The Stable Debate on Multicultural Education
by Shannon Joyce Prince
Multicultural studies is deemed dangerous because “revealing the truth about historical atrocities tears apart America’s mythology and delegitimizes much of the American power structure.” America's actual history teaches that, “In order to give blacks the same positive social outcomes as whites, blacks must be educated differently than whites.”
The Stable Debate on Multicultural Education
by Shannon Joyce Prince
“Multicultural education is linked to racial justice and power.”
In the Mis-Education of the Negro Carter G. Woodson describes how an interviewer once asked him, "Why do you emphasize the special study of the Negro?"i The interviewer added, "Why is it necessary to give the race special attention in the press, on the rostrum, or in the schoolroom? This idea of projecting the Negro into the foreground does the race much harm by singing continually of his woes and problems and thus alienating the public which desires to give its attention to other things."ii Woodson doesn’t reveal what he told the interviewer. Instead, he directs his response at the reader saying, “The Negro has been assigned to the lowest drudgery as the sphere in which the masses must toil to make a living; and socially and politically the race has been generally proscribed. Inasmuch as the traducers of the race have ‘settled’ the matter in this fashion, they naturally oppose any effort to change this status… A Negro with sufficient thought to construct a [multicultural] program of his own is undesirable, and the educational systems of this country generally refuse to work through such Negroes in promoting their cause.”iii
The interviewer’s words contain several common and negative assumptions about multicultural education: the idea that multicultural education is “special study,” an accessory to core knowledge; the idea that “the Negro” or other minorities exist naturally in the background while multicultural education artificially “projects” them “into the foreground”; the idea that multicultural education is a litany of whines; and the idea that multicultural education serves to “alienate” minorities from “the [white] public” which is indifferent, if not hostile, to multicultural concerns.
Yet for Woodson, multicultural education is linked to racial justice and power. It is a cure for blacks’ exclusion from the curriculum that results in them receiving an incomplete, distorted, and substandard education, condemning them to the meanest strata of the spheres of employment, socio-economic standing, and political status. Multicultural education has the power to “unsettle” the caste system. For this reason, multicultural education faces opposition from those who would see non-whites remain on the bottom rungs of society.
“Multicultural education has the power to “unsettle” the caste system.”
W. E. B. Du Bois also recognized the need for blacks to have what Woodson called “programs” of their own. In his 1935 article “Does the Negro Need Special Schools?” Du Bois states that special schools for blacks “are needed just so far as they are necessary for the proper education of the Negro race. The proper education of any people includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil; knowledge on the part of the teacher, not simply of the individual taught, but of his surroundings and background, and the history of his class and group; such contact between pupils, and between teacher and pupil, on the basis of perfect social equality, as will increase this sympathy and knowledge...” iv It is clear that, like Woodson, Du Bois wants black students to learn their own history and culture, that is, to have a multicultural curriculum. As “proper education of the Negro race” wasn’t a priority in mainstream schools, Du Bois uses his article to explicitly call for ethnocentric schools.
Woodson and Du Bois were writing in the 1930s, yet the arguments for and against multicultural education articulated during their day remain part of contemporary discourse. In May 2010, the Caucasian American governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, banned ethnic studies pubic school classes in her state.v Under the ban, multicultural literature, anthropology, and history courses are illegal.vi The ban, Bill HB2281, which targets Latino Studies classes, allows for the defunding of schools that offer classes that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, [or] are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”vii Brewer’s ban had the support of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne who said that ethnic studies classes were “dividing kids up by race” and teaching them that “the entire governmental system is solely the product of the white power structure.”viii
Both the language of HB2281 and Horne echo the rhetoric of Woodson’s interviewer. Like Woodson’s interviewer, the bill frames ethnic studies classes as a form of “special study” by describing them as being “designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group.” The peripheral nature of ethnic studies classes is taken for granted by the bill’s supporters. After all, implicit in the bill is the idea that ethnic studies classes are designed primarily for non-white students while classes that focus on whites are for everyone and are mainstream.
“Multicultural education faces opposition from those who would see non-whites remain on the bottom rungs of society.”
The sentiment of the interviewer’s mocking accusation that multicultural coursework involves “singing continually of… woes” is contained in Horne’s statement that ethnic studies classes teach that “the entire governmental system is solely the product of the white power structure.” Whether or not there is a purpose to remembering wrongs or whether or not the governmental system is indeed the product of white supremacy remain unquestioned. One wonders if Woodson’s interviewer would come to condemn the noble commitment of (white) Jews to never forget the Shoah (Holocaust) or if Horne believes that Native American genocide, African American slavery, and the institutionalized apartheid that existed until only a few decades ago are merely myths.
