One high school teacher’s bold premise – that "all white people are racist, period" – is reigniting discussion about how difficult it is to talk about race in school classrooms.
One offended student in the philosophy elective at Norman North High School in Oklahoma recorded the remark, part of a lecture about how to heal racial divides, on her cellphone last week. The student, who wished to remain anonymous, told the local NBC-affiliate KFOR that she felt the teacher was encouraging the class "to pick on people for being white."
The controversy comes as the country is confronted with questions of institutional racism in its educational systems and police departments, police misconduct against young black men, and racial inequality. The teacher, James Coursey, appeared to try to draw his classroom into this national conversation. Some education experts applaud Mr. Coursey and others’ efforts to engage students in what can be a challenging dialogue. But they also say he could have just worded his argument differently.
"I think it was a rookie error in teaching about race," Paul Ketchum, a professor of liberal studies at the nearby University of Oklahoma, told The Norman Transcript. "You go for the big term when the a less loaded term would be better to make it a teachable moment."
In a statement, Joe Siano, the superintendent of the school district, agreed that the discussion could have been handled better but emphasized the subject should still be a conversation in classrooms.
"Racism is an important topic that we discuss in our schools," said Dr. Siano. "While discussing a variety of philosophical perspectives on culture, race and ethics, a teacher was attempting to convey to students in an elective philosophy course a perspective that had been shared at a university lecture he had attended."
In the video the student first posted to social media, Coursey starts the lecture by showing a YouTube clip about imperialism. In the video, a man uses white-out on a globe to illustrate how European influence spread across the world, as The Washington Post reported.
Coursey is heard in the recording rhetorically ask: "Am I racist? And I say yeah. I don’t want to be. It’s not like I choose to be racist, but do I do things because of the way I was raised."
"To be white is to be racist, period," he says.
The offended student, who said half of her family is white and half Hispanic, told KFOR along with her father they felt the teacher encouraged the "demonization" of one race over others.
More than 100 student demonstrators stood behind Coursey, organizing a walkout Tuesday. One student said the remark was taken out of context.
"We believe it is important to have serious and thoughtful discussion about institutional racism in order to change the history and promote inclusivity," he said, according to The Norman Times.
Other educators across the country, from preschool teachers to professors, have stumbled or faced criticism about how they have tried to discuss racism. A professor at the University of Kansas was suspended last year for using the N-word in a discussion she led about instances of racism on college campuses. Some of the nine graduate students in the class filed discrimination complaints with the university against the professor, Andrea Quenette. The university dismissed the complaints, but chose not to renew Ms. Quenette’s employment following the conclusion of the spring 2017 semester, according the Lawrence Journal-World.
The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., drew national media attention in 2014 by offering a "White Privilege Seminar." Iris Outlaw, the professor of the seminar, said at the time that its purpose is to explore white privilege and other systems of oppression to help students grow. But some conservatives said it was a liberal perspective gone too far.
"This isn't education, it's indoctrination," Notre Dame student and conservative campus activist Mark Gianfalla told the Daily Caller. "The problem I see with this course is that it is teaching a flawed and inherently racist sociological theory as fact."
"This isn’t multicultural; it’s an opportunity to bias students towards the shaming of one culture and ethnicity," continued Mr. Gianfalla.
Realizing how difficult is to confront racism in schools, there is a growing movement among some black families to home school their children, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in August.
The reasons black parents cite for home-schooling their children cover a wide range. Some sound similar to the homeschooling movement as a whole: religious beliefs, a desire to shelter children from an increasingly crass or materialistic society, a conviction that they are best-suited to teach their kids the values they need to live a fulfilling life.
But other parents cite incidents of racial bullying, studies showing that black students are less likely to be recommended for gifted and advanced classes, and multiple studies showing that African-American children – especially boys – are disproportionately likely to be suspended or arrested.
In short, in order to protect their children from school-related racism, more black parents are keeping their kids out of school entirely, writes Ama Mazama, a professor of African American Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia who has written extensively on home-schooling. She has dubbed the movement “racial protectionism.”
One sticking point for these parents and for some on university campuses across the country is history.
"If you only go to public schools, and that’s the only place you’re educated, then you learn that your history began with slavery and it pretty much ended with MLK [Martin Luther King Jr.]," Cheryl Fields-Smith, a professor of education at the University of Georgia, told the Monitor.
But campuses across the country are exploring ways to encourage diversity both in numbers and in programs.
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, for instance, offers a Black and Blue Tour about the campus’s African-American history as one of the many ways it is engaging its students about race.
Florida State University also offers a Social Justice Living Learning Community, as the Monitor reported.
Some 30 first-year students live on a designated dorm floor and, each semester, take a class in which they tackle the thorny issues of privilege, oppression, justice, racism, and various other “isms.” There is nothing formulaic about these discussions, which inevitably spill over into dorm life. Ms. Bukanc says the students learn by “reading and hearing stories,” trying things out, and watching what others do.