Why the Howling That New York's Private Schools Have Been Taken Over By Critical Race Theory?

Claims that children are being harmed are a thin cover for returning to a world where white people don't have to feel bad about racism

Just to warn you: the trolls may show up today. All reasonable comments are welcome, but please don’t engage people who are just on a culture wars mission.

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Late last week, Paul Rossi, a member of the mathematics faculty at Grace Church School in lower Manhattan, denounced the social justice and anti-racism program instituted by the school in 2020. Before writing this essay, published on Bari Weiss’s contrarian Substack, Common Sense, Rossi was already in hot water. By his own account, he had raised his objections in a confidential Zoom session that included students and then apparently broke the meeting's confidentiality agreement. He does not say whether this was the first time he had objected to the school’s policies or whether he was engaged in an ongoing campaign.

Rossi was disciplined, and he narrates it as an Orwellian experience, an exposé of totalitarianism in high places. After dressing him down privately, “the head of school,” Rossi tells us, “ordered all high school advisors to read a public reprimand of my conduct out loud to every student in the school.” Rossi then claims to have walked the halls, seemingly alone, as each advisor simultaneously intoned the details of his shaming.

Rossi blames this ideological takeover of Grace School on the larger influence of “critical race theory.” Diminishing scholarly work on race is something you have heard a lot about lately. The right-wing of the Republican party, which is fond of slogans and not so fond of policy, is goading angry white Americans with the canard that all forms of racial justice are a radical conspiracy to “replace” white people with people of color and immigrants. Like the loose deployment of the word “socialism,” critical race theory is now a catchphrase for white subordination through official indoctrination. You often see it as CRT, which mimics CBT, a psychological practice that helps people overcome anxiety and destructive behaviors by practicing different, healthier ones.

By referring to everything that has to do with equity and racial justice as “critical race theory,” conservative culture warriors clearly articulate any attempt to examine or dismantle white supremacy as a form of brainwashing. This, in turn, allows them to push back against anti-racism, whether it is a big, structural problem like police violence against Black people or inclusive school curricula that help students think about the violence of United States history and culture.

For example, by describing diversity and inclusion training as a product of critical race theory (it is and it isn’t, as we will see below), a term he never defines, Rossi portrays talking about race at all as inherently divisive, authoritarian, and a form of child abuse. “We are compelling [students] to tiptoe through a minefield of double-binds,” Rossi complains. “According to the school’s own standard for discursive violence, this constitutes abuse.”

Anti-racism is producing….racism. Against white students. You’ve heard this before. You know the song.

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Critical race theory is not, in fact, a form of social domination but a highly intellectual practice with specific goals that are not about making white children feel bad about themselves. The phrase emerged at Harvard Law School back in the 1970s to describe a new way of thinking about how racism was baked into the law. Derrick Bell and his students—who included Mari Matsuda, Patricia J. Williams, and Kimberlé Crenshaw, who remain some of the finest legal minds in the country—understood that Black people had neither been written into the law nor had they been considered as deserving of justice when the law was written.

Thus, it was no accident that the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s had not eliminated, or really even reduced, racism because racial justice could not be created through existing law or conventional modes of legal interpretation. Instead, critical race theorists put stories about Black people’s lives at the center of their legal practice to demonstrate how racism and white supremacy evaded and were sustained by the law. In other words, critical race theory argues that racism was not aberrant but a logical outcome of a legal and economic system built to benefit white people (otherwise known as white supremacy.)

That’s the bad news. But the good news is that jurists can change laws and how laws are applied. Critical race theory is the tool by which the correct changes can be discerned and implemented. And this is what its critics do not want: they express it by claiming that any talk about race is divisive, tribal (a word I particularly hate), and aimed at oppressing white children.

Now, I have no first-hand knowledge of what is going on at Grace Church School, and neither does Bari Weiss since she did not fact-check the claims Rossi made in his manifesto before publishing it. I know this because she said so in reply to a comment I made on the post.

Whether the administrators at Grace Church are studying critical race theory, I also do not know, but I doubt it, somehow, because (very highly paid) consultants usually implement such programs. Nor do I know much about the origins of The Brearley School’s anti-racism pledge that Andrew Gutmann (who will now forever be known on the internet as “Brearley Dad”) refused to sign, choosing instead to pull his sixth-grade daughter out of a tony Upper East Side school that costs almost $54,000 a year to attend.

Gutmann has left his own steaming pile of p**p on Weiss’s Substack: you can read him there and judge it for yourself. Like many white people who are asked to think about race, the upshot is that he sees himself, and his daughter, as victims of wokeness who are being required to submit intellectually—and pay for it! “I object to the view that I should be judged by the color of my skin,” Guttman rages. “I cannot tolerate a school that not only judges my daughter by the color of her skin but encourages and instructs her to prejudge others by theirs.”

How did the world turn upside down for Rossi and Guttman, you might ask? Well, here’s the surprise: it was an outcome of critical race theory—a good one—and at both schools, students who told their stories to disrupt the schools’ false claims about their commitments to racial equity.

In February 2019, complaints at Grace about white students’ use of the n-word in social media posts resulted in a racially mixed group of students sending a letter to the administration demanding that they address the school’s culture. In addition to the posts, they documented structural racism at the school and indicated how positive change could occur. You can read their letter here: it’s really very smart.

