We Can't Prioritize Whiteness at the Expense of American Democracy

May 5, 2022 12:30:00 PM


Around the country, from Pennsylvania to Texas, white parents and groups like Parents Defending Education, are flexing their caste-given societal muscles against anything that looks remotely like anti-racism, culturally responsive teaching, or diversity, equity, and inclusion. Republicans smell blood in the water, creating campaigns designed to support so-called “parents' rights” banning lessons they find divisive or political. Meanwhile, more than 20 HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) have received bomb threats in recent months. 

Think about that for a moment. The grandson of the white woman caught screaming at the Little Rock Nine as they integrated Arkansas schools in 1957, is now being protected from being taught about the actions of his racist grandmother, while today’s Black students at HBCUs face the threat of the same hate propelled bombs that tore through Birmingham in 1963.

The juxtaposition of these two realities, white families crusading against culturally responsive anti-racist education while HBCUs face death threats, highlights what truly lies behind the raucous school board meetings; the prioritization and defense of whiteness at the expense of American democracy.

There are two fundamental truths that groups like Parents Defending Education don’t, or won’t, understand:

  • There is no such thing as non-political education.

  • Anti-racist, culturally responsive education that interrogates America’s racist history isn’t anti-American, it is a profound gesture of love for, and defense of American democracy.

The decisions about what to teach and to whom are—and always have been—political choices. It was a political choice to criminalize educating the enslaved and it is a political choice to not teach students about the undeniable omnipresence of systemic racism in America. To advocate for a so-called non-political education is actually to advocate for the maintenance of white-centered American education in which whiteness wasn’t bothered by the realities of widespread injustice when students were taught about the happy lives of slaves and the strong affection that existed between masters and slaves,” were assigned "To Kill a Mockingbird" but not Toni Morrison or Malcolm X, and celebrated Columbus Day with models of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María instead of honoring the indigenous peoples whose lives were taken and lands stolen.

The irony here is that the very people who see culturally responsive and anti-racist education as a threat, fail to understand the damage they are doing to American democracy by their flag-waving patriotism.

Dr. Cornel West’s startlingly prophetic "Democracy Matters" is indispensable to fully understanding the depth of this irony. To defend and further perfect American democracy, says West, requires a combination of “the Socratic commitment to questioning and … prophetic witness [which] calls attention to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery.”

In other words, American democracy requires the indefatigable questioning and interrogation of justice and truth found in Plato’s depiction of Socrates in "Republic"—for it is only through such critical questioning and consequential introspection can a people or a nation identify its ideals and then hold itself to account by juxtaposing those ideals against its history. 

In American terms, Socratic questioning means tackling inherent American paradoxes like Thomas Jefferson, an enslaver, penning America’s highest ideal that “All men are created equal,” and the cupola of the American Capitol building, topped with the Statue of Freedom, having been built by enslaved labor. This type of questioning is not anti-American, but rather an act of love for America for, as West points out, “to engage in this Socratic questioning of America is not to trash our country, but rather to tease out those traditions in our history that enable us to wrestle with difficult realities we often deny.”

At the core of such Socratic questioning of American democracy is a commitment to what West calls prophetic witness, a commitment to justice going back thousands of years and beautifully summed up by Dr. King’s reminder that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Prophetic witness, the commitment to justice, not just for ourselves or those who look like, love like, pray like, or talk like us, is what pushes American democracy forward towards living up to its highest democratic ideals. It is this commitment to justice that requires all of us to consider other people and fight against the intoxication of materialism that so often stands in the way of justice because, again as West teaches us, if Americans “are able to buy the cars and take the vacations they want, they are all too willing to … disregard the political and social dysfunctions afflicting the country.”

Anti-racism, anti-racist education, and culturally responsive teaching are profound acts of love for, and in service to, American democracy. They harken back to the Socratic teachings of the world’s first democracy and are imbued with the higher callings to compassion found in all the world’s seminal religious texts. To Socratically question American paradoxes through the lens of justice is to walk the paths of Emerson, Melville, Lincoln, Baldwin and Morrison.

It is perhaps the most American-loving thing one can do.

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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