Taking race out of education could fuel white nationalism, some educators say

The alleged Buffalo shooter says racism motivated the attack.

May 21, 2022, 8:55 AM

Some politicians and activists of late have made accusations that teaching about race and inclusion in school is divisive, or a way to indoctrinate students.

However, the growing threat of white supremacist extremism in the U.S. has left education advocates increasingly worried about those Republican-led efforts.

Now, a mass shooting allegedly by a self-proclaimed white supremacist targeting a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, has sparked fears about banning race education in schools, advocates who spoke with ABC News said.

Research shows that children become aware of race and racial inequality at a young age and may develop racial biases by ages 3 to 5.

Studies, including those from award-winning social-developmental psychologist Phyllis A. Katz, have long shown that children engaged in honest and frequent conversations about race, racial inequity, and racism, lead to lower levels of bias in young children.

Children take cues from what they see around them, so avoiding conversations about race and inequality only allows for “prevalent stereotypes [to] remain unchanged,” Katz's research states.

Katheleen Belew, a historian who specializes in the white power movement, testified before Congress in 2019 to recommend education as a solution to acknowledging extremism as a nation.

"Truly grappling with white power violence would involve a long look at the racial inequality foundational to many American communities," said Belew.

In this Nov. 12, 2021, file photo, people protest outside the offices of the New Mexico Public Education Department's office in Albuquerque, N.M.
Cedar Attanasio/AP, FILE

Experts on radicalism in the U.S., like Michael Edison Hayden, a senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center, suggest that education can be an essential tool against racism in different ways.

"Every person needs to be aware of these huge racial injustices that have existed throughout American history," Hayden said. "You cannot possibly understand what the people in Buffalo feel right now -- Black people in general -- feel without understanding the history of racist violence in this country."

However, Hayden warns that only portraying white people as antagonists could "keep this cycle [of division] going in our culture."

Primarily, he recommends federal agencies fund programs that support the early intervention of radicalization and inoculate communities against extremism, by promoting media literacy, mental health resources and other such programs.

"You have people pushing back against education at this very moment when it's needed more than ever before," he said.

In more than 30 states across the country, bills targeting "critical race theory" in K-12 classes have been introduced or passed.

Critical race theory is a discipline that seeks to understand how racism has shaped U.S. laws.

Teachers say the theory is taught in law school and higher education courses and is not being taught in K-12 classes.

Sherri Singletary, of Buffalo, lights candles that spell BLM as people gather at the scene of a mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street on May 15, 2022, in Buffalo, NY.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Still, critics claim the theory is being used in public schools to discriminate against white students and blame them for the actions of white people in the past.

There has also been a simultaneous Republican-led effort to ban young adult or children's books that discuss race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.

The anti-race education movement has been firing up school board meetings, midterm primary races and conservative media most intensely within the last two years. It's led to heated debates about whether children are being taught about the long history of racial oppression and the fight for equality in schools.

However, critical race theorists, educators and some parents say that opponents are actively distorting what the theory is in order to reverse progress made in diversity and racial equity.

"The whitewashing of history, the banning of books, the silencing of diverse voices do everything to rob students of the truth of our history, and do everything to plant the seeds of white supremacy," Kim Anderson, executive director of the National Education Association, told ABC News.

They say basic lessons on the movements for civil rights, LGBTQ rights, gender equality and more may no longer be explored and discussed in classrooms due to these laws.

"The vocal minority has been radicalized by folks who seek to divide us for political gain," Anderson said. "They are politically motivated attempts to divide Americans and distract us from what is really going on in this country which is that too many of us are struggling to make ends meet."

Without these lessons, some educators argue, attacks against historically marginalized groups may continue to rise.

A document allegedly left behind by the 18-year-old alleged Buffalo shooter that authorities said detailed his racist plans, highlights the growing threat of white supremacist extremism in the U.S.

In it, he allegedly expressed racist and antisemitic motives and espoused white supremacist conspiracy theories about the changing demographics of America. In the document analyzed by ABC News, he said his beliefs were cultivated through information on the internet in recent years.

Elana Yaron Fishbein, founder and president of anti-race education group No Left Turn in Education, told ABC News that she does not believe that anti-racism efforts are a solution to white supremacist extremism seen in Buffalo.

Members of the Buffalo Police department work at the scene of a shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., May 17, 2022.
Brendan McDermid/Reuters

"The divisive ideology of 'anti-racism' only creates more racial division and blame, not less," said Fishbein. "It actually calls for fighting racism with more racism. How does that heal our society and bring us together?"

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