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Why a New York City school's idea to (temporarily) separate kids by race is smart

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A new program is teaching the kids who attend one New York City elementary school two important lessons: that ignoring race and racism doesn't make these things go away, and that white people have a racial identity, too.

The program is controversial. That's understandable, because it involves splitting up kids by race, and due to America's racist history any kind of segregation is guaranteed to raise red flags. But it really shouldn't.

In fact, it would be a great thing for race in America if adults could get this kind of education, too.

Yes, it requires (temporary) segregation. No, that's not a bad thing.

A New York Magazine piece by Lisa Miller explains how the program, which just launched this year at New York City's private Fieldston Lower School, works: parents get a form asking them to answer for their elementary school-age kids: "What is your race?" The choices are "African-American/Black," "Asian/Pacific Islander," "Latina/o," "Multi-racial," "White," and "Not sure."

With this information, the kids, starting in third grade, are split up into racial "affinity groups" and encouraged to have frank conversations about their identities and experiences, and then reunite for a curriculum designed to "foster interracial empathy by encouraging children to recognize differences without disrespect while teaching kids strategies, and the language, for navigating racial conflict."

Some parents hate the idea. One went as far as to send a letter to the other moms and dads, saying, "The discussion of race should certainly be a part of our children's education, but segregation of any kind is regressive, and separate is not equal as defined by the Supreme Court in 1954."

Yes, if you just look at what's happening on the surface, dividing up kids by race could bring back disturbing memories of legally enforced racial segregation in America.  We all agree that was bad, that it was based on the idea that black kids were inferior, and that we don't want to recreate it. But — even putting aside the fact that most US schools are  still already extremely segregated, which is a separate issue — that's not what's happening at Fieldston.

If you look just a little more closely at the program, you can see that kids are being split up temporarily (based on racial identity groups that they and their families have chosen, and with the option of "I'm not sure"), with the goal of coming back together and improving the school's racial climate. Here's how Miller explained it:

To all these ends, the third- , fourth- , and fifth-graders at Lower were to be divided once a week for five weeks into small groups according to their race. In 45-minute sessions, children would talk about what it was like to be a member of that race; they would discuss what they had in common with each other and how they were different, how other people perceived them, rightly or wrongly, based on appearance. Disinhibited by the company of racially different peers, the children would, the school hoped, feel free to raise questions and make observations that in mixed company might be considered impolite. The bigger goal was to initiate a cultural upheaval, one that would finally give students of color a sense of equal owner­ship in the community. Once the smaller race groups had broken up, the children would gather in a mixed-race setting to share, and discuss, the insights they had gained. Then — after all this — their regularly scheduled school day would continue: math, English, social studies, science, gym.

Miller's feature goes into a lot more detail about the goals of the program, reactions to it, and feedback from the kids involved, and it is definitely worth a read. It makes clear that the spirit of the program is the exact opposite of that in the pre–Brown v. Board of Education era of legally enforced school segregation that it reminds some parents of.

Kids will learn that ignoring race doesn't work

Sure, there are a lot of things that could go wrong with Fieldston's program. It might be clumsily implemented. It might not achieve its goals. It might even make kids more uncomfortable and self-conscious about race than they were before. We have no idea.

But what it will almost certainly do is strip kids of some of the naive beliefs about race that many Americans hold  — beliefs that serve to stifle complaints about inequalities and confuse conversations about racial justice by making any mention of race taboo.

Some well-intentioned proponents of what they'd call colorblindness believe that it's divisive  — or even racist — to mention the role race plays in American life. You might hear them saying things like "There's only one race! The human race!" or "Martin Luther King didn't want us to see color" to argue against civil rights work, affirmative action, race-specific initiatives, or other efforts to level the playing field.

This can be frustrating, because even though race is just a social and political construct — something humans created to divide ourselves up that doesn't have a basis in biology — racism based on this construct is real.

Another New York Magazine piece with a disturbing confession about how housing discrimination works is a timely example of how staying quiet about race and racism helps move things along. Here's what a developer and landlord told the publication earlier this month:

My saying is — again, I'm not racist — every black person has a price. The average price for a black person here in Bed-Stuy is $30,000 dollars. Up over there in East New York, it's $10,000 dollars. Everyone wants them to leave, not because we don't like them, it's just they're messing up — they bring everything down. Not all of them.

Does behavior like this cease if we stop talking about or working to remedy housing discrimination based on race? Clearly the answer is no.  But a lot of people don't understand that. What makes this new elementary school program exciting is that after being encouraged by people they trust to talk about race with the goal of making things better— there's a good chance the Fieldstone kids will.

They'll also learn that white people have a race, and a stake in conversations about race, too

One of the most exciting and forward-thinking things about the program is that Mariama Richards, the administrator behind it, made sure that kids who identify as white got their own mandatory group, too.

Richards agrees with her opponents on one point. What sets her program apart from similar interventions at other schools is that it's mandatory — as integral to the school day as gym. Everyone has to participate, even the white kids. When other schools have affinity groups, "they send the white kids to recess." At this point, Richards laughs. True integration — the thing she calls "equity," which she distinguishes from "equality" — doesn't happen if only half the people are talking about it. "What I am suggesting is that we all have skin in the game. I'm suggesting that we all need to be involved in this conversation."

The idea that racial equality and racial justice are something for everyone to get involved is one that's begun to take hold more broadly in recent years. So is the concept that white Americans are not just neutral, but that they actually have their own racial identity and accompanying experiences that deserve attention.

It's a tricky concept in a country that has long treated whiteness as both the norm and the ideal. For example, when documentarian Whitney Dowd started filming The Whiteness Project, a documentary that aimed to explore white identity, many of his interview subjects defaulted immediately to talking about blackness, instead of answering his questions.

It's possible that white Fieldston kids will have an easier time getting their heads around the fact that they, too, have a racial identity and a stake in racial equality, because they'll be so young when it's introduced.

Whatever happens with the program, all the kids who finish it will have at least some of the tools and comfort necessary to talk about race more effectively than their parents' generation. As touchy as the idea may be on its surface, and as squeamish as it may make some critics, that's a good thing.

Watch: The myth of race, debunked in 3 minutes

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