Many American parents may assume that culture-war battles over critical race theory and “wokeness” are fought on legitimate terrain, involving such matters as how high school students can best grapple with our nation’s complex past. Perhaps they think that the suddenly ubiquitous topics of gender identity and preferred pronouns rankle only those parents who are old-fashioned in their thinking. If only. America’s youngest students are being bombarded with classroom activism and indoctrination that is inappropriate not only developmentally but for public school systems in general.
The contemporary obsession with identity has made its way into elementary school policy, curricula, and standards approved by state boards. While we continue to see poor reading and math scores, schools spend money and time confusing and shaming other people’s children. Many educators and elected leaders have good intentions; they believe deeply that they are part of a necessary and long-overdue movement to teach racial literacy, social justice, equity, and antiracism. But as virtuous as these terms may sound on their face, they mean something else in far too many classrooms. American schools are teaching young children race essentialism: reducing them to identity groups, putting them in boxes labeled “oppressor” and “oppressed,” and often inflicting emotional and psychological harm.
If this sounds extreme, that’s because it is. It is not happening everywhere—but it is happening enough to have juiced a multibillion-dollar, nationwide industry. Sometimes the source is a rogue teacher whom the principal and superintendent admit they are trying to rein in; but increasingly, it is simply public officials implementing approved policies.
Consider Bellevue, Washington, home to Cherry Crest Elementary School. The school website indicates that students “will have explicit conversations about race, equity, and access” and “will identify culture and begin to recognize and identify white culture through storytelling, sharing, and conversation.” The school promises to hold monthly assemblies that focus on culture, identity, and race, and has created a group called SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism) for fourth- and fifth-graders. These children, who range from ages nine to 11, are tasked with “implementing learning and stratimplementation of school-wide learning and strategies for being anti-racist.” Left unclear is whether these students have been made aware that modern antiracism requires discrimination on the basis of race.
Or take Lexington, Massachusetts, where, in October 2019, fourth-graders were taught to “articulate what gender identity is and why it’s important to use nonbinary language in describing people we don’t know yet.” According to photos shared on Twitter by the district’s Director of Equity and Student Supports, students learned about “gender identity,” “gender expression,” “sexual orientation,” and “sex assigned at birth” by examining sticky notes on a “Gender Snowperson” who was drawn in magic marker on a large sheet of paper. The students were also taught that their pronouns had been “assigned at birth.”
In Oregon, teachers can use new state standards in “ethnic studies” starting in September 2021; the standards will become a mandatory part of the curriculum in 2025. The Oregon Department of Education released an update on the standards last year. While most Americans may not consider gender an essential component of ethnic studies, the Oregon Department of Education does. The revised recommendations for the standards require kindergartners to “understand their own identity groups, including but not limited to race, gender, family, ethnicity, culture, religion and ability.” First-graders will be able to “describe how individual and group characteristics are used to divide, unite, and categorize racial, ethnic and social groups.”
In Rockwood, Missouri, a fifth-grade teacher recently gave students a handout with written excerpts by Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. The writings included the claim that “Michael Brown was murdered just steps from his mother’s home in Ferguson, Missouri.” (They did not mention Attorney General Eric Holder’s conclusion that “the facts did not support the filing of criminal charges against Officer Darren Wilson.”) The handout goes on: “Disruption is the new world order. It is the way in which those denied power assert power. And in the context of a larger strategy for how to contend for power, disruption is an important way to surface new possibilities.” When I asked the school principal about the assignment, he said: “This was used by a teacher and is not a Rockwood approved resource. I am working with the teacher to ensure that only Rockwood curricular resources are used when teaching lessons.”
This past February, students in Evanston, Illinois, listened to the book Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness. Parents were asked to discuss the book with their children at home. The book says that “whiteness is a bad deal” and “always was,” and that “you can be white without signing on to whiteness.” As Conor Friedersdorf reports in The Atlantic, Evanston schools ask kindergarten parents to quiz their five- and six-year-olds on whiteness and to give them examples of “how whiteness shows up in school or in the community.”
In Cupertino, California, third-graders at R. I. Meyerholz Elementary School were required to deconstruct their racial identities and then rank themselves according to their “power and privilege.” The teacher asked all students to create an “identity map,” which required them to list their race, class, gender, religion, family structure, and other characteristics. The teacher explained to students that they live in a “dominant culture” of “white, middle class, cisgender, educated, able-bodied, Christian, English speaker[s],” who, according to the lesson, “created and maintained” this culture in order “to hold power and stay in power.” Students were then asked to deconstruct these intersectional identities and “circle the identities that hold power and privilege” on their identity maps, ranking their traits based on the hierarchy the teacher had just explained to them.
Some parents may agree with such content. But public institutions funded with public dollars do not exist to groom activists for particular causes, shame children for their immutable traits, or deny them their agency or their childhood. We are talking about eight- and nine-year-old kids who believe in Santa Claus, hide their lost teeth under their pillow for the tooth fairy, and curl up in their parents’ laps for comfort and love. It is immoral—at least—to reduce them to confected racial and gender categories and to teach them to do the same to others. Parents around the country need to understand what is happening in a growing number of elementary classrooms.