The interviewer, the bill, and Horne all suggest that ethnic studies foment divisiveness. The interviewer worries about the public being alienated from blacks; the bill assumes ethnic studies classes “promote resentment of a particular race or class of people”; while Horne says the classes “divide kids up by race.” Yet the concerns about divisiveness the interviewer, the bill, and Horne all share are superficial. After all, Woodson’s counterpoint to the interviewer focuses on how the lack of multicultural education is divisive and results in blacks being separated from and relegated to a lower sphere than whites. And neither the bill nor Horne address the fact that Latinos are already divided from whites in Arizona in terms of socio-economic status, education, and health. For example, whites make up 14% of Arizona’s poor while Latinos make up 38%.ix This is despite the fact that whites are 57.3% of Arizona’s population while Latinos are 30.8%.x Latino students in Arizona schools are disproportionately likely to be placed in special education.xi Furthermore, Arizona Latinos have worse than average teen pregnancy rates and suffer from premature mortality rates.xii
“One wonders if Horne believes that Native American genocide, African American slavery, and the institutionalized apartheid that existed until only a few decades ago are merely myths.”
Interestingly enough, the bill, Horne, and Woodson all recognize the power of multicultural education, though the bill and Horne fear such a power while Woodson welcomes it. The bill claims to attack classes that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government” while Horne says the classes in question teach that “the entire governmental system is solely the product of the white power structure.” What the bill and Horne realize is that revealing the truth about historical atrocities tears apart America’s mythology and delegitimizes much of the American power structure. While the bill uses hyperbolic language to invoke the idea of a governmental overthrow, what supporters of HB2281 realize is that an exposed America is an America that may very well fall apart or at least undergo a radical metamorphosis. As Woodson approvingly notes, multicultural education has the power to overthrow the economic, social, and political systems and rebuild them in a more racially just manner. As he observes, it is for that reason that multicultural education faces hostility.
The issues surrounding multicultural education that Woodson and Du Bois address were also present in the debate around what would become the (now closed) Khalil Gibran International Academy, New York's first publicly-funded Arabic language school, and what would become the Afrocentric Alternative School, Toronto’s first Afrocentric public school. In 2007, to much controversy, the Khalil Gibran International Academy opened its doors.xiii To supporters of the school, it was a place where “[Arabic students could] reconnect with their families' culture and homeland; [and] others, with no Arab or Muslim background [could attend], because they believe learning the language will give them a valuable skill.”xiv School official Garth Harries saw teaching Arabic as a way to excite students, and the school’s executive director Chung-Wha Hong saw the school as being a place where tolerance is taught.xv Some parents thought sending their children to the school would benefit their children financially, citing the ability to translate Arabic as a lucrative skill.xvi However, opponents claimed that a school that had an Arabic focus was going to be a school that covertly developed terrorists.xvii
Once again, the discourse for and against multicultural schooling coalesced around arguments articulated as early as the 1930s. Multicultural education supporters, in the vein Woodson and Du Bois, wanted non-white children to be able to learn their own background, and parents from both within and outside the culture believed that learning Arabic would offer their children socio-economic benefits, saving them from what Woodson called “the lowest drudgery.” Yet opponents of the school make use of and extend the discourse of alienation employed by Woodson’s interviewer. Not only will Khalil Gibran International Academy students be divided from “mainstream” America, opponents charge, they will be actively bent on destroying it.
“Multicultural education has the power to overthrow the economic, social, and political systems and rebuild them in a more racially just manner.”
In the year following the opening of Khalil Gibran International Academy, on January 29, 2008, the Toronto District School Board approved the creation of the Afrocentric Alternative School.xviii Supporters of the school noted that in Toronto 40% of black public school students don’t graduate as opposed to the city’s average of 25%, citing the statistic as evidence of the failure of “eurocentric [sic]” schooling for black students.xix Those who opposed the school called it a form of segregation.xx However, Angela Wilson, one of the women who led the fight for the school, countered such claims saying, “I believe one who opens school doors, [sic] closes prison doors. It's not about segregation. It's about self-determination.”xxi
Those who used the statistic about Toronto’s racial disparity in dropout rates being a function of black students not being served by a Eurocentric curriculum echo Woodson’s concern for black students, denied multicultural study, being socially “proscribed.” Like Du Bois, black Toronto parents sought “special schools” for their children where their “background” and “history” would be taught.
