Lizzie O'Leary: It's The Takeaway. I'm Lizzie O'Leary host of the podcast, What Next TBD from Slate and I'm in for Tanzina Vega this week. The level of polarization in our country's politics can feel intractable these days. The murder of George Floyd brought that divide to the forefront of conversations about race. While Black Americans and advocates for racial equity have long been aware of the role systemic racism plays across our country. There are many individuals who would prefer not to have these conversations, especially if these conversations are happening in schools.
Across the US more and more conservative lawmakers in States like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Idaho are advancing bills to ban the teaching of critical race theory. Though it's a decades old concept. Critical race theory has become the latest target of conservatives reluctant to discuss how our history of racism and inequity is still being felt today, including in our education system. We're going to talk about all of this and more with Matt Bockenfeld a high school social studies teacher at Fishers High School in Fishers, Indiana. Matt, welcome to the show.
Matt Bockenfeld: Thanks Lizzie. Thanks for having me back.
Lizzie O'Leary: Also, with us is Gloria Ladson-Billings, Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and former Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education. Professor Ladson-Billings thanks for coming on.
Gloria Ladson-Billings: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Lizzie O'Leary: Professor, I'm going to call you Gloria, before we get deep into the conversation, can you explain what critical race theory is for people who aren't familiar with it?
Gloria Ladson-Billings: As you said in your introduction, it is decades old. We're talking about 30 years of legal research. That is a constellation of theories designed to explain racial inequity. When you begin to see patterns of behavior, social scientists want to know how do we explain it? It's not just random. It is a set of theories that suggest that racism is essentially normal in our society. It's not, aberrant, it's not isolated incidents. It's those things that are in some ways baked into the way we do our governance and living and on almost every measure of social welfare, we can see it.
Lizzie O'Leary: Why do you think conservatives and some others have seized on this language right now?
Gloria Ladson-Billings: I do think it is a bit of a dog whistle. Clearly it was sent out there by our former president, before that no one ever actually uttered critical race theory outside of the academy. Once Donald Trump said he wanted to, " Ban it." Now think about that, a nation that talks about free speech and free inquiry wants to ban a way of thinking about something. Once he said it, it became a rallying cry. I think that what we're seeing is, as you said in your intro a continuing polarization. It becomes one more thing around which to rally.
Lizzie O'Leary: Matt, tell me about the type of community you teach in and what you teach your students about race.
Matt Bockenfeld: I teach in what I would call a purpling city on the edges of Indianapolis. It's historically quite conservative and the county is still quite conservative, but the city of Fishers itself is undergoing this demographic shift that is changing a whole lot about the city. To answer that shift, we've been trying to make sure that we are having honest conversations about race.
In my classroom, what I try and push back against, is what I call the spaceship theory of racism. To describe what that means to us. A lot of folks treat racism like if you just rounded up all of the really overt racist in the country, and you put them in a spaceship and you blasted them office space, that you would fix the issue. The problem is stemming from like this 1% that are overtly racist and throwing slurs around. What we're trying to do, is what James Baldwin asked us to. He said, the problem is deeper than we think, because the problem isn't us.
Racism is not best expressed through overt racists at all. I actually would argue that it's best expressed by looking at housing, employment, education people's experiences with criminal justice and policing. When we talk about race in my class, we teach that our kids are learning on the edge of what was a sea of sundown towns. Sundown towns are towns that Black-Americans were not allowed to be in after dark and those are surrounding us in Indiana. Just because they're formally illegal, does not mean that you don't see the remnants of it all around us.
We teach about segregation and education. Right now, as we speak our public education system is as segregated as it was in 1980. The nation's and really the world's eyes were on Minneapolis. I would point to Minneapolis's public schools as a better way to understand racism. That city is 65% white, but only 35% of their public-school students are white. Why won't white parents send their kids to public schools in Minneapolis? That's true, everywhere you look, it's true here in Indianapolis.
Lizzie O'Leary: Sure. It's true here in New York where I sit.
Matt Bockenfeld: Oh, absolutely, yes. We look at redlining, we actually took students through like a Google maps tour to chart the redlining through Indianapolis and we talk about what Eddie Glaude calls the value gap. The value gap is, the best way I could describe it, very briefly, I'm 27-years-old. If you look at white 27-year-olds in America, according to Pew, about 6% of them grew up in impoverished neighborhoods. That's not a typical experience for white 27-year-olds. When you isolate Black 27-year-olds, 66% of Black, 27-year-olds, grew up in an impoverished neighborhood. How can that be maintained in a nation that says that it prioritizes equality? I think we would argue that we're apathetic towards that reality.
