OPINION: Turning equity lens on schools exposes white unhappiness

At overflow school board meetings, parents allege critical race theory, equity threaten their children
Diversity, equity and inclusion may seem admirable goals, but they became a flashpoint Tuesday at a jammed school board meeting in Forsyth County where parents protested what they considered a slanted and anti-white perspective.

Diversity, equity and inclusion may seem admirable goals, but they became a flashpoint Tuesday at a jammed school board meeting in Forsyth County where parents protested what they considered a slanted and anti-white perspective.

The social justice movement in America has prompted schools to apply an “equity lens” to reveal the effects on students from such societal ills as racism, sexism and homophobia. The angry crowds descending on local school board meetings suggest the equity lens is revealing something else as well — aggrieved white people.

Unhappy parents — overwhelmingly white — in politically conservative districts in Georgia are packing school board meetings to voice alarm over what they decry as a liberal plot to divide the races by representing white students as oppressors and Black students as oppressed.

At a school board meeting a week ago in Forsyth County, a father proclaimed to applause, “If you have materials that you are providing that say if you are born a white male, you are born an oppressor, then you are abusing our children.”

Two days later at a raucous meeting in Cherokee County attended by hundreds, with hundreds outside after the meeting room filled, parents booed when superintendent Brian V. Hightower explained equity means “recognizing that all students are equal and deserve equal access and opportunities for educational success and to feel welcome and valued.” The crowd hissed when he reaffirmed Cherokee’s commitment to social and emotional learning, which was borne out of concerns over rising rates of depression, self-harm and suicide. The crowd also shouted down parents who defended equity and social and emotional learning.

At a recent meeting of the State Charter Schools Commission,Vice Chair Hunter Hill opposed a new charter school because of its Afrocentric theme. “This is not an innovation that I think we want to lead on,” said Hill, a former state legislator. “Are we strengthening Georgia by teaching students that they are victims of systemic racism and covert white supremacy?” His fellow commissioners endorsed PEACE Academy in Southeast Atlanta despite Hill’s contention the school’s approach would lead to “fragmentation, resegregation and tribalization in Georgia.”

It is not just public school parents resistant to diversity and equity efforts. An anonymous five-page letter to the board of trustees and community of the Westminster Schools last month signed by the “No Longer Silent Majority” condemned the Atlanta private school’s attention to “racism, sexual identity, white privilege, institutional racism, oppression, affinity groups, and, of course, their holy trinity: Equity, diversity and inclusion.” The letter chided, “How about just sticking to good old fashion academic excellence and the Bible?”

This fast-escalating culture war found its villain in a 40-year-old body of scholarship known broadly as critical race theory or CRT, a complex and multi-layered examination of the systematic presence of racism in American life, laws and institutions. It is fodder for college and law school seminars, not K-12 classrooms.

Yet, at a Cobb board meeting Thursday, a parent described the theory as “educational terrorism.” Meanwhile, a woman at the Gwinnett school board meeting the same evening declared, “Critical race theory teaches children how to be racist. It’s abusive. It discriminates against one color.”

CRT is not related to diversity training or cancel culture. But in the last few months, conservative radio and TV have cast it as a threat to American values and blamed it for everything except the high pollen count. White parents speaking against CRT embraced a Post-it note version, but it was enough to convince them it would leave their children loathing themselves and their country.

As it is with transgender bathroom and athletic policies, the far right is distorting education efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion and getting lots of help in their misinformation campaign from Southern politicians. Both Gov. Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr issued statements this week in opposition to critical race theory. At least 12 state legislatures have either considered or passed bills that ban any teaching that suggests the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.

The governor of Oklahoma this month signed House Bill 1775, which bans schools from teaching any concepts that suggest “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex or an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

“We can and should teach this history without labeling a young child as an oppressor or requiring he or she feel guilty, or shame based on their race or sex. I refuse to tolerate otherwise,” said Gov. Kevin Stitt.

This backlash against diversity, equity and inclusion does not surprise Dr. Bettina Love, who holds an endowed professorship at the University of Georgia and is author of “We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom.”

Dr. Bettina Love

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“When you put race in the front, middle or in between anything, people get fearful,” said Love. “They say we are automatically blaming white people, or we are teaching white students to hate themselves.”

“Many of these districts don’t have diversity. They don’t have any idea what equity is, and they don’t have any inclusion,” said Love. “They are fighting something they don’t even have. These are just buzz words to them.”

What critical race theory seeks to do is expose how racism is embedded in systems, policies and laws in this country, she said. “It helps young people realize if you understand the systems, you can work to change the systems.”

These attacks reduce critical race theory, a major scholarly debate, to sound bites, said Chris Stewart, CEO of Brightbeam, a national advocacy organization focused on empowering Black and poor parents, and co-host of the 8 Black Hands podcast. First came state laws to clamp down on anti-racism teaching in the schools in any form, but now the outrage machine has shifted to local school boards, he said.

“At the end of the day, the question is do you want a just society for your kids and all kids,” said Stewart, who does not believe the answer would be “yes” from everyone.

“Historically, when you push forward, when you get more kids sitting next to each other and a more truthful reckoning of why society is not just and the ways in which society harms some, then comes a backlash movement,” said Stewart, a former Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education member.

“We have Black kids in a very racist system that sees them as less than white students,” Stewart said. “Yet, people want to refute systematic racism, saying it does not exist despite everything we know about how the courts work, the police data. Look at school systems and discipline data. You can find disparities there that are not explained by anything other than race. And, yet they don’t even want to talk about equity.”

“You realize racism is permanent; it is endemic,” said Stewart. “It does not matter what people say. It is what they do. And they turn a blind eye if justice costs them something.”

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