Unintended consequences of ‘systems of oppression’ paradigm in education

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By David Bernstein | Special to WJW

A  few weeks ago, I attended a Zoom talk titled “School Boards Under Attack.” The featured speaker was Shirley Brandman, a former chair of the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) School Board, who spoke about what she described as the assault on school boards by angry parents. According to Brandman, many parents want to “prohibit educators from teaching or instructing or training on complex issues around race.”


Brandman is now an education advocate, serving as a strategic adviser to Montgomery County’s Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence. A Yale Law grad, she is exceedingly well-spoken. I can see why she became chair of the Board of Education in a large county with a nearly $3 billion public education budget. I’m sure I agree with her on many subjects, not least the importance of public education.

Well-meaning though she is, Brandman is part of a far-reaching effort to impose a single view on public school kids — what essayist George Packer calls in The Atlantic a “pedagogy of social justice” — on hotly contested social issues in America’s culture wars. She and other anti-racist advocates “want to ensure that we don’t dismiss racism or discrimination or minimize its trauma and the harms that it brings to students and communities” or to slough off the “disparities that need to be addressed so that there can be equity.”

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On the surface, these are laudable concerns, ones that I share. But what anti-racism advocates often mean by adopting an “equity lens” in education is an unqualified claim that America is a white supremacist society, rife with systemic racism, and that any disparity in educational achievement among groups is prima facie evidence of discrimination and oppression. This is, of course, a valid opinion, but make no mistake it is an opinion, one not shared by millions of Americans, among them many minorities, who also pay their property taxes and send their kids to public schools. Many Black and brown parents don’t want their children taught that the system is rigged against them.

A recently released report of the Montgomery County Public Schools “Antiracist Audit” describes the new proposed social studies curriculum, which aims to “strengthen students’ sense of racial, ethnic and tribal identities, helps students understand and resist systems of oppression, and empower students to see themselves as change agents.”


Can’t these anti-racist educators and advocates appreciate that many parents do not want schools to inculcate kids in a particular “identity” or in the school’s ideologically charged stance on “systems of oppression.”

In making the case for such an agenda, Brandman and other anti-racist advocates engage in a rhetorical tactic I call “smuggling”: they make a string of reasonable, largely agreed upon claims, but then “smuggle in” a series of hotly contested assertions as if they are just as universally accepted.

Should children of all races have equal access to education? Absolutely.

Should public schools teach students about America’s history of race and racism? Unquestionably.

Should parents refrain from verbally abusing school board members who they disagree with? Of course. That’s just common decency.

Should parents show support for, in Brandman’s words, “school board members who want to continue to champion truth and historical fact and equity and together make a change.” Not if they disagree with the school board’s proposed changes.

Parents who oppose such changes are engaging in what we used to call the democratic process. And sometimes democracy ain’t pretty.

As evidence of the supposed epidemic of harassment by parents of school board members, Brandman cited a Reuters story that found 220 threatening or harassing emails sent by angry parents to school board members in a 15-state sampling. This may sound like a lot — one is too many — but half of these emails were sent to one person in Loudoun County. There are 25 school districts in Maryland alone. One hundred or so incendiary messages sent in upwards of 400 school districts is not exactly a national emergency. Uncounted by Reuters were the myriad of messages that were entirely civil in tone, challenging proposed changes to school curriculum or mask mandates.

In Loudoun County, the epicenter of the educational culture war, some parents did indeed show up to school board meetings “very angry” and went off the rails. But many others, like Emily Curtis, a Biden voter, simply expressed her disagreement, finding it “deeply worrying that the school system is using “terms such as white supremacy and systemic racism,” which, she fears, “will trickle through to the classroom, dividing children into racial groups and teaching them that their race decides their fate.”

Curtis’ completely valid concerns about today’s anti-racist education are being lumped in with the radical activists who threaten school board members in order to discredit her and others with her views. The message from school officials is loud and clear: either accept the established view on anti-racism education, or we will portray you as a hate-monger. Is it any wonder why some parents are angry?

As a Jewish parent of public school kids, I also worry that this “systems of oppression” paradigm, sold as the latest iteration of racial equality, will be used to claim that Israel and, by extension, Jews are the perennial oppressors. Imparting this simplistic oppressor vs. oppressed worldview to children is the seed of making America an anti-Israel country. In my view, too many Jews are doing the planting.

Perhaps it’s time that school officials stop dismissing and delegitimizing parents who disagree with their anti-racism platform, and truly respect the diversity of views they say they champion.

David Bernstein is the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV.org). Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein.

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