What Do White Folk Fear?

While simplistic, provocative messaging is effective because it triggers an emotional response, the truth about K-12 public education in the U.S. is that it has always been and is now extremely conservative.

Photo by Matt Nelson on Unsplash

Consider this description of public schools in the U.S.:

[P]ublic schools … [are] a “dragon … devouring the hope of the country as well as religion.” Secular public education … [is filled with] “Socialism, Red Republicanism, Universalism, Infidelity, Deism, Atheism, and Pantheism — anything, everything, except religion and patriotism.”

FREETHINKERS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SECULARISM, SUSAN JACOBY, (PP. 257–258)

Some of this language is archaic, but the attack on public schools here is little different than the current climate in the U.S. where Republicans in several states are taking aim at Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project, as Sarah Schwartz reports:

In total, lawmakers in at least 15 states have introduced bills that seek to restrict how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and other social issues.

The legislation, all introduced by Republican lawmakers, uses similar language as an executive order former President Donald Trump put in place to ban diversity training for federal workers. The order has since been rescinded by President Joe Biden.

Supporters of these laws say they’re designed to get schools to stop teaching critical race theory, an academic framework that examines how racism has shaped the U.S. legal system. The Idaho legislation specifically mentions critical race theory by name. Lawmakers claim that teachers have adopted its tenets, and are teaching about race, gender, and identity in ways that sow division among students.

FOUR STATES HAVE PLACED LEGAL LIMITS ON HOW TEACHERS CAN DISCUSS RACE. MORE MAY FOLLOW

The current conservative attack on confronting racism in the U.S. is little different than the opening condemnation of public schools, which comes from John Hughes, Catholic bishop in New York in the mid-1800s. Hughes was known as the “‘father of Catholic education,’” Susan Jacoby adds, and if we dig deep enough, this attack on public schools had little basis in facts but was a market response to the creeping threat of public schools to Catholic education.

For well over 150 years, then, conservatives in the U.S. have been launching false claims that public schooling is liberal indoctrination, home to socialism, communism, and anti-religious bigotry. The recent attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project are nothing new, except now public schools are accused of being anti-white (despite about 80% of public school teachers being white).

While simplistic, provocative messaging is effective because it triggers an emotional response, the truth about K-12 public education in the U.S. is that it has always been and is now extremely conservative.

I make this claim in several important contexts: I have been an educator for 37 years (18 years as a public school teacher and another 19 years as a teacher educator at a private university, both in South Carolina), and my scholarly background is rooted in the history of public education.

But here is the most important element of my background; I am a critical educator. Critical pedagogy and CRT (among many other critical lenses) do inform my teaching.

Until the Trump-inspired attack on CRT, however, almost no one outside of graduate programs in the U.S. had even heard of CRT, much less were implementing it in any way in K-12 schools.

Certainly, in recent years concurrent with the increased media and public awareness of police killing Black Americans at a disproportionate rate — and with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement — K-12 and higher education has begun to adopt programs and teaching that address diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The rabid assault on CRT is mostly a solution in search of a problem; however, many schools have adopted, for example, concepts such as culturally relevant teaching (the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings) and have sought ways to diversity the field of teaching and the curriculum.

All of this is also occurring as the U.S. becomes more racially diverse — less white — and as public schools have become majority-minority populations (more Black and brown than white students).

So we have a problem. Again, CRT essentially doesn’t exist in K-12 education, and the 1619 Project is not an adopted curriculum, although some teachers (probably very few) likely have used the materials as a resource for teaching history.

That means something else is behind these efforts to control what is taught in schools — just as the attack by a Catholic bishop in the 1800s was more about turf than any real moral failure (or creeping socialism) in public schools.

What is behind the current attack on public schools addressing racism? In other words, what do white folk fear?

As I recently wrote, the attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project are grounded in white people (notably those with the most power and wealth) fearing a loss of the white privilege they claim doesn’t exist (in the same way they claim the U.S. isn’t a racist country):

White privilege is a system of advantage that benefits all white people (or to be more clear, all people who are perceived of as white).

That racial privilege, however, is no guarantee of success or shield of protection for some individual people who are white. White people fail, white people suffer inequity and disadvantages (such as poverty), and white people in some individual cases are substantially worse off than individual Black people.

Racism is a system of power and race that disadvantages all Black people in the U.S. (or to be more clear, all people who are perceived of as Black).

Racism is not a universal barrier to success or happiness or achievement, but it is a pervasive burden that tints every aspect of living for any Black person.

Black people are typically more starkly aware of racism (nearly moment by moment) than white people are of white privilege; white privilege works in an invisible way for white people while racism is a blunt object for Black people. …

To be blunt, reaching a state of equity and equality in the U.S. would be a material change in the lives of white people. Change is terrifying to those who are born into a state of advantage.

Equity and meritocracy realized, then, in the U.S. is a threat to white privilege.

A CASE FOR CRITICAL RACE THEORY, AND MORE

On Busted Pencil with Tim Slekar this week, we confronted that fear by noting that the conservative attack on teaching about race and racism is an effort to avoid facing the reality than many wealthy and powerful white people in the U.S. in fact did not earn that power and wealth by their superior effort and character; they may not even deserve that power and wealth.

White people in power are afraid of other people recognizing that the U.S. is not a meritocracy, and that if we work toward true equity and meritocracy, many of the elite will no longer be among the elite.

The game is rigged in the U.S. in the favor of white and male Americans, resulting in this reality:

The rich (mostly white) is getting richer while everyone else (increasingly Black and brown) is being cheated by the rich.

Much of this tension has been increased during Covid because the shut downs highlighted just which workers in the U.S. are essential — the least well paid (such as service workers) and those living in the most vulnerable conditions (hourly laborers without guaranteed insurance or retirement).

If all the service workers in the U.S. did not go to work tomorrow, the country would shut down; if all the CEOs stayed home, no one would notice.

White people are afraid of losing their unfair advantage of simply being white, and that fear is driven by a changing world, a changing country.

Attacks by Republicans on CRT and the 1619 Project are crass fear-mongering and a distraction, driven by white fear.

CRT and the 1619 Project are not any significant part of K-12 schooling, and white students are not being taught they are inherently evil because they are white.

White folk perpetuating these lies are doing so because they are afraid; they are afraid of what they see in any mirror they face.

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/