The story of Buffalo Public Schools is a sad and familiar one: a dying industrial town, underperforming inner-city schools, and high rates of failure among racial minorities. Instead of focusing on improving academic achievement, however, Buffalo school administrators have adopted fashionable new pedagogies: “culturally responsive teaching,” “pedagogy of liberation,” “equity-based instructional strategies,” and an “emancipatory curriculum.”
Buffalo Public Schools diversity czar Fatima Morell, architect of the district’s pedagogical revolution, summarizes these dense phrases in a single word: “woke.” Last year, in her role as director of the Office of Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Initiatives, Morell created a new curriculum promoting Black Lives Matter in the classroom and an “antiracist” training program for teachers. According to one veteran teacher, who requested anonymity, Morell’s training programs have pushed “radical politics” and, in practice, become a series of “scoldings, guilt-trips, and demands to demean oneself simply to make another feel ‘empowered.’” Teachers must submit to these “manipulative mind games” and express support for Morell’s left-wing politics, or risk professional retaliation.
During one all-hands training session, the details of which I have obtained through a whistleblower, Morell claimed that America “is built on racism” and that all Americans are guilty of “implicit racial bias.” She argued that “America’s sickness” leads some whites to believe that blacks are “not human,” which makes it “easier to shoot someone in the back seven times if you feel like it.” Morell, who earned her Ed.D. from the University of Buffalo, said that the solution is to “be woke, which is basically critically conscious,” citing a pedagogical concept developed by Marxist theoretician Paolo Freire holding that students must be trained to identify and eventually overthrow their oppressors. After Morell’s presentation, one teacher reaffirmed this political imperative, declaring that students must become “activists for antiracism” and public school teachers should begin “preparing them at four years old.”
Last year, as Fox News has reported, Morell designed a curriculum requiring schools to teach the “Black Lives Matter principles,” including “dismantling cisgender privilege,” creating “queer-affirming network[s] where heteronormative thinking no longer exists,” and accelerating “the disruption of Western nuclear family dynamics.” The lesson plans, which I have obtained from the district, are even more divisive. In kindergarten, teachers ask students to compare their skin color with an arrangement of crayons and watch a video that dramatizes dead black children speaking to them from beyond the grave about the dangers of being killed by “racist police and state-sanctioned violence.” By fifth grade, students are taught that America has created a “school-to-grave pipeline” for black children and that, as adults, “one million Black people are locked in cages.”
In middle and high school, schools must teach about “systemic racism,” instructing students that American society was designed for the “impoverishment of people of color and enrichment of white people,” that the United States “created a social system that had racist economic inequality built into its foundation,” and that “the [current] wealth gap is the result of black slavery, which created unjust wealth for white people,” who are “unfairly rich.” Students then learn that “all white people play a part in perpetuating systemic racism” and that “often unconsciously, white elites work to perpetuate racism through politics, law, education, and the media.”
In later grades, the curriculum proposes a solution to these problems. In a lesson on “confronting whiteness in our classrooms,” teachers ask white students to atone for their “white privilege” and to “use their voices” for the cause of antiracism. In another lesson, students learn the putative difference between white European and traditional African systems of justice. According to the lesson plans, whites have created a “retributive,” “merit-based” justice system, which relies on harsh punishment and creates inequalities; traditional Africans, on the other hand, relied on a “restorative,” “needs-based” justice system focused on healing, giving to each according to his need, and prioritizing “collective value” over individual rights.
The new training sessions and curriculum are unlikely to lead to better student academic outcomes. Buffalo Public Schools have been an abject failure: by fifth grade, only 18 percent of students are proficient in math and 20 percent of students are proficient in English; one-third of all students fail to graduate from high school. The numbers are even worse for African-Americans, who constitute 45 percent of the student population. And according to the veteran teacher, despite the new “antiracism” programming, the district’s poor response to the pandemic has accelerated racial inequalities, with virtual attendance rates as low as 30 percent in some classrooms.
Antiracist ideologues claim to have the solution to America’s deepest problems, but in institutions such as Buffalo Public Schools, they have failed to ensure that students reach minimum levels of literacy. If they cannot teach the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, how can we trust them to reshape society?
Christopher F. Rufo is a contributing editor of City Journal and director of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth & Poverty. Sign up for his weekly newsletter and watch his new documentary, America Lost, which tells the story of three “forgotten American cities.” This article is part of an ongoing series on critical race theory in American schools and reproduced, with permission, from City Journal.