Lizzie O'Leary: When you teach these things in your classroom, do you get a backlash from parents or from your students?
Matt Bockenfeld: I'll start with students. Students are so eager for these conversations and that's true regardless of their political background. It's not like this is dividing the classroom along political lines where liberals want to talk but conservatives don't, no. Kids want to have the conversation, they're eager for knowledge, they want to understand why our city looks the way it does. What I would say specific to my classroom, I don't get a lot of pushback from parents, but that's because there is a face to the conversation.
There is much more pushback at like the general system. This fear, people think teachers come from this shadowy area and they're here to indoctrinate children, but with individual teachers, they're not as likely to make that accusation.
Lizzie O'Leary: Gloria, when you hear Matt talk about his experience and that split between, "Hey, I know my kid's teacher. Wait a minute, what's this system doing to my kid?" How common would you say that experience is?
Gloria Ladson-Billings: I think Matt is right, is spot on in what he's sharing with us and I wish more teachers would be willing to do the things that he's doing. I have students at the university level. What I find is a tremendous amount of anger because no one taught them these very things. They say, "Hey, I'm smart. I'm in the top 10% of my class. Why didn't I know that? Why didn't I know Wisconsin had sundown towns? Why didn't I know that Wisconsin is considered the worst place to raise a Black child?"
How can these patterns of behavior, or patterns of outcomes and results exists without a deeper, more systemic explanation? I don't think that our young people resist wanting to know this. They want an explanation, and unfortunately what we have-- And I'm not even saying parents so much as it, is organized opposition that then rouse up parents and tell them, "This is a very bad thing, you don't want your kids to know this." It's very hard to look at what happened. We all had to literally watch the 8 minutes and 46 seconds or 9 minutes and 26 seconds as we later learned in the trial, of a man die, and parents had to respond to kids that said, "Why is this happening?"
Lizzie O'Leary: Matt, when kids come to you and you teach high school, is this the first time that they are reckoning with these concepts? Or is it something that they've encountered earlier in their education?
Matt Bockenfeld: It's not the first time-
Lizzie O'Leary: I should say, white kids because obviously kids of Color have already dealt with this.
Matt Bockenfeld: That's where I was going to go. I'll focus on white kids. What I would say is that students tend to have had shallow level conversations and they tend to think that they understand some issues and then they come to class and are shocked at the level that this has seeped into the fabric of society. What I tell my students though, there's this great fear in the community that we are teaching white kids to hate themselves. What I tell them is like, oh my God, if you walk out of this class and you feel guilt, you've missed the point.
I tell them like, this is the house we live in, but it's not the house we built. We don't have guilt for the past. We do have responsibility for the future, and that's what we're trying to teach. There is this incredible fear that we are actually engaging in this process of to be honest, there are shades of replacement theory. This idea that we are trying to replace whiteness in America. There's fears that we're trying to teach white kids to hate themselves, so that they don't join the conversation and just let power shift. There's fear that this entire thing is just like this Marxist trojan horse that is going to take over the public schools from the inside.
Lizzie O'Leary: Gloria, how should schools and districts respond to that kind of fear that, "Oh, you're out there indoctrinating our kids," hen white parents freak out about that?
Gloria Ladson-Billings: I will tell you that public schools have an obligation to promote a set of "American values" and that that to me is the wonderful aspect of this work. Is because if we go back to American values, we talk about equality, we talk about justice. We can just fundamentally ask the question, is it just for us to have a criminal justice system that only allows those who have enough money to come out on say bail? Is it just that we are suspending kids who are Black and brown at a rate four to five more times greater than we would do for kids who are white.
To ask the fundamental question of justice and equality, and for schools to say, where are we going to stand for these democratic values? I wouldn't waiver from that. There is nothing democratic about racism.
Lizzie O'Leary: Matt, I asked you about the experience of your white kids, but I'm curious for the Black and brown and Indigenous kids you teach. What has their experience been like when you're having these conversations?
Matt Bockenfeld: The conversations I've had have given me the sense that my non-white students feel like the process of going through public school in a majority white city. It's like having to hold your breath through years and years and years and you're just desperate to get to the surface to get some air. Kids tend to be relieved that we are finally having honest conversations about race where we are describing it in the way it operates and that we're not denying its existence and we're not denying their lived experiences. That's been the sense that I get. Is that once they trust me, it's like finally they hit the surface and there's this breath of fresh air, finally.