Subsequently, the head of school admitted, as the students put it, “the simple idea that racism exists at Grace Church School.” He also acknowledged a range of behaviors on the part of white faculty, administrators, and students that Black students and their parents had complained about for years. This was a good start.

But what happened next disappointed students, parents, and alumni. Although the school claimed to be “transitioning to an `Anti-racist’ school,” as the letter writers told the story, the administration thought they could accomplish this by doing very little. They explained the school’s diversity statement more clearly (as if racism was the outcome of the community not understanding that statement) and periodically set expectations for behavior and speech in group meetings. These actions, the students said, did not create “concrete, long-term institutional change.”

And, of course, any idiot—but certainly anyone who has ever attended a private school, all of which are bastions of white supremacy to one degree or another—could tell you that the students were right. Anyone could tell you that these changes were not transformations but doubling down on what had already not worked. What followed was a set of concrete demands from the students, not just about diversifying the school but also asking the administration to take serious steps towards dismantling white supremacy in their community.

Meanwhile, a bigger phenomenon was taking shape in education. Instagram pages started popping up on which Black students at many private schools and universities around the United States (including my own) described how they experienced racism in their education through concrete examples. Known as “Black at” accounts (as in Blackatharvard), the posts were anonymous but were moderated by groups of students. As critical race theory techniques suggest, they told stories about how Black students were being treated, using testimony to make racism vivid. Grace has one (I requested access, but it had not been granted by the time I went to press), and so does Brearley. You won’t be surprised to learn that young Black women at Brearley were routinely humiliated by their peers in ways that, had these things happened to Andrew Guttman’s white daughter, would have made him want to burn the school to the ground.

For example:

  • A Black student who showed up in her brother’s clothes for “Dress Like a Boy Day” was repeatedly referred to as a “thug” by her classmates.

  • A white student told a Black student that she should change her “white name” to “something Blacker” for the college admissions process.

  • An alumna in her thirties remembers being told repeatedly by white classmates that she would be admitted to the school of her choice “because of affirmative action.” When she resisted this diminishment of her intelligence, these girls urged her to sing the James Brown anthem “I’m Black, and I’m Proud.”

  • A Black student’s mother was called into a private meeting, for which she had to take a day off work, to be told that her daughter was speaking too much in class.

  • Then there are ones like this: “A white student once told me my skin was so dark because I didn’t clean myself.”

OK, I’ll stop. And Brearley is far from the only place these things happen: as Dorothy Brown notes in her recent book, The Whiteness of Wealth (Crown, 2021), education is not a great place for Black people, period.

But you get my point: the “tribalism” and division that Brearley Dad claims critical race theory is causing already exists, as does the harm Rossi fears it is causing. Prestigious private schools offer real opportunities to Black students. But it can come at a very, very high emotional and intellectual cost to them and their parents. And when I say high cost, it’s worth reminding ourselves that class does not alter the equation for Black students. Many are in the same socioeconomic bracket as Andrew Guttman’s daughter and are subject to routine class misidentification and bigotry.

To their credit, Grace Church School and Brearley have responded by trying to do better: here is the plan that Grace implemented. And while I personally would rather eat glass than do anti-racism training with people who can afford a $650,000 secondary education for each child, Brearley isn’t wrong to try. Imagining persuading students to take their own racism seriously while, at the same time, their parents persist in believing that their own prosperity is solely due to merit and intelligence.

Interestingly, the students at Grace Church School do seem to understand white supremacy in the ways critical race theory would ask them to: it’s kind of impressive. But what have Paul Rossi and Andrew Guttman done? They have made it all about themselves. This is what white people often do. But in this case, it also shows that these men also understand what is at stake in anti-racism work: their own power and the position of their white children as uniquely authoritative and special in a multi-racial society.

But these guys, as so many culture warriors are, are also ferocious gaslighters. As one of Weiss’s commenters told me as I was finishing this piece (and if you go into the comments sections of these two essays, you will see that there is a lovely cluster of racists that is gathering around Common Sense), the schools themselves are preventing what they perceive as a natural evolution towards a race-free society by “promoting tribalism.” As the commenter puts it:

I feel some of my fellow liberals have lost sight of how important humor, rapport, and genuine human connection are in building compassion. The focus on (mostly unquantifiable) concepts such as systemic racism, implicit bias and micro aggressions interfere with our ability to see each other as complex, nuanced and contradictory human beings. I also feel that while awareness of our own human biases can be a helpful tool, true empathy and compassion begin with compassion toward the self.

Because to them, racial justice is all about the white people feeling ok—about themselves.

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).


What I’m reading:

  • Too racist even for the GOP? Marjorie Taylor Greene distances herself from the “America First Caucus,” a Congressional group dedicated to "common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions." Even though it was her idea. (Daniela Diaz, CNN, April 18, 2018)

  • In 2018 Danica Roem became the first transwoman to be elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. In this terrific interview by Jennifer Medina, she talks about the current wave of anti-trans legislation, among other things. (New York Times, April 17, 2021)

  • Why is Matt Gaetz such a tool? He had a powerful, overbearing father, says Politico’s Gary Fineout. (April 17, 2021)

  • Will Florida Governor Ron DeSantis be the 2024 alternative to Trump? Ross Douthat thinks so. (New York Times, April 17, 2021)

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