Editorial: Culture wars come to Great Neck school district

The Island Now

A handful of parents attended the recent Great Neck school board meeting to protest how issues regarding race were being taught in district classrooms.

No, the protest did not mention the teaching that Columbus discovered the New World – even though Native Americans had been living here for more than 10,000 years.

Nor were there discussions about the role of slavery in what is now the United States starting in 1619 and the treatment of Blacks through the Jim Crow era and continuing to this day.

Nor was there mention of the discrimination faced by Chinese, Jewish, Hispanic, Irish and Italian immigrants – to name a few.

Rather the residents’ complaint was based on screenshots from a PowerPoint presentation allegedly featured in an 11th grade English class that claimed “racism in America is no better today than it was 200 years ago” and referred to “white guilt.”

The slides were included in an article on the website for Parents Defending Education, a national grassroots organization “working to reclaim our schools from activists promoting harmful agendas.”

“Through network and coalition building, investigative reporting, litigation, and engagement on local, state, and national policies, we are fighting indoctrination in the classroom – and for the restoration of a healthy, non-political education for our kids,” the site continues before displaying a map with the heading “Welcome to IndoctriNation.”

The Parents Defending Education website said the PowerPoint presentation allegedly made by an  English class teacher was “steeped in the tenets of critical race theory and makes sweeping generalizations about white people.”

Welcome to the culture wars, classroom version.

Let’s be clear: Discrimination against any group should never be accepted – whether we are talking about Black, brown or white people. Racism is racism.

Have some white people been made to feel personally targeted in efforts to address racism in this country? No doubt.  Greater care should be given in not blaming all whites for the sins of some whites, past or present.

But are whites really the biggest victims of racism? President Donald Trump actually thought so and found a large audience who agreed with him.

But this is nonsense, which in many cases is intended to counter efforts for criminal justice reforms,  voting rights and other civil rights advances.

A large clue about the intent of Parents Defending Education comes in the claim that the teacher’s PowerPoint is steeped in the “tenets of critical race theory” – an academic term that has been weaponized for political reasons.

Critical race theory is actually the study at the post-graduate level of how racism is embedded in laws, regulations, rules and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race.

Yet more evidence of this theory was offered in the defense of three white men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man in Georgia. Lawyers for the defendants cited citizen arrest laws that date back to 1863 and were written to aid the return of runaway slaves to justify the killing.

Two prosecutors declined to charge the three men, one of whom has been criminally charged for her failure. The three men were only prosecuted after video surfaced of the murder 10 weeks later.

In the face of national outrage, Georgia’s elected officials, both Republicans and Democrats, acknowledged the inherent bias in Georgia’s laws and voted to overturn them.

And a jury of one Black and 11 white citizens found the three men guilty of murder – an outcome that was shocking to many who have watched how Blacks are treated by the criminal justice system.

But many Republicans have appropriated the term critical race theory to mean something very different – to claim that all white people are being unfairly admonished for being oppressors while classifying all Black people as hopelessly oppressed victims. And that this is taking place in our nation’s classrooms.

There were several other problems with the Parents Defending Education presentation.

The Great Neck High School English teacher is not identified by name. The source of the complaint was attributed to “parents,” none of whom were identified and presumably none of whom attended the class. And the alleged presentation was made in a single classroom by a single teacher.

Is this going to become the new norm? Are we going to start investigating what every teacher says in every classroom and, without proof or naming names, protest at school board meetings?

District Superintendent Teresa Prendergast said the district has been aware of excerpts of the PowerPoint presentation circulated through social media but said state law prohibits the district from commenting on personnel matters.

She then offered a standard for the Great Neck school district that we applaud.

“The district is actively reviewing these materials and will work collaboratively with our teachers and administrators to ensure information is presented in a viewpoint-neutral matter that stimulates critical thinking and reasoning skills,” Prendergast said. “We remain committed to reviewing and addressing issues that may not align with our educational mission, while also providing support in a safe learning environment to all of our stakeholders.”

But a look at the website suggests that fairness is not what Parents Defending Education is looking for.

The website prominently states that the Great Neck teacher’s PowerPoint presentation “asks students to take a pledge to work ‘relentlessly’ in the ‘lifelong process’ of ‘antiracism.’’’

And exactly why is this wrong?  At a time when antisemitic and anti-Chinese attacks are on the rise what is wrong with a call for self-reflection to avoid intentional or unintentional acts of prejudice?

Does Parents Defending Education think that racism doesn’t exist or will be overcome anytime soon?

The website also highlights a slide allegedly presented by the English class teacher stating that racism is “systemic, as old as America itself, no better than it was 200 years ago and changing and evolving in more subtle or sinister ways.” 

We disagree that racism is no better than it was 200 years ago, although we do think it is worse than 10 years ago. But does Parents Defending Education disagree that racism is as old as America?

We also disagree with the comment attributed on the site to the English class teacher that all white people harbor “significant fragility when discussing race; some common manifestations of this fragility are: defensiveness or anger, emotional withdrawal, guilt & tears.”

But we certainly believe that a significant number do.

The website also points out that the English class reading list includes as “current reading” both Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo.

Kendi has written that racism was the central force in American history. DiAngelo has written how progressive white people cause racial harm.

You may agree with them or disagree with them – hopefully after reading their books. But is it so wrong for 11th-graders to read the books and decide for themselves?

Or do we want to allow political activists from the left or right to decide for us?

Banning books is a very old concept and in some cases, such as how explicit sex is presented, it may have a place.

But there are two problems with banning books. In most cases, it creates a chilling effect on teaching – either intentionally or unintentionally. The second is that it is out of date.

Anyone hear about the internet, Facebook and other social media?

Unless a parent is controlling a child’s use of cellphones, tablets and desktop computers – or their friends’ – there is not much that can be done to control the daily flow of information, disinformation and even any sexually explicit content they receive.

What today’s students – and parents – really need is media literacy on how to separate fact from fiction.

We are all subjected every day to a torrent of misinformation and disinformation promulgated by everyone from foreign governments to political parties trying to divide us as well as people just trying to scam a quick buck.

What’s needed is education in how to evaluate information – its sources and their credibility.

We also need to prevent school districts from becoming political battlegrounds where board members are harassed and the education of our children is undermined.

That now appears to be an assignment we all need to accept.


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