Some schools are teaching that the nation’s legacy of slavery and Jim Crow are among the state-sanctioned restrictions placed on African Americans that have given white Americans historic advantages that hold today. Gaps in wealth, education, employment and business and political advancement are traced to laws and policies that blocked African Americans from opportunities afforded to whites.
Shaun Harper, founder of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, said many educators avoid discussing the topic because they have trouble properly addressing it, but it’s particularly important after incidents such as the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“It is educationally irresponsible to deny students the opportunity to learn the truth about America’s racial past and present,” said Harper, a Georgia native.
Harper said such classroom instruction can help students understand “how systems and structures have and continue to privilege white Americans at the expense and exclusion of people of color.”
“I have been teaching about whiteness, white fragility, white entitlement and white privilege over the entirety of my 18-year faculty career,” he said. “Never once have I argued that all white people are evil. There are productive ways to teach about these issues without having white students feel attacked. In my experience, they have appreciated being told the truth about how other racial groups experience America.”
The Trump administration created a commission last year to fight against interpretations of history that the president claimed were un-American, blaming school curriculum for violence at some Black Lives Matter protests. Trump also banned federal agencies from conducting racial sensitivity training related to white privilege and “critical race theory.” President Joe Biden dissolved the commission on his first day in office.
Dunahoo approached University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley with some questions on the topic after a legislative hearing recently, system officials said.
“We shared the questions with our campus presidents and provosts to gather the information requested by the lawmaker,” said system spokesman Aaron Diamant. “We are a state agency and are always responsive to the elected representatives of the people of Georgia.”
Georgia Department of Education officials have not received a similar request, spokeswoman Meghan Frick said Thursday.
Several faculty members were confused and angered by the questions, accusing Dunahoo of trying to interfere with their coursework.
“The request is an attack on higher education,” said Matt Boedy, a University of North Georgia professor who is Georgia conference president of the American Association of University Professors. “It perpetrates a pernicious agenda. I don’t know why a state representative who won his district by 40 points needs to throw red meat to his base, but this echoes national conservative discourse that has been laughed from the public square by historians and other experts.”
Some students at a few of Georgia’s largest public universities said they’ve been in classes with professors who’ve used materials that mock white people or have been told they cannot participate in discussions about affirmative action because they’re white. A Georgia Tech student and a Kennesaw State student talked about their discomfort in participating in a “white privilege test” in which students received points based on questions such as if they grew up in a two-parent household.
The students declined to be identified, due to the subject matter and because they are current students. The students shared their experiences with the AJC through Turning Point USA, a conservative-leaning student organization with chapters at several Georgia colleges and universities.
Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based organization that monitors campus speech issues, cautioned against elected officials — regardless of political affiliation — wading into curriculum content.
“It’s a bad idea for either side to try to impose its political perspective on controversial issues by deciding what can and can’t be taught,” he said. “We have to be very careful about how we allow outside government actors into what is taught in the classrooms. The negatives to jeopardizing academic freedom are serious and profound.”
Whiteness and curriculum
These are the questions University System of Georgia leaders forwarded to their colleges and universities at the request of state Rep. Emory Dunahoo. The system asked anyone with that type of information to forward details about the relevant course section to the chancellor’s office.
1) Are any classes within the Georgia public school system or the University System of Georgia teaching students that possessing certain characteristics inherently designates them as either being “privileged” or “oppressed”?
2) Are any classes within the Georgia public school system or the University System of Georgia teaching students what constitutes “privilege” and “oppression”?
3) Are any classes within the Georgia public school system or the University System of Georgia teaching students who identify as white, male, heterosexual, or Christian are intrinsically privileged and oppressive, which is defined as “malicious or unjust” and “wrong”?