Lizzie O'Leary: Matt, I want to talk about George Floyd's murder and Derek Chauvin's trial. It certainly changed the way a lot of white people think and talk about race. Did you change your curriculum?
Matt Bockenfeld: I would say that I geared my curriculum towards this specific situation. We were already talking about segregation, redlining, the way that folks have access or don't have access to different opportunities and the way that that leads to disparate outcomes. I was not talking so specifically about policing itself. Before the murder of George Floyd, I didn't have such a particular focus on policing. Since then for example, a project that I just worked on, I conducted a series of interviews with all sorts of different people, the police chief. I talked to folks who were formerly incarcerated for decades. I talked to people doing prison reform, civil rights work. We conducted these interviews to display all these different voices in the conversation trying to help kids, work towards empathy and understanding of this broader system at work.
Lizzie O'Leary: Gloria, Matt sounds like a pretty extraordinary teacher who kids are lucky to talk to. I wonder if you could speak a little more broadly about how teachers and school districts are generally attempting to modify their curriculum to deal with conversations around George Floyd's murder around Black Lives Matter and national conversations about race?
Gloria Ladson-Billings: I will tell you that Matt is indeed an exceptional teacher. He actually reminds me of another Matt, who is a former student of mine who teaches in North Carolina, who does some very similar things that he is doing. In general, I think teachers want to stay at arms-length with this topic. The parallel for me is whenever you start talking about sex education, let's not talk about it, school shouldn't bring it up and we act as if not talking about it means kids won't do it. I think it's the same thing around race, not talking about it means it's just going to go away, it is not going away.
I think we owe it to our young people to tell them the truth. Give them the tools so they can research on themselves and begin to discover some of the things that have put us in this particular position. I don't know that most students are having the experience that kids like Matt's students, or the students that I get to talk to in Carrboro, North Carolina. I think in general, we talk about it as something that used to be. We put it in the context of slavery and the Civil War, and then we move on. If you just look at the textbooks that our kids have access to the essential narrative is we used to do that, but now we're better.
Lizzie O'Leary: I'm wondering about that actually, because textbooks obviously are a big thing here and the materials that school districts have. If you're a parent Gloria, and you're listening to this, or your kid comes home with something and you think, it doesn't really match the experience of the country I live in. What can you do?
Gloria Ladson-Billings: I think that parents who are tuned into what's happening in schools and classrooms are willing to have a conversation. Matt talked about the fact that his students as well as his parents trust him. I've had that same experience as a parent and even as a grandparent that I've had the opportunity to go to school and see for myself. Not just assume that because it's in the textbook, that the teacher is not having kids interrogate it, that the teacher is not having kids question it.
I just had a conversation with a parent in Houston and his daughter came home and said, "Dad, I don't understand this concept that we have in this book about the first Texans." They were actually referring to Indigenous people. I cannot imagine an American-Indian calling themselves, "Oh, we're the first Texans." No, we're the original people who lived here. It's those kinds of things that textbooks promote because they have to get through committees to be able to be sold that don't tell our kids authentic histories.
Lizzie O'Leary: This is obviously a big talking point in conservative media. Matt, is that something that you've come up against either with parents or administrators or even other colleagues?
Matt Bockenfeld: I would say that our administration has largely tried to be supportive of us as we navigate what is honestly a minefield. I can tell you that our community, the backlash in our community is growing. Unfortunately, a lot of the backlash is based off of untruths, even I would argue propaganda. There's a series of things that thousands of parents in our district believe is happening that is not happening. The slogan of this counter movement has become anti-racism is racism. I see posts every single day in these growing parent groups, they're building connections with one another, they're getting ready to endorse school board candidates and potentially run their own candidates.
They're sending news to national conservative media. They've been on state radio. They're filming teachers because we teach on Zoom and in-person at the same time. They are watching and, in some circumstances, filming their kids, teachers. They're fighting for legislation to ban critical race theory. Although their definition of that is so broad that it would essentially exclude conversations about race. They want to ban the 1619 Project-
Lizzie O'Leary: Based on the New York Times magazine project, yes.
Matt Bockenfeld: That's correct. It's a minefield because you have to find a way to be honest, to uphold the human dignity of every one of your students. We can't compromise on that, but also try to find some way to bring the community along. Be like, listen, we're not indoctrinating your kids, we're trying to have a discussion.
