Critical race theory is older than we think. On April 4, 1968, according to her telling, a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa, became incensed watching news about the assassination of Martin Luther King. She perceived the coverage as condescending and bigoted when a white news anchor asked one of King’s associates who would hold the movement together and control the reaction. She says the white anchor used terms such as “your people” and spoke of how Jackie Kennedy helped keep the nation together after her husband’s assassination.
Could the coverage have had a condescending tone? Most assuredly. Could it have been a sincere and poorly-worded question asking if anyone was ready to lead the movement in King’s absence? No less likely. The teacher does not say what coverage she was watching. But Jane Elliott had an emotional reaction as an adult and decided to exercise her offense on her students, much the same way critical theory guru Robin DiAngelo wants every other white person to adopt her own racism.
The day before she made her decision, according to Rice’s recounting in a BBC documentary, her students had been asking questions about King’s death. She told the interviewer that after watching the coverage, she established:
I knew the night before that it was time to deal with this in a concrete way, not just talking about it, because we had talked about racism since the first day of school. But the shooting of Martin Luther King, who had been one of our heroes of the month in February, could not just be talked about and explained away. There was no way to explain this to little third-graders in Riceville, Iowa.
There is no good way to explain it to most adults. A man did a terrible thing, and someone who did some very good and important things is gone. Rice explained that she was afraid her third graders were going to be as arrogant and condescending as the commentators on television — an assumption without evidence and a pretty damning assessment of her own efforts in the classroom regarding racism and Dr. King.
While ironing a teepee the children had made to study American Indians, Elliot made a decision. It sounds eerily similar to student exercises in critical race theory today:
And I thought this is the time now to teach them really what the Sioux Indian prayer that says, ‘Oh great spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked in his moccasins’, really means. And for the next day, I knew that my children were going to walk in someone else’s moccasins for a day. Like it or lump it, they were going to have to walk in someone else’s moccasins.
The children did not seem to like it, and their response involved lumps. She divided her third-grade class by eye color. Initially, she assigned favorable characteristics such as intelligence to blue-eyed children, and gave them special privileges.
She made the brown-eyed children wear paper collars to be identified from a distance and she did not allow them to play with the blue-eyed children because they were “inferior.” One child defended his brown-eyed father, and Rice reminded him in public of a derogatory story the child had told her about his father and told him the blue-eyed parents of other children would never do such a thing.
At recess, a brown-eyed student punched a blue-eyed student in the stomach after getting mocked. Elliott seems to be thrilled when she tells the BBC:
I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating, little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.
No kidding? They’re eight. The next day, she flipped the roles and got similar results. Eventually, she did this exercise with approximately 450 students in her time as a teacher and she said it made them less racist. It is not clear how she knew they were racist to begin with, and the documentary describes her school as all white. It is difficult to believe a bunch of common sense farmers in Iowa put up with this. However, they may have been too afraid to say anything, like many are today.
So, what did she actually do? She segregated children according to immutable characteristics and assigned them characteristics and motivations based on these characteristics. She even one child on behalf of who his parent was. When the eye color was not obvious enough, she made them wear a symbol. Inside a single day, children became angry and got physical.
What does critical race theory do, in practice? It divides children by skin color and assigns characteristics, motivations, historical guilt, and social roles. While it is far more subtle than what Elliot devised, just how long do children need to be given these messages before we see anger, violence, shame, depression, and self-harm? Elliot’s experiment lasted two days. As praxis, activist teachers and administrators impose a similar lengthy experiment on our children for 12 years — and four more if they go to college.
One of Elliot’s students was impressed enough with what he had learned about King to ask about it. Instead of acting out her anger at grown men on eight-year-olds, Elliot could have emphasized King’s accomplishments. She could have reminded them about his most impassioned plea, that Americans would judge everyone for who they are on the inside and for what they do. A third-grader can digest that.
Elliot may have been the first social justice activist teacher. In an interview during the riots last summer, she was as unapologetic at 87 as she was in 1970. Or maybe she has been reading too much White Fragility:
Still, Elliott said the last few years have brought out America’s worst racist tendencies. The empathy she works to inspire in students with the experiment, which has been modified over the years, is necessary, she said.
“People of other color groups seem to understand,” she said. “Probably because they have been taught how they’re treated in this country — that they have to understand us. [White people] on the other hand, don’t have to understand them. We have to let people find out how it feels to be on the receiving end of that which we dish out so readily.”
She has proudly acknowledged her own white privilege in her sunset years. Maybe someday, she’ll recognize her white savior complex.