Rebecca Elliott, MPH
Lesson 5: The Black and White of American Education
We gotta talk about race now…
When we were last together, we came to a startling conclusion about the American education system: It is not designed to educate. Even if you still have faith in the education system, you must admit there are serious flaws that undermine the mission of turning students into thoughtful, creative, intellectually curious individuals ready to create a more exciting, and impactful future. Among the many flaws we discussed previously, there is a big, glaring one we all wish we could casually turn away from but we must engage in: racism. Yes, the ism that sparked a thousand slave ships, the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil, and an ongoing revisionist history campaign is alive and well in American education. Racism in the education system goes together like racism in all the other systems of American life, but it is especially dangerous when coming into direct contact with the nation’s most vulnerable: children. In this post, we’re going to be talking about the racism embedded in education and the effects this type of education has on Black children, White children, and our nation as a whole.
Is American Education Racist?
American education, as we discovered earlier, is designed to churn out obedient laborers and mindless consumers; to condition the next generation of leaders that the status quo is good and natural, therefore in no need of change or uprooting. If you know anything about the United States, the status quo in terms of economic power, political influence, and social capital, does not favor Black Americans and never has. So if the American education system relies on the maintenance of the status quo, and the status quo is racist, is the system that upholds a racist status quo as good and natural a racist system? Now, I could come to a conclusion based on overwhelming data regarding the racial disparities between majority White and majority Black schools, including quality of teachers and buildings, availability of advanced coursework, and even money spent per child. However, I think the best way to answer this question is to look at what the education system, directly and indirectly, teaches students about different racial groups, and how that teaching affects the way these children think of themselves.
What's in this Curriculum?
From the moment a child walks into their dungeon-school, they are indoctrinated with the belief that America is the greatest country to ever exist and that all other nations, cultures, and people are naturally inferior. The growing controversy surrounding Critical Race Theory teachings in schools, the 1619 Project, and the removal of Confederate monuments highlight how disturbingly unwilling America is to admit to wrongdoings, no matter how obviously egregious. For the typical American student, education begins with the notion that White Americans are the strongest, bravest, smartest, kindest, most creative and ambitious group of people on the planet. The way we learn about the Founding Fathers is almost mythical. They are viewed as gods among men, walking beacons of liberty, and genius, so much so that to question their decisions either politically (why can’t we get rid of the electoral college?) or ethically (why were the men proclaiming freedom complicit in owning fellow men?) is to be seen as “radical” or “un-American”.
Students are taught that slavery was a “necessary” evil in order to make this country the great City on the Hill. Some students are even taught that slaves enjoyed slavery: that they got to become Christians, they ate well, and they even perfered slavery to their primitive lives in Africa. They are taught that everything good and useful in the world was conceptualized or invented in Europe or in the Americas by those of European descent. They learn that the civil rights movement ended racism, while also learning that America is not racist. Do you see the issue yet? Students are essentially taught lies, not only about their own country, but about everyone else’s too. The word for this phenomenon is propaganda, but here in the United States, we just call it education.
So what are the effects?
If you are a white student, what do you think the effect of receiving such an education would do? Well, you would probably feel the way anyone would if they were told everyday in their 12 years of schooling that everyone who looks like them has contributed nothing but brilliance, goodness, and order to the world. You would feel like a rockstar, naturally, but remember, American education functions as propaganda, so your feeling of innate competence, genius and God-like morality are not actually based in reality. Your greatness depends on the choices you make about the kind of world you want to live in, but you first must engage in the world as it truly is and how it really got that way. That’s not the education you are going to find in American schools.
What about Black students? Well, Black students are taught the same propaganda, so the effects are similar in that they engage in a reality that does not exist. Black students are taught that slavery civilized them, the Civil Rights Movement ereticated racism, and that the current state of affairs both in the the U.S. and abroad, happen completely in a vaccum. Circumstances like wealth inequality, poverty, and high dropout rates are seen as personal failures of individuals who are inherently lazy, low- minded, and stupid. However untrue this is, when the propaganda being forced into students is supported by the circumstances they see outside their window, they will take it as fact, seeing economic, political, and social subordination as natural, and sometimes even good.
What can be done?
We must first ask ourselves if such a system is worth reforming. Remember, if most Americans are learning lies, then we must ask ourselves if a system that functions to lie is a system that needs reform or upheaval. Education should be a tool of empowerment. No one who is truly educated should believe they are either worthless or superior, and any education that produces such outcomes is innately flawed. If we truly want the education we claim we want, it must start with the unlearning of the one we have been given.
Jones, H. (2019). The 1619 Project. Nytimes.com. Retrieved 11 July 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html.
Serwer, A. (2019). The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts. The Atlantic. Retrieved 11 July 2021, from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/12/historians-clash-1619-project/604093/.
Ponti, C. (2021). America’s History of Slavery Began Long Before Jamestown. HISTORY. Retrieved 11 July 2021, from https://www.history.com/news/american-slavery-before-jamestown-1619.