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Fight rages over anti-racism teaching in US schools

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A man sings the national anthem during a rally against "critical race theory" being taught in US schools./AFP
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Jun 15, 2021 - 07:17 AM

LEESBURG, UNITED STATES — “Are you ready to take back our schools?” activist Patti Menders shouted at a rally opposing anti-racism teaching in the United States that critics like her say trains white children to see themselves as “oppressors.”

“Yes!” answered in unison the hundreds of demonstrators gathered this weekend near Washington to fight against “critical race theory,” the latest battleground of America’s ongoing culture wars.

The term defines a strand of thought that appeared in American law schools in the late 1970s and which looks at racism as a system, enabled by laws and institutions, rather than at the level of individual prejudices.

But its critics use it as a catch-all phrase to attack teachers’ efforts to confront dark episodes in American history, including slavery and segregation, as well as to tackle racist stereotypes.

Elizabeth Perrin, a white mother of two, told AFP that young children are learning to “look at everything through the prism of color, and not the content of character, that they were oppressors and that every student of color was an oppressed person.”

“It teaches, second graders… that they should be ashamed of their whiteness,” she said, referring to children aged seven and eight.

‘A horrible place’ 

Her words echo those of Republican ex-president Donald Trump who last year cut training courses put in place by his predecessor Barack Obama to educate federal officials about diversity.

“They were teaching people that our country is a horrible place, it’s a racist place, and they were teaching people to hate our country,” he said.

Since then at least 16 Republican states, including populous ones like Texas and Florida, have passed or are in the process of passing laws prohibiting public schools from teaching “critical race theory” under penalty of losing funding.

Even if vague, the legislation causes “a lot of concern and anxiousness for teachers,” said Dorinda Carter Andrews, who heads the department of education at Michigan State University.

She said teachers wonder what they can say without getting in trouble — though the subject came up naturally in classrooms in the wake of protests last year against the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman.

Taking note of the recent surge of anti-racist movements, school authorities started to set up courses and think about new programs — parts of which make some parents uncomfortable, she said.

Politics, as usual 

“My kids always talk about racism,” said a white woman in her 40s at the Leesburg rally, though she declined to give her name, like the majority of the demonstrators.

“It’s like ‘Hey guys, you are racists’… It’s coming from school, it has to stop,” she said.

“There is racism but between all races,” continues the mother of two adolescents. “The blaming is not fixing the problem.”

“White supremacy is real,” fired back Liz Carroll, a counter-protester who had written those words on a sign Saturday.

Carroll, who is white, said she was ashamed of the attitude of her neighbors who disrupt meetings of school authorities, sign petitions, protest, file lawsuits and give interviews in the conservative media to advance their cause.

Elsewhere too, the climate is also tense. Last week, students at a high school on Long Island in New York, were heckled for asking, among other things, that the program’s books include more authors of color.

A teacher at a private school in New Jersey also resigned in protest after accusing her school of “forcing them (students) to adopt the status of privilege or victimhood.”

“Most critics of critical race theory have never read it,” said Jamel Donnor, a Virginia educational science professor, for whom this whole debate is political. “The Republicans need that political hot potato to keep their base energized.”

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