Banning Race-Related Discussion in K-12 Education Perpetuates Polarization and Threatens American Democracy
Mae Mae Wallace (PPS ‘24)
Bills banning discussion of “divisive topics” in K-12 classrooms are putting the future of our democracy at risk. In the past two years, 9 states have passed legislation, and even more are in the process of passing bills that ban discussion of topics such as inherent racism, conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression based on the context of race. These topics are being banned due to administrations and parents’ inability to agree upon curricula. However, prohibiting youth to discuss their opinions on such issues will only perpetuate the pattern of polarization.
Studies show that when students are enrolled in classes that candidly discuss racism and prejudice, they are more engaged in school. Their participation rates increase, their graduation rates increase, their GPAs increase, and they even show signs of more political engagement outside of the classroom. If we continue to let these harmful bills pass, we will fail to prepare our nation’s youth for civic engagement and healthy participation in democracy.
A current example is materializing in Virginia. Governor Glenn Youngkin’s campaign platform in 2021 promised an executive order banning Critical Race Theory and other “inherently divisive concepts” in K-12 teaching. Supporters of the bill argue that discussion of these divisive concepts leaves certain students feeling guilty and teaches children that some racial groups are inherently racist while others are inherently victims. The bill, still under review, reflects the decades-long polarization and division between political parties concerning K-12 education.
Public education, especially the teaching of U.S. history and politics, has always been a political matter. While there are nation-wide standards in place for math and English, there are no standards for what should be taught in social studies. Therefore, the material taught in history and social studies classes varies across state and district lines, often reflecting the political climate of the area. Conservatives believe that history classes should “foster respect for the nation’s founding principles and a belief in a common American identity.” Liberals, on the other hand, believe that the classes should “grapple with the racism at the root of the country and tell its history from a diversity of perspectives.”
This polarization has discouraged principals and teachers from grappling with civics and history curricula and turned social studies into a “second-tier subject.” Today, the average third grader spends ten hours a week on English, 6 hours on math, and less than three hours on social studies. Only 8% of high school seniors can identify slavery as the cause of the civil war. It is clear that our education system is failing our youth, and additional bills banning discussion of race and other topics will only increase teachers’ hesitancy and perpetuate polarizing habits.
The American Psychological Association reports that parents’ and schools’ avoidance of race-related discussions makes children less likely to make friends with children of other races, and less likely to recognize discrimination. On the contrary, their research showed that when children participated in these discussions, their own sense of identity was strengthened, and therefore they were more willing to engage with those different from them.
What children need is open, honest discussion of the history and current state of our country from every perspective: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Students should be able to take pride in their country, but they should also be able to acknowledge where the U.S has fallen short in the past and today. Most importantly, they need safe spaces to discuss difficult topics and hear a range of views on a level playing field. Thus, developing an ability to deliberate about their differences and learn from their peers. These skills are not political, they are essential to healthy civic engagement and participation in democracy.
Bills like Glenn Youngkin’s are the opposite of what we need. For far too long, America has taught history and politics from one perspective. As humans, we love to hear stories of success and heroism, but the story of our country includes a lot of hard truths as well. It is time to stop protecting white citizens from reality. To take pride in our country is to acknowledge differences, listen to various perspectives, and appreciate diverse experiences. If students are taught to engage in these difficult conversations from a young age, it will only strengthen our country’s ability to overcome challenges. Candid discussion of race in the classroom is not a liberal tactic to sway youth to vote one way; It is a bipartisan attempt to reduce polarization and prepare youth for democratic participation.
Mae Mae Wallace (PPS ’24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’22 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.