Do our schools inadvertently promote the racism and intolerance we have been witnessing the last several months?

I’ve been wondering recently if our schools share any complicity in enabling the blatant racism, hatred and xenophobia we have been witnessing for the past several months. To be clear, I don’t believe that schools created these attitudes as racism and intolerance have a long pedigree in our country. It certainly wasn’t long after the first European immigrants got here seeking religious freedom of their own that they began importing slaves, eliminating the Native Americans that they felt were in their way and oppressing others that didn’t share the same religious beliefs as theirs.

So the hatred and bigotry we see coming from Donald Trump, Ben Carson, the supporters of the Confederate flag and others is really nothing new. But I’m wondering if the way we conduct schools might serve to enable these beliefs and behaviors rather than working against them. Here are some of the things I think could inadvertently promote bigotry and intolerance.

ABC Grading – We’ve all experienced this. At times grades seem to be arbitrary, and even when they aren’t it has been well documented that grades are as much or more a function of who we are when we enter the class, as they are of our work or effort. So, I’m wondering if the subtle message of grading that some folks take from school is that it is okay to judge some people as being better than others based on attributes that may be beyond their control. The folks most often judged negatively by grading are ELL students and students of color. As such it’s easy to see how such judgments in schools (in this case grades) could lead to the assumption that it’s okay judge people as “bad” or “inferior” especially if they are poor or people of color.

How we try to build a respect for others – We celebrate Black History Month in schools but how often is there any real depth to what happens. Many times African-American heroes include entertainers and athletes. I do think Duke Elllington (and others) should be recognized. But is there a subtle message here when the “heroes” we identify from communities of color include musicians, entertainers and athletes and all the white heroes do “important things?”

Many teachers will also engage their students in the well-known activity known as Brown Eyes/ Blue Eyes. In this activity students are divided by their eye color, and one group gets to discriminate against the other. The roles are then reversed. At its best this activity really does help kids to empathize with what it feels like to be discriminated against. But the way it is done often misses some crucial depth and the solutions to discrimination and bigotry are more than getting kids to stop being “mean” to others. But we rarely engage kids with the larger cultural and social factors that drive intolerance and so the message kids get is that everything would be better if we just stopped doing it. This hardly gives them any tools to combat intolerance. We also need to consider if there is an underlying message here that it is okay to make others feel very bad as long as the ends are justified.

How we teach history and civics – Most students will happily tell you that civics and history are among their least favorite subjects. I suspect that for the most part this is a function of how we teach these subjects. In any event it is certainly the case that we have witnessed many public figures in the last several months that seem to not have a grip on basic civics and history. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum clearly don’t get the separation of powers between the branches of government. Others claim that we are a Christian nation (although there certainly are no documents to indicate that this is so). We also continue to hear the debunked canard that the Civil War was fought over states rights rather than slavery.

Even when we do attempt to address these issues they become over simplified and often treated as if the problem had been solved. This was brought home to me most powerfully by the 4th grade child who asked me with a puzzled look when we were discussing current discrimination “didn’t Martin Luther King fix all that?” In these cases we are not giving students sufficient tools to fight intolerance and our over simplified treatment of these issues could contribute to the belief that there isn’t really a problem. This in turn could lead to the targeting of those who raise the issue. much as we have recently seen in the media.

How we treat English Language Learners; Finally, it has become fairly common practice to “help” (and I use that word advisedly) ELL learners become fluent in English by placing them in mainstream classrooms, with an ELL teacher for part of the day. This so-called “immersion” approach is supposed help the children “keep up” with the content while they are learning English. But the subtle underlying message is that the native language is somehow inferior (after all the English-speaking kids aren’t required to learn it!). Beyond that in some schools children are forbidden and sometimes even disciplined for speaking in their first languages. We often hear stories of the first languages being prohibited because teachers assume that children are saying something “bad” or plotting something if the teacher can’t understand them. So the subtle message here again is that non-English speakers (in schools almost all children of color) are “bad” and not to be trusted.

As I noted at the beginning of this post I don’t think schools caused the racism and hatred we are seeing. But schools certainly do reflect our society and I’m wondering if in these and other school practices we inadvertently promote the very attitudes we seek to undermine. If indeed that is the case then we have some serious re-thinking to do. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter. You can reply here or contact me directly at


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One Response to “Do our schools inadvertently promote the racism and intolerance we have been witnessing the last several months?”

  1. Janet lin Says:

    In order to function competitively here kids do need to become proficient in English and I would favor whatever program accomplishes that the fastest. In order to function in the world, and here in California, young people now who don’t make being bilingual a priority will be left in the dust. We need to teach our kids that more languages are better, not one better than the other


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