How Anti-Racism Is Derailing Efforts to Improve Education

There are real institutional forces restricting opportunity that won’t be fixed by woke curricula.

There has been much ink spilled recently on “anti-racist” education. As the debate has raged, many have asked whether this latest burst of wokeness needs to be taken seriously, or whether the perpetual outrage machine is distorting a more innocuous reality. While there’s certainly performative posturing when it comes to anti-racist education, we regret to say—after having observed all this fairly closely for several years—that the concerns are legitimate and growing more so by the day.

What’s going on? The phrase “anti-racist” education seems anodyne, even banal. It sounds like “anti-crime” policing or “anti-morbidity” medicine. Schools are charged with instructing students in our shared values, and a core American value in the 21st century is that we should oppose racism. How could anyone object?

Indeed, popular coverage of the disputes over anti-racist education and critical race theory suggests that the only objectors are hyper-partisan reactionaries appealing to red America’s racist impulses. Take a recent, lengthy Washington Post explainer, which frames the debate as between school leaders simply working to “inject an anti-racist mindset into campus life” and “conservative backlash.”  

“Conservatives have seized on the idea that schools are promoting critical race theory,” wrote the Post’s Laura Meckler and Hannah Natason, which they clinically describe as “a decades-old academic framework that examines how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism.” The pair dismiss complaints and concerns as the product of naïfs and partisans reacting to “snatches of information, such as a short video clip of a lesson.”

It’s more accurate to say that anti-racist education means something very different from what most observers bargained for. Last summer, the famed KIPP charter schools announced they’d be abandoning their longtime slogan: “Work Hard, Be Nice.” Why? The announcement explained: “The slogan passively supports ongoing efforts to pacify and control Black and Brown bodies in order to better condition them to be compliant and further reproduce current social norms that center whiteness and meritocracy as normal.”

Those unfamiliar with anti-racist dogma are frequently surprised to see it invoked in this kind of assault on foundational virtues. They tend to presume that such instances are outliers. Unfortunately, it’s more accurate to say that KIPP’s move was a telling snapshot of contemporary anti-racist education in practice.  

Bari Weiss has done invaluable work highlighting the accounts of teachers and parents dumbfounded by schools that have embraced the “demonization” of white people as a philosophical premise. In Evanston, Illinois, teachers were instructed to read Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness to students and to have parents quiz their kids on whiteness, providing examples of “how whiteness shows up in school or in the community.” Just outside Dallas, in the Carroll Independent School District, the community recently used a school board election to emphatically reverse a district plan mandating cultural sensitivity training for all students and teachers and introducing a “microaggression” tracker that would be used to monitor and discipline students. 

Erika Sanzi, veteran education writer and director of outreach at Parents Defending Education, notes that her new organization is hearing daily “from concerned parents and teachers about what they describe as a ‘racially divisive curriculum,’ ‘blatant activism in the classroom,’ ‘infantilization of students and staff of color,’ ‘sanctioned discrimination,’ ‘radical gender ideology’ and ‘racist poison.’” One father told her, “We did not immigrate to this country for our children to be taught in taxpayer funded schools that punctuality and hard work are white values.”

The anti-racist agenda is sprawling, encompassing subjects as seemingly far afield as math. California’s Department of Education has proposed an “anti-racist math framework” intended to rectify the “problem” of Asian Americans filling an outsized share of seats in gifted programs. The framework would “ban grouping students by ability or merit, all but eliminating algebra for middle schoolers and a crucial two years of calculus for high schoolers.” The Oregon Department of Education has urged teachers to be trained on “ethnomathematics” in order to purge “white supremacy” from math curricula (purportedly racist practices include requiring students to “show their work” or putting an emphasis on “getting the ‘right answer’”). 

Anti-racist education has become a racialized justification for all manner of bad, long-discredited ideas. Like hippie educators of the early ’70s, anti-racists want to end grading as conventionally understood. One prominent “grading equity advocate” is Cornelius Minor. Minor has partnered with entities like Columbia Teachers College and the International Literacy Association to dismantle “pernicious” grading practices, such as requiring students to demonstrate subject-matter understanding in order to receive an A. Minor teaches that one “cannot separate grading practices” from “the history of classism, sexism, racism, and ableism in the United States.” A teacher’s inability to perceive a student’s knowledge, under this framing,  is more typically evidence of a teacher’s racism than a student’s lack of knowledge. 

Bizarrely, anti-racist educators have even become enamored with the novel notion of race-based “affinity groups.” “Affinity grouping” is the tactful, contemporary term for the school-directed sorting of students and staff by race, a practice that would’ve fit neatly into the daily routine of the Jim Crow South. Typically involving one group for black participants, a second for non-black people of color, and a third for white participants, racially determined groupings are a growing presence in anti-racist training in schools and teacher preparation. 

In truth, anti-racist education has little to do today with combating “racism” as conventionally understood and more to do with seeking to uproot values, norms, structures, and traditions that are deemed to be artifacts of “whiteness” and the neoliberal patriarchy. As explained by Robin DiAngelo, author of the 2018 bestseller White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism and a must-have speaker for colleges and education foundations: “White identity is inherently racist.”

DiAngelo’s substantial influence, though, is dwarfed by that of Boston University’s Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi was name-checked last month by the Biden Department of Education as a model for what schools should embrace in civics education if they wish to receive grants from the American History and Civics Education programs. His 2019 bestseller, How To Be An Antiracist, has become education’s go-to source on matters of race. Even the National Park Service offers materials to help high school teachers leadguided readings of How To Be An Antiracist

Yet, upon closer scrutiny, it quickly becomes apparent just how wholly Kendi’s doctrine is at odds with American traditions of equality, free inquiry, and ordered liberty. Kendi holds that every single thing in the world—every action, idea, thought, and policy—is either “racist” or “anti-racist.”

