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  • Bion Bartning | WSJ Opinion

Dividing by Race Comes to Grade School

Students, ages 5 through 11, are urged to ‘check each other’s words and actions’ and become committed activists.


Bion Bartning | Wall Street Journal Opinion | Mar 7, 2021


My awakening to the new orthodoxy began during this past summer of discontent. In mid-June, a few weeks after the George Floyd protests began, the head of Riverdale Country School, the New York City private school my wife and I entrusted with the education of our two young children, sent a memo apologizing for unspecified past wrongs. “We have the responsibility to use our privilege to fight for change,” he explained. “We are also free to shift some aspects of our culture more quickly than other institutions and organizations.”


In September, at the first assembly of the year, instead of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing “America the Beautiful”—longstanding school traditions—the head of the lower school announced that the “theme” for the year would be “allyship.” He then played a video in which the school mascot told students, ages 5 through 11, to “check each other’s words and actions.” The lower-school head had earlier written that “it is essential that parents/caregivers and educators acknowledge racial differences (as opposed to a ‘colorblind’ stance)” and offered reading recommendations such as Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility.” Families at Riverdale are encouraged to join school-sponsored “affinity” groups to bond with people from their ethnicity or skin color. One is called simply “the POC,” short for “parents of color.”

At this point in the story, perhaps “lived experiences” become relevant. I am half Mexican and Yaqui, an indigenous tribe native to the U.S.-Mexico border region, and half Jewish. I spent the first year of my life on a commune in Berkeley, Calif. Growing up, I was aware that I had darker skin than my mother and my classmates, but I was never taught to define my identity by the color of my skin. My mixed background and ancestry made me feel like nothing more than a typical American.

My wife came to the U.S. as a refugee from the former Soviet Union. She spent the first five years of her life in an intolerant society where her “group identity” as a Jew was stamped in her passport. In school she was taught to keep tabs on friends and family, and after one particularly effective lesson, she was inspired to turn in her own father to the local police for “crimes against the state.” Fortunately, no harm came of it. But suffice it to say we are both allergic to forced conformity, especially when young, impressionable children are trained to obsess over “racial differences” and be on the lookout for deviations from orthodoxy.


We started to ask questions. I have always felt a strong connection with Martin Luther King Jr. ’s dream of an America where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I advocate genuine antiracism, rooted in dignity and humanity. But the ideology underlying the “racial literacy” guide distributed by the school wasn’t like that. Instead of emphasizing our common humanity, it lumps people into simplistic racial groupings. It teaches that each person’s identity and status is based largely on skin color, and leaves no place for people like me, who are of mixed race or don’t place race at the heart of their identity.


After confirming that the curriculum, obtained from a nonprofit called Pollyanna Inc., was “one of many resources” the school was using, I became concerned by the emphasis on grievance over gratitude and by the stated goal of turning young children into committed activists. “By the end of the unit,” one section of the curriculum explains, “students will set commitments for rectifying current social ills, such as learning and planning how to carry out anti-racist activism and/or social advocacy in their communities.”


My concerns multiplied when, going off the Pollyanna curriculum, our fourth-grade daughter and her 9- and 10-year-old classmates were given “The Third Chimpanzee for Young People,” a book intended for middle and high schoolers that covers mature topics such as adultery, self-mutilation and suicide. After we and other parents argued that it was inappropriate, the teachers backtracked and asked students to return the books. But school administrators didn’t want to hear our questions.


Less than a week later, concluding an unrelated email exchange, the head of the school wrote to us: “I wonder if this might be a good moment to think whether or not this is the best school for you and your family—being philosophically misaligned is never a very good experience for all concerned.” It took him almost a month to respond to the letter we wrote in reply, explaining that our philosophy hadn’t changed and asking if our children were still welcome at the school.


We were confused and upset. We had chosen Riverdale based on its promise to develop “character strengths” like grit, optimism and gratitude and to promote open-minded inquiry and critical thinking. How had it, like so many other schools, gone so quickly down this path?


While many of us have encountered this intolerant orthodoxy only recently, it debuted on college campuses more than 40 years ago. Sensible people thought it was a joke—or at least that it would remain on campus, since it could never survive contact with the “real world.” That was wrong. Masquerading as “antiracism,” this cynical worldview is being spread like a virus by an army of paid consultants and true believers. Few people have been willing to stand up against it. At Riverdale, many parents privately express concerns but aren’t willing to speak up. They fear being called racist—or, worse, losing their coveted spots.


The real story here isn’t about Riverdale. My kids’ school is one tiny data point. This backward belief system is capturing public and private schools across the country. City Journal’s Christopher Rufo reports that a public school in Cupertino, Calif., forced third-graders to rank themselves according to their “power and privilege,” and the San Diego Unified School District held a training in which white teachers were told that they “spirit murder” black children and should undergo “antiracist therapy.” There are hundreds of examples, and countless others that haven’t been reported. Millions of American children are being taught to see the world in this reductionist way.


Almost 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education, there is an urgent need to reaffirm and advance the core principles of the civil-rights movement. This isn’t an issue of left versus right. The defining question of our time is: How do we break through the demonization and division, and find the courage to move forward together, as Americans?


Mr. Bartning is a co-founder of Eos Products and president of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism.