Watered-Down “Anti-Racism Training” in Schools Is Perpetuating Racism

High school students have been in the streets all summer, and they’re not backing down. Black Lives Matter protests have gone on for weeks. They’ve popped up in hundreds of small towns. More and more kids don’t need to be taught that policing is racist, nor that police anchor a historic system of racial domination. They see it everywhere.

Now students are demanding deeper teaching on racism — education that questions the racial power arrangements baked into U.S. settlement, our narratives of progress, and the daily systemic violence that protests are naming. That depth of teaching is far outside the comfort zone of many schools; they’ll likely look to outside contractors to meet student demands. But the largest provider of anti-bias education programming to U.S. schools doesn’t teach that either — and it has a long history of conflict with anti-racist movements and close alliances with police departments.

Schools Fear Open Discussion About Racism

In the last few months, students around the country have pointed to sanitized history curricula and platitude-filled diversity trainings. In Baltimore, students marched on school district headquarters demanding lessons on the history of white supremacy in the U.S., Black political organizing and Black literature. In a white Chicago suburb, students are petitioning for curricula and workshops that account for their community’s own role in state violence, planned in consultation with Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Asian activists. Similar petitions and campaigns are gaining steam in Maryland, Arizona, New Jersey, California, Indiana (also Indiana), Minnesota, West Virginia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, and elsewhere around the country.

Why is anti-racist education so paltry? It’s not just that teachers and principals are overwhelmingly white, although that matters; many white educators think of talking openly about race as rude or “too negative” for children, or — in the era of an overtly racist president — politically partisan, and therefore, literally illegal. (Fear of “taking sides” has stopped some majority-immigrant public schools from even talking about Trump’s impacts.)

A broader problem is that racism is only minimally acknowledged in many school districts. The term “colorblind” is still thrown around New York City schools decades after anti-racist activists and scholars rejected it as a framework that refuses to see racism; and in schools, that justifies excluding Black and Brown perspectives from curricula. Many schools’ Black History Month celebrations famously center sanitized versions of civil rights heroes: entertainers, scientists, smoothed-over versions of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and even Malcolm X. Teachers — often teachers of color — who do try to talk about racism in terms of power and the people who wield it are easily branded as troublemakers. In one recent instance, Zakia Barrett, a Black teacher outside of Boston, was suspended for saying that “many cops are racist.” In order for Barrett to be reinstated, 127 parents had to wage a campaign pointing out that she was right.

The New York City Department of Education (DOE) has an official (but unspecific) commitment to anti-racist education, and we have seen life made impossible for teachers of color trying to move their schools to actually teach it. In one school, as Trump’s “Muslim ban” was anticipated, teachers of color struggled to roll out a hard-won, one-day curriculum on the U.S. Muslim experience, Muslim astronomy and Islamophobia. Although administrators agreed that professional development was needed to familiarize a predominantly white teaching staff with good practices in talking to children about race and racism, they never scheduled it; they were struggling to cover topics mandated by the DOE, leaving no time for “extra” subjects. Teachers of color who had been arranging what was now seen as “extra work” were marked as agitators. These struggles are not unusual, nor do they usually make the news.

The Anti-Defamation League: A Troubled School Partner

History and literature curricula may be getting a welcome renovation through student protest. Black Lives Matter at School has done deep curriculum work to give substance to the demands. New teaching tools are readily available for teachers to access. Black educators and other educators of color have, of course, been producing materials for decades.

But teaching anti-racist practice to children and staff is another story. Walking people through conversations about their own relationship to racism is fraught, so those conversations are often outsourced to an “expert” organization whose credentials insulate the school from criticism. Few of those organizations exist, and most are small. The coming wave of demand for anti-racism training will almost certainly exceed their capacities. In fact, even as protests demand that Black grassroots leadership be centered, large mainstream organizations will certainly be widely called upon to lead these trainings, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a long-time standby when it comes to such workshops.

For many organizations already involved in anti-racist work, the ADL is not a welcome choice. This month, a broad set of groups, including Movement 4 Black Lives (M4BL), United We Dream, Critical Resistance and MPower Change, called on their communities to reconsider any collaborations with the ADL. The letter accompanies a report documenting ADL’s work as an antagonist of anti-racist movements, especially those led by people of color — even as the organization uses the language of anti-racism. For instance, the report notes:

Today, the ADL is the single largest non-governmental police trainer in the country. The ADL 2016 annual report boasted that 100% of major US metropolitan police departments have sent participants to Israel and the ADL’s Advanced Training School in Extremist and Terrorist Threats. These trainings deepen the militarized, racialized policing of US neighborhoods, treating low-income neighborhoods and communities of color as counterinsurgent “human terrain”…

The report notes that the ADL led the 2018 smear attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar, charging her with anti-Semitism when she noted that pro-Israel political funding shapes congressional policy. Additionally, ADL’s white director patronizingly scolded the M4BL to keep their “eyes on the prize” when M4BL challenged the U.S. military-industrial complex, including its support for military enforcement of Israeli apartheid laws.

The ADL’s education efforts bear out these concerns. Until just recently, the ADL was battling to quash ethnic studies curricula created by educators and scholars of color in California. Historically, ADL curricula have been challenged on marginalizing the voices of affected communities and soft-pedaling the state’s role in racism. ADL’s education director, George Selim, was hired fresh from creating the Department of Homeland Security’s discredited Countering Violent Extremism program, which racially profiles and surveils Arab and Muslim communities. At the ADL, in addition to leading education programming, Selim also leads programming on law enforcement and counterterrorism.

So when the ADL posted its family-friendly explainer on racism and the police murder of George Floyd — complete with “questions to dig deeper” and links to a wider range of lesson plans — we dug in.

“Anti-Hate” Education Is Not Anti-Racist — or Progressive

The ADL’s approach is designed to tick boxes for white adults dutifully talking over racial violence with children, while remaining profoundly unthreatening to actual racist power. For instance, ADL materials don’t mention protesters’ critiques of racial capitalism, nor their calls for police abolition and safety through community care — even though together, these messages have produced perhaps one of the most profound shifts in popular ideas about race in U.S. history. The ADL’s curriculum minimizes this summer’s massive outpouring of rage and political will, seeming to say that protests culminated in the recent congressional resolution condemning “police brutality.” It obeys the Black Lives Matter protest command to say the names of people murdered by police, printing a short litany of “high profile deaths.” But it describes them using the term widely used to minimize police accountability: police-involved deaths.

This isn’t just a text poorly written “about us, without us.” It’s the unchallenging version of anti-racism that the ADL has taught for decades — and why school districts happily let the ADL run conversations on race. The ADL’s Pyramid of Hate (which is used ubiquitously in the ADL’s curriculum) explains it clearly. It says that biased attitudes — not capitalism and white vested interests in preserving power arrangements — are the foundation of racism. Systemic discrimination is just a big set of disparities — not an anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim structure that transcends class and achievement. Racist violence just comes from “hate” — it’s not structural or institutional. According to the pyramid, George Floyd’s murder illustrates that “hate and bias can escalate and lead to dire outcomes,” while slavery, colonialism and capitalism disappear from the equation. To a student who learns that, toppling statues of Columbus makes no sense.

These ideas about racism did once have currency, around the same time as the idea of “colorblindness.” But the ADL isn’t stuck in the past; it’s just a conservative organization. It has a long history of antipathy toward Black and anti-colonial movements. For the past several years, Jewish groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace have pointed out that the ADL weaponizes charges of anti-Semitism to silence Black, Muslim, Arab and Jewish voices. Arab organizers have been saying the same for decades. It’s unnerving, therefore, that the ADL has been teaching K-12 kids about racism since the mid-1980s when its programs went national. By 2018, the ADL’s No Place for Hate® program was training about one in every 50 U.S. students, according to its annual report for that year. This program targets K-12 schools across the U.S. with a needs assessment, the formation of a school committee, and school-wide student pledges and anti-bias activities. The ADL also held nearly 1,000 A World of Difference® trainings and seminars in 2018, likely reaching around 20,000 or 30,000 teachers in a single year. These trainings target teachers as well as police forces and other institutions, discussing bias, diversity, and “confront[ing] racism, anti-Semitism and all other forms of bigotry.”

