New York City’s School Diversity And Inclusion Efforts Are Fascinatingly Weird

Objectively speaking, objectivity is a white supremacist concept

A couple days ago the New York Post ran an interesting article about the city Department of Education’s diversity and inclusion training efforts. “City Department of Education brass are targeting a ‘white-supremacy culture’ among school administrators — by disparaging ideas like ‘individualism,’ ‘objectivity’ and ‘worship of the written word,’” goes the top of the story, which is by Susan Edelman, Selim Algar and Aaron Feis.

The story includes the above image — full size here — which connects the 14 “White Supremacy Culture” characteristics being taught to administrators with excerpts from a description of the source material, Dismantling Racism: A Resource Book for Social Change Groups. According to the Post’s reporting, “an insider said [the above slide] was part of mandatory training sponsored and funded by the department’s Office of Equity and Access and recently administered to principals, central office supervisors and superintendent teams.”

One possible reason the reporters included quotes from a description of Dismantling Racismthis one, to be precise — rather than the workbook itself is that the workbook doesn’t appear to exist anywhere online. If you google the quotes in the above image, or the title of the workbook, you will find that they’re included in all sorts of trainings provided by all sorts of organizations. Here, for example, is a document entitled “White Supremacy Culture” on a Vermont state government website. But the workbook itself is, weirdly, nowhere to be found. It kinda sorta has a Google Books entry, but one with missing information and links to booksellers selling titles that definitely aren’t Dismantling Racism: A Resource Book for Social Change Groups. (To be fair, I didn’t spend that long looking, but in my experience if a given text is available to view or purchase online, googling its title will always pull it up on the first page of results.)

Anyway, setting that aside, this article touched on a lot of stuff I’ve been thinking about lately with regard to how progressives talk about and teach race and diversity and inclusion. Some scattered observations:

A lot of universal or near-universal aspects of human nature are getting swept under the ‘whiteness’ or “white supremacy” rubric. For example, check out the ‘paternalism’ and “right to comfort” items. Paternalism seems to be referring to the tendency of powerful people to ignore less powerful people. But this, of course, is something humans do everywhere. Could this tendency help uphold a white supremacist culture? Certainly. But it isn’t really any more inherent to a given white supremacist culture than to a given non-white-supremacist culture.

As for the “right to comfort,” this is a useful example of how this discourse is enamored with motte and bailey games: make a radical-sounding claim, X, and then, when pressed, retreat to a much more reasonable one, Y. Here the training makes it sound like “right to comfort” is a white supremacist idea. This, of course, will raise hackles — don’t most people, regardless of culture, believe that individuals have at least some sort of “right to comfort”? But if you look closer, the actual complaint has to do with double standards exhibited on the part of powerful people. Which, again, is more about human nature than “white supremacist” culture.

I don’t think we have any idea what effects these programs have. One obvious question is whether this sort of educational programming has a positive effect on those who are on the receiving end of it. There are reasons to be skeptical. For example, the program under the spotlight here has an implicit bias component, and a large meta-analysis of implicit-bias interventions shows they don’t really do anything, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the problems with the implicit association test itself. Privilege education is also a big part of what’s going on in these DoE trainings, and another recent paper shows that such trainings might make white socially liberal people feel less sympathetic toward poor whites, the idea being that the consumers of these trainings might adopt a stance like “Well, you’re privileged, so why couldn’t you succeed?”

Setting aside the implicit bias and privilege stuff, I’m not aware of evaluations that look more directly at the sort of arguments and discourse reflected in the above slide. My guess is this sort of training hasn’t been evaluated at all. There’s at least a chance it actively causes (a little bit of) harm because of the provocative and divisive nature of some of the claims being made, though it’s hard to evaluate that possibility without knowing more about the rest of the training.

Either way, there appears to be a serious lack of empirical support for this sort of curriculum. And yet organizations spend significant sums on it, because diversity and inclusion are difficult goals and people will grasp for whatever ‘solutions’ are out there.

It feels like part of the point of this training is to smuggle radical political claims into organizations under the cover of common-sense, widely shared goals. As a general rule, most Americans would not want members of minority groups to feel unwelcome in an organization, or for that organization to actively or implicitly discriminate against them. Fighting against discrimination and improving the climate within organizations for everyone are worthy goals.

But if you asked a big, diverse group of people what they thought of the claim that believing in objectivity or being results-oriented are “white supremacist” characteristics, you’d get groans. Some people would be offended — and understandably! This is actually a really radical political claim, as are others on the slide. But they’re treated not as radical claims that should be evaluated and discussed and debated; rather, they’re treated as both true and vital to combating racism.

Also: Objectivity can be a fraught concept, of course, but virtually everyone believes in a version of it, including the authors of these sorts of diversity trainings. At the risk of devolving into stoned-freshmen-at-2-am levels of philosophizing, I think something disingenuous is going on here. If they don’t think the institutions they’re fixing are objectively racist, where do they draw their urgency and authority from? Do they view someone’s belief that the New York Department of Education doesn’t have a racism problem as being just as valid as someone else’s belief that it does? If not, how do they establish that the prior position is incorrect and the latter one is correct?

This way of thinking and training has a brilliant built-in trick to allow it to perpetuate itself. Here’s my favorite part of the Post’s writeup:

“It requires discomfort,” said Matt Gonzales, who serves as an outside adviser on the DOE’s school diversity task force and is a director of New York Appleseed, an advocacy group for school integration.

“Having to talk about someone’s own whiteness is a requirement for them to become liberated.”

Several recent attendees of the DOE’s overarching implicit-bias training sessions — mandatory for all, including teachers — have bristled at the program’s emphasis on the inherent insidiousness of “white” culture.

White employees who object when accused of harboring deep-seated bias are branded “fragile” and “defensive,” one insider who received the training has said.

But [Schools Chancellor Richard] Carranza said on Monday that such skeptics often don’t realize their own biases until they are forced to confront them and that they are likely the ones who need the training the most.

“It’s good work. It’s hard work,” Carranza said. “And I would hope that anybody that feels that somehow that process is not beneficial to them, I would very respectfully say they are the ones that need to reflect even harder upon what they believe.”

Remember: There is no such thing as objective truth — that’s a white supremacist idea. But if you deny or respond angrily to that claim, it means that you need to reflect harder, until you agree with its objective truth, at which point you will be liberated. The only way to be liberated, objectively speaking, is to accept that your belief in objective reality stems from white supremacy. Luckily, these training programs can cure you.

You gotta tip your cap, at least a little.

Questions? Comments? Accusations of fragility, white or otherwise? I’m at, or on Twitter at @jessesingal.