Dumbing Down Racism

The Seattle School District's definition has a hidden agenda.

Accusations of racism in connection with Seattle Public Schools are routine. They are flying now in the wake of the latest round of recommendations for school closures, which are thought by some to discriminate against minority students and families. But racial problems in school politics are more endemic than a single-issue squabble. In 2004, the Seattle School Board passed a resolution effectively accusing itself of “institutional racism” and promising to fix the problem. In other words, the school district operates on the premise that it’s a racist institution, albeit one trying to better itself.

So how does the school district define racism? Helpfully, they offer a Web page dealing with “equity and race” issues. This Web page attracted much attention from the blogosphere a couple of weeks ago. Under the heading “Definitions of Racism,” the district offers a veritable Baskin-Robbins menu of racism’s flavors, including “passive racism,” “active racism,” “individual racism,” “cultural racism,” and “institutional racism.”

What about plain old vanilla “racism”? That, too.

Here’s the definition posted by the district: “Racism: The systematic subordination of members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little social power in the United States (Blacks, Latinos/as, Native Americans, and Asians), by members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power (Whites). The subordination is supported by the actions of individuals, cultural norms and values, and the institutional structures and practices of society.”

By this definition, the only racists are white Americans.

Update, Thursday, June 1: Citing “numerous concerns voiced” about the definitions of racism posted on its Web site, the Seattle School District has now removed them.

And here’s the definition of “cultural racism”: “Those aspects of society that overtly and covertly attribute value and normality to white people and Whiteness, and devalue, stereotype, and label people of color as ‘other,’ different, less than, or render them invisible. Examples of these norms include defining white skin tones as nude or flesh colored, having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, defining one form of English as standard, and identifying only Whites as great writers or composers.”

OK, I understand the reference to the color crayons, but the district is also delivering the message that thinking actively about the future, promoting individualism, and teaching standardized English are examples of the kinds of racist norms they want to stamp out.

Good luck on the WASL and SATs, kids.

These definitions are presented by the district but not authored by them. The source is Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook, edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, and Pat Griffin, and published by Routledge in 1997. It’s described as the “first reader to cover the scope of oppression in America.” It’s an instructional text for teaching classes designed to stamp out all the “isms,” from racism to sexism, from heterosexism to classism and ablism. All isms are equal, equally real and equally bad.

Now if you thought this was some neutral manual aimed at making room for a diversity of thought and opinion, you’d be wrong. Teaching Diversity is no measured academic study. It’s the kind of re-education manual Chairman Mao would have loved. It doesn’t only address the challenges of living in a pluralistic society, it promotes “a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable.” It regards individualism as a “luxury” of white people. It calls for collectivism and political action. “We believe that eradicating oppression ultimately requires struggle against all its forms.”

Its view is also simplistic: America is divided into two groups—the agents of oppression and their targets. In a chart, the agents of oppression are listed: whites, men, heterosexuals, Christians, able persons, the “owning” and middle classes, and adults of middle age. The targets of oppression are people of color; women, gay men, lesbians and bisexuals; Jews, Muslims, and religious minorities; the disabled; the poor and working class; the young and elderly. Mossback is a member of all oppressor categories save one; as a non-Christian, I get some victim cred; otherwise, I’m an agent of oppression all the way.

Like an alcoholism program, the book anticipates the objections of the people it is meant to cure. Denial is a symptom of the disease. The most damning thing a white person could say is, “I am not a racist oppressor,” a statement that would announce how cluelessly oppressive you really are. And if you were to point out that many minorities and so-called “targets” fully buy into the dominant culture and economic system, you’d be reminded that their cooperation is simply more proof of oppression itself. Assimilated targets are victims of an “invisible process” of socialization, bribery, or seduction.

The book details how to conduct diversity courses and encourages discussion and confession, but it also voices suspicion of real debate. “Hegemony,” we are reminded, “is also maintained through ‘discourse.'” So much so, apparently, that real discourse is tossed out the window. Teaching Diversity isn’t really about encouraging the exploration of ideas and identities. Its purpose is to steer everyone to a single answer: an America that Noam Chomsky could love.

It’s the left’s version of creationism: coursework that flows from a predetermined right answer, based on faith and politics but presented as objective truth.

The Seattle School District is diverse in ways that go beyond isms. Attempting to cope with all the different ethnicities, social classes, and educational disparities is commendable. But posting recycled definitions of racism without disclosing the ideological bias behind them, especially one so simplistically dumb as to blame only whites for racism and, by inference, for the district’s woes, is unworthy of the district’s efforts to improve education.