For anti-racist educators, this poses a problem. The uprisings and protests against police violence have dominated the news cycle and been an overarching fixture in daily life since George Floyd’s murder. Students, like others in the U.S., are being forced to think about issues around racism and policing they may not have before. When curricular materials leave out such an analysis of state power and exploitation, the interconnected issues raised by Black Lives Matter protests are easily pushed outside the frame. Defunding and abolishing the police can be seen as a myopic threat to public safety, rather than a necessary shift in how communities deal with violence. George Floyd’s murder can be viewed as unrelated to capitalism and its melding of race and value. Global networks of resistance to state violence — as, for example, Black and Palestinian movements are building together — can be rendered invisible. Educators then face the dilemma of trying to empower their students themselves to critique systems of oppression that the tools like the Pyramid of Hate leave untouched. While using the ADL’s curriculum might feel like a form of solidarity, in our policed, surveilled, segregated schools, using it actually models the opposite.

Feeling the force of this moment, the ADL has cosmetically submerged some of its past conservatism. Until recently, for instance, its explainer on Black Lives Matter included a warning that the ADL objected to the M4BL platform. Now that warning is gone, and the ADL recently signed a letter affirming that Black lives matter. (Its editorials scolding Black, queer and Muslim organizers are still posted.) But this is a moment to be on high alert against the co-option of demands for real change.

Nothing About Us Without Us

So, who will teach our kids about racism? Giving students the education they’re calling for will have to mean deliberately centering anti-racist teaching initiatives primarily informed by — and supportive of — Black anti-racist educators, other educators of color, and the movements that are propelling students to demand this teaching. One useful model is the California ethnic studies program that the ADL sought to dismantle. It’s designed by educators and scholars in accordance with the principles of ethnic studies: to facilitate thinking and critical learning from the vantage point of racialized, Indigenous and marginalized people; and to support and encourage students to consider how they might make change.

That vantage point itself was the subject of the ADL’s challenge to the curriculum. The inclusion of Arab American Studies — an essential component of ethnic studies, particularly in an era of marked repression and violence against U.S. Arab and Muslim communities — included discussion of Palestine, a central political and social issue shaping Arab American life. The ADL charged that teaching about Palestine was anti-Jewish (despite Jewish support for the curriculum). Rooting out “controversial” voices, says Lara Kiswani, an organizer with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, gutted the curriculum’s values and created an “all lives matter” version of anti-racist education.

Each lesson plan was tied to a set of clearly articulated values laid out at the start of the curriculum to show how it advanced critical thinking, empathy and solidarity. When critics like the ADL objected, these core defining values were stripped out, Kiswani told Truthout. “Then they changed all the lesson plans using ghost writers whose names they refused to release. The new lesson plans were about how communities of color have contributed to the U.S. and a multicultural society, their migration patterns. Nothing about their struggles, their social movements, their experiences of racism and how they struggled against it. There was no mention left of structural racism,” she said.

It’s not incidental that conservative objections to Palestine were the catalyst for conservative pushback: If anti-racist education is to uphold Black leadership like the M4BL or Latinx leadership like Mijente, then Palestine and discussion of the intersections between U.S. racism and global power will be on the agenda.

The recent victory to restore the ethnic studies model was in part about insisting on communities’ power to narrate their own stories, reflecting the ethos of Black Lives Matter protests. But it was also a battle against a distinctively conservative form of education: “multiculturalism” that seeks to include everyone but not to shift power. Kiswani warns that anti-racist education has to be understood not only as the concern of progressives; conservatives also “understand education as terrain,” and invest enormous resources to limit the scope of education on racism, colonialism and power, she says.

As most schools navigate anti-racist education individually, the principles of ethnic studies are a crucial framework for ensuring that curricula are actually anti-racist. We must insist that the curriculum being taught to students is not limited by what racist parents might complain about. Most critically, it must follow the lead of the Black and allied movements that are moving students to make these demands. Providers of such teaching may not be as familiar or easy to find as the ADL, they may not have grant funding that makes their programming free, and they may introduce ideas that unsettle the schools they enter. But we can’t accept substitutes.