want to present one theory that might be way on the left and another theory that may be way on the right and if you find one in the middle you can present that too … now you have a well-rounded discussion, in my opinion."There is a priceless irony when complaints about discussing the reality of White Privilege demonstrate the very fact that said concept is both true, and an accurate description of social reality. Whiteness is universalized and normalized in the complaints about Delavan-Darien High School's course on diversity in America.
Could it be that there are students of color who do not share these objections? Alternatively, could there be white students who are benefiting from an active discussion of the relationship between race and privilege in this society?
The language of "white guilt" and "oppression" is itself a reflection of the power held by the white racial frame, where any critical discussion of racial inequality is seen as "racist." Because Whiteness must always be normalized and protected in American society, discussions of White Privilege are immediately recast as unfair to white folks or a means to practice "reverse discrimination."
The beating heart of the White Right's complaints about discussing White Privilege is a sincere belief that white people are oppressed or somehow disadvantaged in post civil rights America. Such attitudes do the work of polite white racism and day-to-day white supremacy.
Polite white racism in the Age of Obama works through an inability by some to connect the realities of structural inequality with individual life stories. For example:
“This teacher has free reign to pick the material that he wanted to use,” she said. “He chose extremely radical left thinkers. He didn’t give those kids alternative information.”
The parent said last summer her son got a job washing dishes – working sometimes 10 hours a day.
“I was so proud of him,” she said. “And then to have a teacher tell you that you have these unearned privileges – that because you are white somehow you infringe on other people’s rights. It’s really just awful.”Sometimes you can't make this stuff up. White Privilege does not exist because a white mother's son got a job washing dishes over the summer. The House that Race Built, and centuries of social and political inequality are quite literally washed away, because a white teenager got a job as a dishwasher?
His mother probably believes such a thing. I hope he knows better.