Those who condemned the school as a segregationist project reproduced the claim of Woodson’s interviewer that multicultural education serves to divide blacks and the non-black public. Wilson offered the same counterpoint to this claim that Woodson did. By alluding to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, Wilson suggested that by educating blacks the same as whites, blacks are failed and end up separated from whites by virtue of their disenfranchisement. In order to give blacks the same positive social outcomes as whites, blacks must be educated differently than whites.
While arguments for and against multicultural education sometimes seem stuck in the 1930s, recent scholarship on the subject offers new insights. Of particular importance is the observation made by those with a commitment to anti-racism that multicultural education does not always and automatically promote racial justice. This concern is articulated by Anna Kirova in her 2008 article “Critical and Emerging Discourses in Multicultural Education Literature: A Review.” According to Kirova, multicultural education fails when students are offered “curricula essentializing knowledge about Other cultures and celebrating them” without being “led to a critical examination of the dominant White, middle-class, Eurocentric culture.”xxii To Kirova, simply focusing on what Woodson’s interviewer called “the special study” of non-whites is not enough. In addition to including analyses of the dominant culture, Kirova insists that effective multicultural education depends on schools having diverse faculties and on educational ministries fostering partnerships with non-white communities.xxiii I offer Kirova’s ideas at the end of this paper for two reasons. First, they show that while the discourse on multicultural education is remarkably consistent across time, there are new insights to be found. Second, they offer a non-racist critique of multicultural education. While Kirova is certainly not against multicultural education, she argues that the fight cannot simply be for any kind of multicultural education but rather for certain high quality forms.
“Black Toronto parents sought “special schools” for their children where their “background” and “history” would be taught.”
While, as Kirova highlights, those with a commitment to racial justice should not assume that any form of multicultural education will automatically bring about positive change, the remarkably similar arguments of Woodson and Du Bois and the supporters of Khalil Gibran International Academy and the Afrocentric Alternative School make a strong case that quality multicultural education, across different eras, has been and is necessary for many non-white students to receive good schooling and become enfranchised. Much of the opposition to multicultural curricula and ethnocentric schools, whether articulated by Woodson’s interviewer, supporters of HB2281, or opponents of Khalil Gibran International Academy or the Afrocentric Alternative School is based on myopia and fear of non-white empowerment – myopia, as claims that multicultural education is alienating usually fail to consider how the disenfranchisement caused by inferior Eurocentric schooling leads to racial divisions, and fear as the idea of non-whites learning their own histories and cultures is consistently interpreted as a threat to national security and the contemporary social order. While not all multicultural education is equal, it is clear that quality multicultural education has a power that both its supporters and opponents have recognized, celebrated, and condemned in extraordinarily alike ways since the 1930s.
Shannon Joyce Prince is a Reynolds Scholar and incoming JD/PhD student at Harvard Law School and Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She can be contacted at Shannon.J.Prince.09(at)Alum.Dartmouth.ORG.
iCarter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (Blacksburg: Wilder Publications, 2008), 87.
ivWilliam Edward Burghardt Du Bois, "Does the Negro Need Special Schools," Journal of Negro Education 4, no. 3 (1935): 328, http://solomon.bltc.alexanderstreet.com/.
vImani M. Cheers, Arizona Bans Ethnic Studies for K-12th Students, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/features/us/july-dec10/arizona_12-24.html.
ixKaiser Family Foundation, Arizona: Poverty Rate by Race/Ethnicity, states (2008-2009), U.S. (2009), http://www.statehealthfacts.org/profileind.jsp?rgn=4&cat=1&ind=14.
xU.S. Census Bureau, State and County QuickFacts, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/04000.html.
xiGoldwater Institute, Disparity in Disability Rates: Research Identifies 40 Districts With Unusually High Hispanic Disability Rates, http://www.goldwaterinstitute.org/article/1196.
xiiArizona Department of Health Services, Differences
In the Health Status Among Race/Ethnic Groups
Arizona, 2009 (Arizona: Arizona Department of Health Services, 2009), 7.
xiiiKim Ghattas, New York Arabic School Sparks Row, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6980966.stm.
xviiiNatalie Alcoba, "Toronto Trustees Vote in Favor of Afrocentric School," National Post, January 20, 2008, http://www.nationalpost.com/related/topics/Toronto+trustees+vote+favour+Afrocentric+school/272389/story.html.
xxiiAnna Kirova, " Critical and Emerging Discourses in Multicultural Education Literature:
A Review," Canadian Ethnic Studies 40, no. 1 (2008): 118, http://muse.jhu.edu/.