“There is no such thing as a not-racist idea,” Kendi teaches in How to Be an Antiracist. “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy.” Not only is racism all-encompassing, it also makes unceasing demands; all “racist” disparities demand an anti-racist response. Thus, Kendi’s “anti-racism” rejects the very idea that something can exist outside his racial frame. Quite by design, Kendi’s creed stacks the deck against those who would question its premises or challenge it with evidence, as such responses are dismissed as prima facie evidence of the disputant’s fragility and racism.

Indeed, Kendi explicitly rejects rational debate and persuasion in favor of compulsory training. He writes in How to Be an Antiracist, “I had to forsake the suasionist bred into me, of researching and educating for the sake of changing minds.” Kendi concludes that, “Educational and moral suasion is not only a failed strategy,” but “it is a suicidal strategy.” This is why, he writes, teachers must “literally teach their students antiracist ideas''—because anything else “is to effectively allow their students to be educated to be racist.” This is indoctrination, not education, and it is being unapologetically defended as such. 

This is quite an admission, and suggests why anti-racist advocates are so quick to discount criticism of their project. Whereas the civil rights movement of the 1960s was rooted in the conviction that citizens could and should be won over by appealing to their moral and logical sense, Kendi frets that having to persuade the unconverted is “suicidal.” The result is a doctrine that’s little more than dogma, defended not by logic but by zealotry, and uniquely unsuited to the classroom. 

Kendi and other anti-racists’ explicit rejection of debate enables them to conveniently ignore their doctrinal inconsistencies. For example, Kendi and his acolytes argue that statistical disparities between racial groups are damning proof of racism (“systemic,” “structural,” or otherwise). At the same time, they also preach that “objectivity,” “linear thinking,” and “Western” mathematics are the poisonous handmaidens of “white supremacy.” Yet, if numerical group disparities are the measure of racism, what does it say that anti-racists have to rely on putatively racist tools and methods to make their case?  

A similar tension arises when Kendi, DiAngelo, and their anti-racist allies dismiss objectivity in favor of cultural relativism. “To be an antiracist is to see all cultures in all their differences as on the same level, as equals,” writes Kendi. This is rank sophistry. If anti-racists really viewed all cultures as equally valid, and not subject (as Kendi writes) to “the arbitrary standard of any single culture,” they’d have no basis for claiming that the U.S. is a “racist” nation, that this is a problem, or that the Jim Crow-era South was any worse than any other set of arrangements. Indeed, if standards are arbitrary, on what basis can we even agree that racism is an evil to be condemned?

However facile a thinker he may be, the implications of Kendi’s teachings are real and disturbing. Take the “anti-racist” materials that schools across the land are using to train teachers. In Denver Public Schools, educators learn that the distinctive characteristics of “white culture” include “the belief that there is such a thing as being objective,” the import of distinguishing between “good/bad” and “right/wrong,” and putting an “emphasis on being polite.” Bellevue School District in Washington state paid for “aspiring white antiracist leaders” to attend a class called “Humble & Brave,” which teaches that these two traits “go against the white norm of individualism, power and authority.” The course, taught by one of the district’s former equity specialists, requires participants to acknowledge their “racist thinking, believing, and acting” and helps them avoid “falling into the trap of white saviorism.” In Illinois, the Naperville Community School District recently hosted a mandatory districtwide “Equity Institute,” where the keynote speaker, Dena Simmons, founder of LiberatED, commanded teachers to “disrupt white privilege” and explained, “If you are not an ‘anti-racist’ you are a racist, even if you are treating people with respect.”

Anti-racism’s disdain for practical remedies is derailing more serious efforts to improve education by subsuming them in the culture war. And in the clash over anti-racist education, contrary to popular accounts, it’s the woke left that is the aggressor. This is a tragedy. After all, there are real institutional forces restricting opportunity. Too many black and brown children attend schools that fail to provide crucial supports, set high expectations, or deliver first-rate instruction. There are race-based issues in school policing and discipline that deserve careful scrutiny. Residential attendance zones can lock black and Latino families out of good schools while degree-based hiring locks many out of good jobs for which their skills and experience might otherwise qualify them. 

Anti-racist education today has little to do with forging coalitions to tackle these challenges, confront obvious instances of racism, or help teach students to engage thoughtfully and open-mindedly on issues of race. Rather, the anti-racist educational project turns out to be a strange, sophomoric assault on civilization itself. After all, it’s hardly the case that “white” culture is uniquely math-obsessed or analytic. Around the globe, air traffic controllers who supervise flying steel, surgeons who handle human hearts, or architects whose bridges resist gravity’s pull tend to value precision, objectivity, and rationality. This is true in Alabama and Angola, without regard to race, nationality, or cultural background. 

The truth is that the leaders and practitioners of “anti-racist” education don’t appear interested in anything so small as improving education for black and brown children or in teaching students not to be racists. Rather, Kendi, DiAngelo, and their ilk are seeking cultural revolution in the name of an illiberal doctrine that poses a mortal threat to schooling. Anti-racism’s hostility to reason, rejection of civilizational virtue, and labeling of skepticism is not another culture war dog whistle but an assault on the very soul of liberal education.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. J. Grant Addison is the deputy managing editor at the Washington Examiner magazine.