MONDAY, JUNE 14, 2021
The Others must always be wrong: The way Our Town is conducting our tribal war becomes more and more depressing.
For one example out of many, consider Robert McCartney's essay in today's Washington Post. In print editions, the mocking headline says this:
White Fragility on Display in Loudon [County]
It's on the front page of today's Metro section. In the course of his rumination, McCartney displays the essence of total war:
The Other Side must be totally wrong. They can't ever have a germ of a sensible point. Everything they say must be wrong. In the end, our team will always be pretty much right.
At issue is a "racial equity initiative" which was adopted two years ago by the public schools of Loudon County, a large Virginia suburban county outside Washington. According to McCartney, complaints about this program are hopelessly dumb. He starts his essay as shown:
MCCARTNEY (6/14/21): How can we combat racism in America if many White people see any attempt to remedy it as a threat and an insult?
That question was front and center last week in Loudoun County at a rowdy school board meeting featuring outraged complaints from scores of conservative parents and activists.
They objected to a racial equity initiative adopted two years ago by the school system in the affluent Northern Virginia suburb. The effort, ordered by the state attorney general, aims to improve treatment of students of color, who are a majority in Loudoun.
The project has led to racial sensitivity training for teachers, the dropping of a pro-Confederate high school mascot and a formal apology for Loudoun’s history of segregation.
According to McCartney, the conservative parents who complained last week "see any attempt to remedy [racism] as a threat and an insult." After mocking some of the comments made by "the mostly White parents," McCartney set about showing how silly their complaints really were.
Their complaints don't super-silly to us. Here are the two examples McCartney finally offers of their "exaggerated concerns:"
MCCARTNEY: For instance, a website opposed to the equity project points to a brief video of a Loudoun teacher in a college-level English class asking students to describe what they saw in a photo showing a Black woman and a White woman standing back to back. When one student said he saw “just two people chillin’,” the teacher faulted the student for refusing to acknowledge the racial difference.
“I think you’re being intentionally coy about what this is a picture of,” the teacher said at one point in a back-and-forth over the photo.
The teacher was more forceful than he should have been, but his comments hardly constituted totalitarian brainwashing as conservatives allege.
The website also cites a slide, allegedly shown to second-graders, asking students to answer the question, “How can you be an anti-racist leader?” A suggested answer: “I can be an anti-racist leader by always being an upstander and doing the right thing. I can always fight for what is fair.”
That’s an outrage only for people who don’t think the schools should try to fight racism.
Let's start with that second example, the one allegedly involving second graders. Just to get started, Good God!
Second-graders are very young! It's one thing to teach them how to sound out words, or how to work with fractions. It's a very different thing to be telling someone else's seven-year-old 1) that he or she should strive to be "an anti-racist leader," and 2) the way to go about becoming such a person.
Teaching values to someone else's kid has always been a tricky proposition. It's especially tricky now as our society increasingly descends into Babel—as we divide into an increasing number of political and demographic groups with different views about where basic justice and wisdom lie.
A second-grader is somebody else's kid! Teachers need to be very aware of that basic fact.
McCartney seems to have no sense of this basic state of affairs. To McCartney, if Loudon County calls it "anti-racism," it simply has to be the right thing to tell second-graders to do.
It's tricky when a public school system starts teaching values to very young kids. And no, teachers won't always display the best judgment when asked to do such things.
This returns us to that first example, the example drawn from the "college-level" high school English class.
In that instance, McCartney was willing to concede that the teacher was "more forceful than he should have been," but he set an extremely low bar as he assessed this audiotaped incident. The teacher's comments didn't "constitute totalitarian brainwashing," so the whole thing was really OK!
Was the whole thing really OK? In fairness, no one died in the incident!
That said, McCartney links to the site which (he says) was dumb enough to voice concern about the teaching involved in this incident. At that site, this transcript of the classroom exchange appears, along with the audiotape:
TEACHER: Tell me what this seems to be a picture of.
STUDENT: It’s just two people chillin’.
TEACHER: Right, just two people. Nothing more to that picture?
STUDENT: Nah, not really. Just two people chillin’.
TEACHER: I don’t believe that you believe that. I don’t believe that you look at this as just two people.
STUDENT: It truly is just two people though, is it not?
TEACHER: I think you’re being intentionally coy about what this is a picture of.
STUDENT (chuckling): What am I being coy about? It’s two people standing back-to-back in a picture.
TEACHER: Yeah, and that’s all you see? Two people?
STUDENT: I’m confused on what you would like me to speak on.
TEACHER: I don’t think you are. I don’t know why you do this. I’m not trying to call you out, but you...you act as if there’s nothing noticeable about this apart from the fact that there’s two people.
STUDENT: Well I’m confused. Are you trying to get me to say that there are two different races in this picture?
TEACHER: Yes, I am asking you to say that.
STUDENT: Well, at the end of the day, wouldn’t that just be feeding into the problem of looking at race, instead of just acknowledging them as two normal people?
TEACHER: No, it’s not. Because you can’t not look at, you can’t look at the people and not acknowledge that there are racial differences.
The student wanted to say he was looking at a photograph of two normal people. The teacher wouldn't accept any statement which didn't go straight to their "race."
According to the teacher, "You can’t look at the people and not acknowledge that there are racial differences." Just to get started, Good God!
That was ghastly teaching and ghastly intellectual work on any conceivable level. That said, we wouldn't blame the teacher for that. He was plainly being asked to engineer a type of conversation he wasn't equipped to handle.
Teaching reading and math is easy; teaching values is hard. Teaching values is a potential imposition, in a way teaching math is not.
In Our Town, we don't seem to know that! In Our Town, the Reverend McCartney is patrolling the aisles. He knows what everyone should think and believe, including your second-grade child. And our teachers know that you should see and mention race ahead of everything else! You should instantly mention everyone's race in every situation!
What is the overall nature of Loudon County's racial equity initiative? We have no idea.
The problems may be few and far between. On the whole, the program may be excellent.
That said, McCartney is demonstrating the basic essence of tribal war. According to prehistoric rules, nothing said by one of The Others can possibly have any merit at all, and nothing done by one of Ours can possibly be wrong.
The Post and the Times are increasingly full of such unhelpful, unintelligent work. On a basic intellectual level, Our Town has never been super-sharp, and today it's sinking quite fast.
The last part of that exchange: That transcript omitted the last exchange on that audiotape. Continuing directly from above, the Student and Teacher say this:
STUDENT (continuing directly from above): But if we're going for—let's say, if we're looking for equality in all this, why would we need to point out things such as that?
TEACHER: Because those things, those differences, are real things.
That teacher's a hundred miles over his head. We feel sorry for the kid.