David S. Doty and Hollie Pettersson: Getting it right on race in our public schools

Trump administration’s ‘1776 Commission’ shows that our educational system needs to do a better job of teaching about race in America.

(Rich Pedroncelli | AP photo) A demonstrator holds a "Black Lives Matter" flag during a protest at the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.

Twenty-five years ago, as a host of legal conflicts over religion played out in schools across the country, Utah embarked on an ambitious civic project known as the “Three R’s” initiative. Leading educators and families in discussions that emphasized “rights,” “responsibility” and “respect,” this project demonstrated that emotional First Amendment disputes can be resolved through civil dialogue instead of protracted litigation.

Yet serious constitutional conflicts continue to disrupt our schools, as evidenced by the confusingly named “1776 Commission Report,” which was released on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day by the Trump White House. Even though it was repudiated by the Biden administration before the ink was barely dry, the agenda it contains still needs to be addressed because it reflects prejudices and stereotypes prevalent across the United States.

We submit that we do not need more of these politically motivated curricular agendas. What we need is a new “One R” project in our schools to address the singular most pressing issue in our society today: Race.

Such an effort would eliminate the name-calling found throughout the 1776 Commission Report (e.g., racial justice advocates as “anti-American radicals”), and replace it with a framework focused on leaning into discomfort, listening and learning. History has taught us that technical solutions to racial injustice, whether legal or political, have not gotten us where we need to be. If we are to make things right, we must focus our efforts on hearts and minds, using the tools of compassion, empathy, and knowledge to meet a better version of ourselves around the corner.

A good place to begin the conversation on race in our schools is with the reality that white people, regardless of their geographic location or socioeconomic status, have difficulty understanding racial oppression. However, white people can develop empathy for those who experience racial injustice.

Our schools must protect space for candid discussions about the myriad outcomes of systemic racism, from red-lining and underinvestment, to unequal policing and criminal sentencing, to inequitable distribution of quality schools and opportunity gaps. We can’t begin to right these wrongs until we acknowledge that they exist.

Of course true compassion cannot be developed without accurate information. For example, it would be disastrous for schools to teach as unchallenged truth the 1776 Report’s assertion that the 3/5 Compromise was simply a political expediency to keep the Union together, when in fact the “compromise” was actually an unholy bargain that denied Blacks their humanity, reducing them to mere property.

Students cannot develop empathy, and understanding, of the Black experience, as long as political “solutions” are justified by detachment from morality. We must be unequivocal in our insistence that slavery, and the long legacy of political decisions that are its descendants, from Jim Crow laws to modern-day voter suppression efforts, have compromised the bodies, lives, and rights of human beings in ways completely antithetical to the principles of freedom espoused by the founders.

Indeed, as Ibram X. Kendi emphasizes, any historically accurate lesson on race in America must confront the statements of political leaders throughout the generations, such as Mississippi Sen. Jefferson Davis, who stated on the Senate floor in 1860: “This government was not founded by negroes nor for negroes, ... but by white men for white men.”

There was no such thing as racial equality, propounded Davis, because the “inequality of the white and black races” was “stamped from the beginning.”

Eliminating racial oppression, which still underpins so much of American life, as demonstrated by the insurrection on the Capitol, will never happen if the 1776 Commission Report, and propaganda like it, are the playbooks.

A “One R” project would begin at step one — with an agreement that love of country, not hate thereof, should motivate us toward the truth that many among us never had a fair start, and that they will never catch up if we don’t take active steps toward historically accurate education and true allyship.

Dave Doty

David S. Doty is a member of the Utah and South Carolina bar associations and the former superintendent of Canyons School District.

Hollie Pettersson

Hollie Pettersson, Ph.D., is a lifelong educator with experience as a teacher, administrator and school psychologist. She currently serves as a trustee for the Utah Association of School Psychologists.

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