The New Racial School Follies

The racial excuse machine in education has been on the defensive for over a decade. President Obama in particular has been working hard not only to distance himself from this particularly odious form of racism, but to directly and explicitly condemn it. Yet his administration’s walk hasn’t matched its talk. And a shocking new twist at a high school in Berkeley, California — where the excuse machine is trying to shut down science education on grounds that minority students can’t handle it — may help us judge how much progress we’ve really made.


The racial excusemakers, who peddle what George W. Bush aptly labeled “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” have had a declining influence over education policy ever since the rise of the “standards” movement of the 1990s. It has been a good fifteen years or so since they lost their power to intimidate education policymakers with claims that it’s racist to expect minority students to learn. People have long since realized that it’s the excusemakers who are the racists.

The really decisive sign of their impotence was their inability to mount any kind of serious resistance to the passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law in 2001. Like that law or hate it (I think it serves some important functions but fails to deliver on its central promise), the key purpose of that law was to repudiate racial excusemaking. The core function of all “accountability” policies in education is to force schools to stop focusing all their attention on the students who are easy to educate while merely warehousing the students who are more difficult to educate. That’s a dagger to the heart for the racial excusemakers, who think that schools simply aren’t able to teach students who are facing more serious challenges. Their failure to have any serious impact on the debate over NCLB proved that they were yesterday’s news.

The last year and a half has been particularly bad for them. As the first black major-party presidential nominee, and then as the first black president, Barack Obama has been uniquely positioned to tip the scales in this debate. And throughout his candidacy and presidency, he has endorsed most of the things that the excusemakers hate — most notably charter schools, the need for “competition” in education, and merit pay for teachers.


The really big moment was his speech to the NAACP last summer. Obama squarely denounced racial excusemaking, sternly exhorting students to stay in school and make the most of their potential no matter what disadvantages life may have given them: “No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands. You cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. [Applause.] No excuses.”

And you know what the best part was? The NAACP audience — the nation’s chief racial excusemakers — had no choice but to sit there and applaud. He wasn’t explicitly denouncing them, but he was explicitly denouncing all their works. And they knew that the nation sided with him and would brook no resistance on their part. So they sat there and applauded as he denounced the very fundamental basis of everything they do on the education issue.

The last nail in the coffin for the culture of racial excuses?

We’d all like to think so, but we know better. While the public rhetoric all goes the right way, the reality in the education bureaucracy is actually getting worse rather than better. It represents a victory that the racial excuse machine has to hide in the shadows while it does its dirty work, but don’t think for a moment the dirty work hasn’t continued.

As if to demonstrate that the administration’s actions are totally disconnected from the president’s public rhetoric, almost simultaneously with the NAACP speech, the new head of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) — the civil rights enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Education — announced that she would be considering whether to bring race discrimination lawsuits against school districts where minority students were underrepresented in advanced courses such as AP courses. This is an explicit racial quota — merely by suggesting the possibility of such an action, she ensures that school districts will scramble to make sure that students are selected for advanced courses on the basis of skin color.


Now, in an almost parodic counterpoint to that OCR announcement, Berkeley High School is looking at cutting out science labs altogether because they’re a threat to black and Hispanic students. The school’s governance council thinks that science labs benefit white and Asian students to the detriment of blacks and Hispanics, whom the council apparently views as not capable of learning science. The council wants the funding for science labs redirected so it can “free up more resources to help struggling students.”

“When broken down in racial terms,” says the local superintendent, “African American and Latino students are not scoring as well as their peers.” Well, I guess that’s that, then! If some student groups are scoring poorly in science, obviously the only possible way to deal with that problem is to shut down the science labs! Then they won’t score poorly in science anymore!

“The majority of students of color don’t really go” because the labs take place outside normal school hours, says one student by way of defending the decision. Well then, obviously the most equitable and fair solution is to close the labs — then everybody won’t go!

Believe it or not, the superintendent says exactly that: “To require students to come to school before or after school, as part of your required courses during school, just doesn’t seem very equitable to many of us.”

Obviously these people have some pretty thick ideological blinders on. But as long as we’re spelunking down in this hellhole, let’s not neglect to mention the more materialistic aspect of this problem. It’s hard not to imagine that this isn’t, on some level, driven by a power struggle between two sets of teachers — the science teachers and the teachers who run programs aimed at “struggling students” — for jobs and prestige. Hence the council’s focus on “freeing up resources.”


Sure enough, the science teachers are forming an organized resistance. “Our students who are struggling need that extra instructional time, especially if we’re going to prepare students for the jobs of the future,” says one. “Why would you teach the same amount of material in less time and think that that was going to help anybody?” asks a parent.

I know which of those groups I’m cheering for.

But the best comment comes from Berkeley junior Kacey Holt. He has a message for those students who “are not scoring as well as their peers” in science and “don’t really go” to the science labs: “I think they need to talk with their teachers and get more tutoring, afterschool programs, and basically show up for class,” says Kacey.

Kacey Holt for Berkley Unified superintendent! Campaign slogan: “Basically, Show Up for Class.”


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