On the cusp of Black History Month, in a school where I was principal of a 100% African American student body (95% of which were from low-income families), the presumptive valedictorian and salutatorian came storming into my office: “Principal Max, there has to be more to our history than slavery and oppression.” What ensued was a long dialogue on their longing to be taught of the greatness of their history, and their fatigue with the overemphasis on oppression and injustices.
Pondering our curriculum, including our past African American History programs, I realized we had fallen short in telling the full and inspiring story of African American exceptionalism. I thought about how this may have prompted or perpetuated our students to assume negative stereotypes about themselves and how it may have harmed their academic efforts.
I fear that school districts like Albemarle County in Virginia are doing the same by introducing unconstitutional practices into the classroom, infused with Critical Race Theory (CRT).
The true central theme of the African American experience is hope. Hope was the resounding cry of many a spiritual song and is the plea of the oft sung-civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” It also communicated the backbone of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream that drove the civil rights movement forward in the face of violent resistance.
From slavery to Jim Crow, hope has been the engine of the black community. Hope is a mighty force. And it is hope that has empowered African Americans to overcome hurdles and achieve greater success—in the face of monumental adversity—more than any population in the history of mankind.
Albemarle County Public Schools, however, through its so-called “Anti-Racism” curriculum, has attempted to replace hope with “victimhood” as the central narrative of black history. Its curriculum forces students to view one’s status solely based on their race. Whites are characterized as “privileged” and blacks as “oppressed.”
One video told students that only white families could live in big houses. A Latina student was confused and disheartened by the video. Her parents, along with four other families, have filed a legal challenge against the school district.
Racial injustice in this country is ongoing, but replacing black success with black despair is not the answer. White students need to see the rich history of black accomplishments, and black students need to see and celebrate their rich and successful heritage. Students must learn that black entrepreneurs and white businesses funded the abolitionist and civil rights movements. The undeniable result was black success.
The importance of hope is more than just rhetorical. Solid academic research shows that a student’s success in life is highly correlated with their belief in their own ability to improve their standing. Study after study in development economics show that, while external factors like access to capital and having basic human needs met are important in rising out of poverty, such resources are almost meaningless if the recipients don’t believe in their own ability and agency to use those tools to improve their lives.
A recent study by Prof. Eric Kaufmann from the University of London showed that students who read a CRT-affirming passage from Ta-Nehisi Coates, a New York Times best-selling author and CRT advocate, experienced a 30% drop in their self-assessed belief in their ability to make positive changes in their life compared to students who read a more empowering passage and even those who read no passage at all.
Finally, a recent article in the Journal of Black Psychology noted the importance of hope in countering the very real impacts of racial discrimination: “Higher levels of hope have been related to positive outcomes, including fewer depressive symptoms and less anxiety in general samples. Conversely, higher levels of hopelessness among African American emerging adults have been linked to greater suicidal ideation and depressive symptomatology, even more so than white individuals who have reported higher rates of hopelessness. Hope, therefore, may have a significant impact on mental health outcomes for African American emerging adults.”
If Albemarle County Public Schools wants to reduce inequities, counter the psychological harms associated with discrimination, and raise the success of their black students, they should heed the cry of my former students. Indeed, Albemarle County schools should be reminded that hope was the answer in even darker times and remains the answer today. Schools should focus on African American exceptionalism and success to strengthen the hope and agency of all of our students and abandon their current policy that emphasizes victimhood and disseminates such despair.