Racial Politics in Schools

I am not terribly interested in the question of why Terry McAuliffe lost the gubernatorial election in Virginia. As is typical with these things, post-election analyses tend to revolve around the hobbyhorses of the analyzers more than anything else, making the whole thing not terribly enlightening for people who are trying to get some kind of insight about the election itself.

Nonetheless, precisely because such events are mostly pegs for people to talk about things they like to talk about, it has helped to nudge some discourses forward, especially around racial politics and schools.

I’ve been trying to grasp this debate for the past few months and it’s been pretty frustrating. This discourse has a lot of open hucksters, cynical nutpicking, vagueness, and semantical disputes, which makes it very slippery. But a lot of areas of discussion have that and that doesn’t necessarily mean there is nothing to it.

Based on what I’ve seen, I think the discourse on this would be benefited by separating the various grievances people raise into a few discrete categories, as follows.

  1. Curriculum. These grievances appear to mostly revolve around what is (and should be) taught in US history classes.

  2. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). These grievances are about non-curricular efforts to train kids about racism, anti-racism, privilege, oppression, and so on with a focus on how kids should be conducting themselves. These are similar to corporate anti-discrimination trainings and seem similar in some sense to other non-curricular interventions schools do like anti-drug assemblies.

  3. Stratification Processes. These grievances are about changes that are being made to how children are academically stratified. This includes things like not using entrance exams for admission into college or exclusive high schools. It also includes reducing or eliminating certain academic stratification such as gifted-and-talented programs.

If you want to group all these things together for the purpose of describing a general movement, then that’s fine. But if your goal is to have a constructive discussion about them, I think it’s a lot easier if you break them up into these discrete chunks.

My own thoughts on these three things are as follows:

  1. I don’t really care that much about what the history curriculum is and the current range of views about what it should be are all acceptable to me. As far as I can tell, the current debates about it relate to less than 10 percent of history instructional time. Others involved in this debate seem to think what is taught in high school history class matters a lot for society. That does not seem right to me.

  2. DEI training is bizarre and scammy. The market for this service was created in 1998 by the Supreme Court decisions in Faragher and Ellerth. Those cases gave rise to what became known as the Faragher-Ellerth defense, which allowed employers to avoid liability for racially or sexually hostile work environments if they showed that they exercised “reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior.” Hiring people to do DEI trainings allows employers to establish that they made prevention efforts. But the trainings themselves don’t seem to be based on anything and the people who do them remind me of self-help gurus in that they kind of just make stuff up that sounds superficially plausible. As far as I know, there is no evidence that the trainings generate any positive outcomes. Spreading these things into schools doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

  3. As a general matter, I think people focus too much on how to academically stratify people and not enough on making such stratification less important in society. But as far as stratification questions go, I generally agree with efforts to reduce especially super-early stratification, such as with gifted-and-talented programs in elementary schools. Where stratification is necessary or used (even when unnecessary), I tend to prefer standardized assessments like exams over intangible things like looking at extracurricular activities or character or personal narratives. I think mushy criteria and discretionary decision-making generates more biased results than standardized assessments, though neither are perfect of course. The recent push towards mushy criteria and discretionary decision-making also seems just as much (if not more) motivated by anti-Asian and anti-immigrant sentiments as it is by pro-Black and pro-Latino sentiments.