Lizzie O'Leary: Gloria, how would you respond to conservative critics who don't believe that race should play a role in the curriculum? And again, I want to underline white critics generally, because I think that for kids of color race is there from day one.
Gloria Ladson-Billings: You have the misfortune of having two social studies people on this conversation. As I'm listening to Matt talking about the organized opposition, one of the things that it reminds me of historians are going to be historians. I certainly take historical look at this. It's like the red scare that there is a communist every where, and so we've got to watch everybody. We are literally performing that same kind of behavior with teachers and school districts around race. We are saying something is there that's not there. We are frightening people about whatever this is. I think just trying to understand inequality is something that we owe our students, they need to begin-- We didn't murder George Floyd individually, but we witnessed it and we witnessed it at a time in which we are all hunkered down in our homes because of the pandemic.
Parents and community members had to provide an explanation because the students demanded it. Schools are perfectly set up to begin to uncover these issues, to begin to explore them. Why would we want our students to be ignorant? What I say to people when they say, "Well, that doesn't exist, there's no systemic racism." Give me an explanation for the regular and predictable inequality that exists in health, in education, in employment, in housing, in criminal justice. What's the explanation?
There are some people who'll say, "Well, it's class." I can then disaggregate something like housing and banking and begin to show you that a working class white person is much more likely to get a loan than a middle-class Black person. We need people to be able to have intelligent conversations about inequality in our society.
Lizzie O'Leary: Gloria Ladson-Billings professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and former Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education, and Matt Bockenfeld, a social studies teacher at Fishers High School, in Fishers, Indiana. Thank you both so much for joining us.
Gloria Ladson-Billings: You're welcome.
Matt Bockenfeld: Thanks so much.
Lizzie O'Leary: We've been discussing schools and the teaching of systemic racism, both past and present. We wanted to hear from you so we asked, were you taught about systemic racism in school? If you have kids, how is racial equity in history being addressed in their education? Here is what you told us.
Julie: Hi, this is Julie in Orlando, Florida. I was not taught about systemic racism in school because I went to school in the '70s. My mom was wonderful and she taught me to always be friends with anybody you liked, regardless of their skin color. I don't recall her saying the word racism to describe what she was trying to tell me about.
Julie Bailey: Hi, my name is Julie Bailey. In New York, New York. I believe the question was, vis-a-vis being taught about systemic racism in school? Quite frankly, my answer is I was taught nothing. I am of a certain age, but I know I was taught nothing, I had to live it. I'm a Black child of immigrants growing up in America, and we learned about systemic racism through the school of hard knocks, trust me, the school you never graduate from.
Margaret: Hi, my name is Margaret, and I'm calling from Seattle. I didn't learn anything about racism in my very segregated school in Scottsdale, Arizona in the '70s. Which was ironic since it was less than a mile from the edge of the Pima Reservation and on land that used to be in part of Mexico. We barely learned about antisemitism, we only learned about the Holocaust, because a parent of a student came in and taught us that, it wasn't in the curriculum.
My daughter went to integrated school here in Seattle and learned a bit more about racism, but I would say that the learning that she got was very individualized and with a nuance. I believe that we need to talk about institutional racism all throughout our curriculum in history, social studies, the art and literature.
Barbara: This is Barbara calling from Denton. I was home-schooled by white, deeply religious parents that had four bio kids and adopted three from Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. On the one hand, my dad was great about educating us on the reason for the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement. On the other hand, racism was treated as a problem of the past and systemic racism was not recognized. My parents believe that because they adopted Black children, they basically can't possibly be racist. They'll even say we adopted Black kids, we did our part, as if you could live in a state of arrival. Ironically, my mother has a habit of speaking about my adopted siblings with frustration that they're not like the bio kids. As in they don't act very white, so yes.
John: The education I got about systemic racism, while I was in grammar school was so immersive and subconscious, that I didn't realize it until high school with my non-white classmates who challenged my perspective on everything. I'm John Clark from Wonton, New York.
Mercedes: My name is Mercedes, I'm in Morristown, New Jersey, but I grew up outside the US. Was amazed when my kids started high school in the US that all the US history taught made minimal reference to how Black people's contributions impacted the country favorably and seem to minimize the crippling effects of slavery and Jim Crow.
Lizzie: Thanks as always, for being part of the conversation. We love to hear from you. The number to call is 877-869-8253. That's 8778mytake if you still have letters on your phone pads, or you can send us a voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org
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