Commentary Race

Our Schools Need to Teach a Fourth ‘R’: Racial Literacy

OiYan Poon

Critics may say that teaching students to analyze racial problems is not a fundamental goal of education. But in a divided and diverse society, it must be.

My parents immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong, welcomed by the more open immigration policies of the 1970s. My father completed a college degree and became an engineer, and my mother was gainfully employed as a seamstress. Through these opportunities, they attained middle-class status. They both contributed in what they felt were positive ways as civically engaged U.S. citizens in Ludlow, Massachusetts.

I have always known my politically moderate-to-conservative father to be optimistic about the United States as a nation that valued inclusion and individual contributions. He encouraged me and my two brothers to pursue education as a pathway for advancement. All three of us earned graduate degrees, surely an embodiment of his ideals of American opportunity.

Recently my father texted me to ask if I thought Chinese Americans like us would be thrown into concentration camps as Americans of Japanese descent had been during World War II in this country. The timing of his question was near the 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order to open internment camps.

As a proud immigrant American, my father expressed a palpable fear about recent heightened racist and xenophobic sentiments gaining a boldfaced platform of power and divisiveness in this country.

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Some might say these concerns are exaggerated, but a dismissal of such fears only highlights a deep divide in empathy and understanding in the current political climate, particularly between those who are vulnerable and those who are not. Dismissing these fears and concerns may also suggest a lack of knowledge about the history of racial inequalities, injustices, and tensions in America.

To fill this gap, our schools from kindergarten through college can offer enhanced educational opportunities for understanding, analyzing, and solving racial inequalities embedded in social structures. Without this effort, civil discourse will continue to erode. Rigorous, required curricula addressing racial literacy from elementary to advanced higher education levels can possibly bridge this divide and stem this erosion.

The need is dire and not without opposition.

In February, an all-day program of optional seminars and workshops marking Black History Month at a well-resourced Chicago suburban high school drew national attention when some parents and community members complained that students were being forced to participate in what they viewed as one-sided and ideologically biased programming. The program at New Trier High School, where I served as a presenter, was aimed at helping students and teachers contemplate racial justice challenges. Some parents say the presented perspectives were not balanced, and thousands have weighed in on the controversy.

I found these protests perplexing, as the students were not passive recipients of information presented in the workshops. The 15 students in my session, “Advancing Civil Rights or Reverse Discrimination?: Affirmative Action in Elite College Admissions,” were as engaged and critical as my graduate students in analyzing the evolution and legal history of policies and practices aimed at racial equity in college access. They asked thoughtful questions and were interested in interrogating social systems.

Criticisms of educational programs aimed at the development of skills to confront problems of racism and injustice have also risen elsewhere. Recently lawmakers in Arizona and Wisconsin have attempted to ban K-12 and collegiate courses that deconstruct racism and notions of white supremacy.

Efforts to silence intellectual explorations of U.S. racism perpetuate an illiteracy in how to make sense of the recent national rise in hate crimes and anti-Semitism. They also encroach upon First Amendment speech rights and represent deep anxiety over cultural and social changes that may result from the United States’ increasing racial diversity.

And this demonstrates the urgency for racial literacy.

The U.S. Census Bureau has predicted that there will be no racial majority in the nation by 2044. This prediction signals the need for a greater understanding of the social implications of rapidly changing demographics. It is essential since our political, social, and economic structures were not constructed with a racially diverse citizenry in mind.

Culturally relevant education in K-12 through college can inform racial literacy to potentially bridge these divides and offer opportunities of racial justice and reconciliation through study and dialogue.

This is an idea gaining traction. College student activists at 80 campuses across the nation, including the University of Missouri, Dartmouth, and Santa Clara University, recently renewed demands for a more relevant curriculum to address race and racism.

To be sure, some will argue that teaching students to critically analyze racial problems is not a fundamental educational goal included in the traditional framework of a core curriculum, as demonstrated by the debate over a state ban on Mexican American studies in Arizona.

However, a 2014 Arizona study shows that high school students who take race and ethnic studies courses are more likely to score higher on standardized tests and graduate high school at much higher rates than peers who do not complete similar courses.

These academic gains seem especially true for students from under-resourced communities, who are statistically at risk of being pushed out of school. A 2016 study by Stanford researchers showed substantial improvements in class attendance, GPA, and credits completed by urban high school students (especially Latino teens) who completed race and ethnic studies classes.

Several studies have also demonstrated positive outcomes in social and cognitive development, critical thinking skills, and civic engagement among college students exposed to curricula taking on difficult subjects such as race and racism.

These are foundational skills for the workforce, leadership, and a healthy democratic society.  The ideal 21st century education includes a fourth R of racial literacy in addition to the traditional basics of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.

Schools like New Trier, with their daylong program on racial justice, are ahead of the curve.

Like many young people, the New Trier students I encountered were hungry to engage in difficult conversations about race and inequality.

In the face of an environment of racial anxieties and increasing threats to inclusive democratic ideals, schools and educators can respond to societal needs and meet an obligation to offer K-12 and college curricula focused on developing racial literacy.

Perhaps such a curriculum can include—among many other lessons—analysis of the U.S. internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II three-quarters of a century ago. Only through education and reflection can we avoid repeating past and current mistakes.

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