Like many young adults, I have found the recent racial reckoning both monumental and eye-opening. I recognize that this movement has been long coming and that my surprise is a reflection of inadequate personal experience with race and racism, which I attribute to a lack of focus on race in my history education that I have had to compensate for on my own.
In contrast to my desire for more structured learning about race in the U.S., a recent commentary wants to use the COVID-19 crisis to give taxpayer-funded vouchers to parents who remove students from schools that discuss racism in American history ("There's another virus plaguing our schools," May 8).
The author describes an earlier era in American public education as one of "general agreement" about the basic message of schooling that lasted until the mid-20th century. He ignores that much of the later-20th century disagreement on public education was spurred by the mid-20th century desegregation of public schools.
Are we to believe that allowing students of different races to study together was a negative development?
We can agree that an essential function of public education is to equip students with a knowledge of civics and with patriotism. To me, American patriotism is dedication to the lofty ideals described in the Declaration of Independence, which have yet to be fully realized. How can students embrace these ideals without grappling with the hypocrisy of slaveholding founders writing that "all men are created equal"?
Learning about race in America is not an overreach of public schooling, but an essential part of understanding American history, whether one starts in 1619 or 1776.
Further, to characterize the recent racial discourse as the "Wokeness-19" pandemic ignores the complex history of the struggle for equality in the U.S. Racism did not end in this country with the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, nor did it end after desegregation or the voting-rights acts, nor is it over now. Despite school desegregation, educational quality is still influenced by the color of a student's skin through the legacies of practices such as redlining and racial covenants.
Certainly, the recent surge of civil rights advocacy could seem surprising if one's schooling solely focused on the history of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, rather than including the history of other patriots such as Ida B. Wells, Fred Korematsu and Medgar Evers.
Finally, the earlier commentary's proposal of school vouchers presents a risk of state-subsidized self-segregation. Pandemic-related migrations of students from public to private or home schools have shown that students of color do not often have the same opportunities as white peers to leave the public school system. Separating students based on parentally preferred readings of history would undermine social cohesion by further polarizing American adults and reinforcing inequalities.
Vouchers appear to be less a vaccine against "Wokeness-19" than a variant of segregation.
To deny education in the nuances of race in the U.S. would leave high-school graduates ill-equipped for the ongoing racial reckoning, which will be at the center of national debate throughout their lives. School choice will fray the fabric of American society by making racial inequality, systemic racism and other social issues more intractable. We cannot strive toward our founding ideals by ignoring where we fall short.
Nolan Concannon is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota.