"It's a tragedy that today's schools are more segregated than mine was." Credit: Asra Nomani

February 12, 2022   8 mins

“Young boys and girls must grow up with world perspectives”. On 22nd April 1965, Martin Luther King Jr, speaking at a meeting of the Massachusetts legislature, lamented the “tragedy” of school segregation. With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the US had finally dismantled the Jim Crow laws — which King had joked about burying a decade earlier. The nation had come to King’s conclusion: “Segregation debilitates the segregator as well as the segregated”.

Almost six decades later, from Massachusetts to Colorado, Jim Crow is being resurrected in public schools — this time through euphemisms such as “affinity circles”, “affinity dialogue groups” and “community building groups”. Centennial Elementary School in Denver, for instance, advertised a “Families of Color Playground Night” earlier this winter, on a marquee board outside the school. Last week, the Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island, hosted a “meet and talk” with actress Karyn Parsons from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” — exclusively for its “Students of Color affinity group”. “If you are a student of color or multiracial, please join us!” the invitation from a seventh grade teacher read.

Bigotry, meanwhile, is back on the curriculum, thanks partly to a “Black Lives Matter at School” campaign, which last week recommended the book Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness to children as young as six in Evanston/Skokie School District 65, outside Chicago. “Whiteness is a bad deal”, the book argues; it amounts to signing a “contract” with the devil, who is illustrated with an indelicate pointy tail. Meanwhile, in an English lesson in Fairfax County, Virginia, students played a game of “Privilege Bingo”; even “Military Kid” has been shamed as having “privilege”.

It’s a tragedy that today’s schools are more segregated than mine was. I arrived in the United States in the summer of 1969, a four-year-old who knew not a word of English. Born in Bombay, I was part of the first generation of post-colonial Indians. My parents had survived the “white supremacy” of British rule, and witnessed Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent movement, which was an inspiration for the American civil rights movement.

The Civil Rights Act was passed the year before my birth, and I learned the alphabet at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Piscataway, New Jersey. My class photo from 1975 shows 25 diverse, smiling children lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in three rows — organised by height, not skin colour.

It makes me shudder to think what I would have felt if I had been told, then, to attend a “Families of Color Playground Night”. I happened to be a shy, “brown” girl raised in a Muslim immigrant family. I didn’t understand our classroom “Secret Santa” ritual or Valentine’s Day card exchanges. But I thrived in integration, not segregation.

Outside Centennial Elementary School in Denver, Colorado.

I learned to read English with the fictional detective Nancy Drew — a white girl — as my best friend. My teachers never told me to check her privilege. Moving to mostly-white Morgantown, West Virginia, I became pen pals with a white friend named Barbara I’d left behind in Piscataway; at my new school, I was blessed with exemplary teachers who happened to be white, without whose efforts I couldn’t have become a reporter for the Wall Street Journal at the age of 23.

The beauty of Martin Luther King Jr’s America was that everyone’s humanity, worth and potential was appreciated, not undermined. Fighting racism used to mean rejecting the notion of a hierarchy of human value. But today the morally twisted teachings of “anti-racism” preach that a new hierarchy of human value, with whiteness at the bottom, is acceptable — and even evolved and “progressive”. Education activists seem intent on pushing the race-shaming, bigotry and segregation of “anti-racism”.

Take the example of Wellesley Public Schools (WPS), 17 miles west of Boston. It is a system with about 4,800 students in seven elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. According to its most recent demographics, it is about 70.6% white, 13.6% Asian, 6.7% multiracial, 5% Hispanic and 4.1% Black. It offers a window into the problem — and the fix: parents standing up with moral courage.

In September 2019, Charmie Curry, a black former teacher, became Wellesley’s director of “diversity, equity and inclusion”. In her “entry plan”, Curry wrote that she would “hit the ground, learning”. But after George Floyd’s death, it wasn’t “learning” Curry pushed, but activism. In 2020, she released her “Entry Plan Report”, asking, “Who Am I in Anti-Racist Practice?”

At the start of the last school year, the school district’s superintendent David Lussier (who is white) put in place a new procedure, “Responding to Incidents of Bias or Discrimination”. Reports of “bias or discrimination” could, parents were told, lead to disciplinary action. In the age of cancel culture, it was easy to imagine this new policy being misused.

That year, WPS also released a five-year “Equity Strategic Plan”, promising to “amplify the voices” of certain students through “affinity spaces” for those with “shared identities”. On 25 January 2021, Curry emailed the middle school and high school principals about the first “affinity group” meeting on 10 February, for “our Black and Brown students and alumni”. She called it a “Listening Space”.

If such spaces had existed in my schooldays, they would have carved up my diverse yet tightly-knit class. Barbara and I would have been separated.

But Wellesley is far from unusual. During the 2020 summer of race riots, schools across the country clamoured to virtue signal their message of “social justice”. “Affinity groups” have sprung up everywhere.

At Pierce Middle School in Milton Public Schools, Massachusetts, the “Mosaic Club” meets for “students of color who identify as African American/Black, Latinx/Hispanic American, Native American, Middle Eastern American, Asian/Asian American, or Multiracial”. Across the country, at Pathfinder Elementary School in Seattle Public Schools, students meet in  “Lunchtime Community Building Groups for BIPOC & Multiracial Scholars, K-8”.

And in Indianapolis Public Schools, “affinity groups” have held meetings with this potpourri of names: “Ability Diverse”, “Black/African American”, “LatinX”, “Asian/Pacific Islander”, “Native American/Indigenous”, “Jewish”, “Muslim”, “LGBTQIA+”, “Women’s Network”, “Multi-Racial”, “Multi-Lingual” and “Confronting White Privilege”.

The school district noted that the members of “Confronting White Privilege” picked their own name — presumably knowing how they could do in the oppression Olympics if they didn’t frame their identity with a mea culpa.

In private schools, too, children are segregated. Allen-Stevenson School in New York City hosts meetings of “BOCAS: Boys of Color at Allen-Stevenson” and “WISE: White Identifying Students for Equity”.

The second “affinity” group meeting at Wellesley revealed the dangers of this new segregation. It took place on 18 March 2021, two days after a gunman killed eight people in three Atlanta spas, most of them Asian women. That day, Curry hosted a “Healing Space for Asian and Asian American students (grade 6-12), faculty/staff, and others in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community who wish to process recent events”.

A Wellesley Middle School teacher asked Curry if white students could participate. Her question answered, the teacher wrote to her students:

“This is a safe space for our Asian/Asian-American and Students of Color, *not* for students who identify only as White. If you identify as White, and need help to process recent events, please know I’m here for you as well as your guidance counselors. If you need to know more about why this is not for White students, please ask me!”

On the morning of the “healing space”, a white fitness and health teacher, asked Curry, “I wanted to check first, is it appropriate for me to go this healing space? I wasn’t sure?” (Her email signature read, ironically: “Be your own color and dance with joy”.) Later that morning, Curry replied and told her, “This time, we want to hold the space for the Asian and Asian American students and faculty/staff”. She wrote: “I hope this makes sense”.

It didn’t make sense. In fact, it is nonsense. And many parents saw through it. One mother wrote to the school in protest, arguing that:

“The email immediately pits one group of kids against another, ascribing guilt by mere identity to an entire population of children and adults who are equally scared by the events in Atlanta. I am concerned that in creating spaces for specific groups of students we are perpetuating the feelings of separation, isolation, and difference that we are trying to overcome”.

She pointed out, in measured tones: “Unfortunately, the healing space provided by the school further divides us at a time when we most need to come together and support one another”.

In response, the school doubled down. One Wellesley teacher circulated an “FAQ” document, written by a colleague. It advised that affinity-group sessions were a “safe space for members of the same identity or community” — where they can “share their experiences without risk of feeling like they will offend someone from another group, and without another group’s voices”.

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The morning after the “healing space”, a mother sent an email to the Wellesley Middle School principal, pointing out the hypocrisy at the heart of anti-racism. “We are all horrified by recent events”, she wrote. “I would hope this would be an opportunity to bring our student community together”.

She continued: “However, the reaction at WPS has been to discriminate against white students. I find this message a little confusing. Are we focusing on inclusion or exclusion? How does separating kids by race teach them anything?”

“We must do better for all of our students”.

The principal responded: “Affinity spaces are a known strategy in education that offer time for marginalized groups to process feelings and concern in productive ways. Our Office of DE&I [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] for WPS feels this space is important for those who want to attend”.

Then, in the early afternoon of 12 April 2021, the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion sent an email to school district staff, grousing about “hateful messages” it had received. “Sometimes, this work puts us in the crosshairs of those who find this mission to be a threat”.

Across the country, “diversity” officers and “equity” consultants are spinning a tale that segregation is virtuous. The historically progressive Southern Poverty Law Center, established in 1971 to fight racism, now provides schools with an online “Toolkit” to create “affinity groups”, through lesson plans it calls “Learning for Justice”. It argues that “affinity groups help marginalized students to be seen and heard”. It even shows schools how to “troubleshoot questions”, like the obvious: “Aren’t affinity groups exclusionary?”

But in WPS, the backlash could not be quashed. On 19 October 2021, Parents Defending Education filed a lawsuit against the school district on behalf of Parents A, B, C, D and E and their children, alleging violation of the 1965 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as the First Amendment for its “Bias or Discrimination” hotline, “weaponized by certain students to punish classmates who express unpopular views”.

This resulted in a partial victory. On 9 November 2021, Superintendent Lussier rescinded the original “Responding to Incidents of Bias of Discrimination”. But the school district wouldn’t back down on the “affinity groups”, segregated by race.

This week, however, in a significant victory for justice, lawyers for Parents Defending Education filed a settlement with the school district, which agreed to end its practice of race segregation. On Tuesday night, at a virtual meeting of the school board, Lussier read these four remarkable statements:

  • Under existing School Committee policies regarding Nondiscrimination and Student Organizations, membership in and attendance at all student clubs, listening sessions and affinity spaces is open to all.
  • The Constitution and federal laws prohibit schools from excluding students from affinity-based group sessions or any other school-sponsored activities on the basis of their race.
  • No students will be excluded from affinity-based group sessions or any school-sponsored activities on the basis of race.
  • When any affinity-based group session is held, all grade-eligible students are welcome to attend — regardless of their race — and notice of the event will be publicized so that all students are aware of the event.

Any announcement of an “affinity-based” group will also include this disclaimer: “This event is open to all students regardless of race, color, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation”.

It’s strange to think that in 2022, a declaration that disallows racial segregation is a victory not against “white supremacy” but against the bigotry of “anti-racism”. Like most people, I am appalled by actual racism — but I am also appalled by the efforts of doctrinaire progressives to impose their divisive worldview on children. As the case of WPS illustrates, a new Jim Crow is being promoted, often by stealth, by a small cadre of illiberal activists — woke school boards, “diversity” officers and compliant teachers. They often steamroll a community with their bad ideas, which they try to conceal with enthusiasm: “If you need to know more about why this is not for White students, please ask me!”

Their doctrine is abundantly clear. Whites — and only whites — are the oppressors and must acknowledge their “privilege”, and admit their shame. Blacks and “people of color”, meanwhile, are portrayed as perpetual victims, people unable hold their own against white people, hence the need for “affinity spaces”.

Could anything be more racist? This philosophy is blatantly cultish, peddling the idea of original sin, but without the forgiveness. No wonder clear-thinking parents of all races rebel against such transparent nonsense. Teaching children that there is a hierarchy of human value is as illiberal — and regressive — today as it was when King called it a “tragedy”.

Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and a senior fellow in the practice of journalism at Independent Women’s Network.