On November 23 and 24, seventh and eighth graders at the Lower Manhattan Community Middle School—a public middle school in the borough's highly coveted District 2—are scheduled to begin their mornings by organizing themselves into racial identity "affinity groups." This intentional act of segregation is being conducted in the name of undoing "the legacy of racism and oppression in this country."
The New York Post reports that in an email to parents, Principal Shanna Douglas outlined five possible affinity groups the students could choose to join: Asians (who are 44 percent of the student population), whites (29 percent), a combined caucus of Hispanics and African Americans (15 percent and 8 percent, respectively), those identifying as multiracial, and people who wish to opt out of such classifications altogether.
"This optional program was developed in close coordination with both the School Leadership Team, PTA and families," New York City Department of Education (DOE) spokesperson Nathaniel Styer told the Post. "[It is] abundantly clear to both students and parents that anyone can opt-out of this two day celebration if they desire."
"Celebration" seems an odd word choice to describe a racial sorting exercise for pre-pubescents. "How disgusting to divide 11 year old friends & classmates by race in 2021 NYC," tweeted former District 2 Community Education Council member Maud Maron, a noted critic both of pandemic school closures and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. "Segregating kids is wrong. (Even if some expensive DEI consultant, who has run out of real racism to battle, tells you to do it.)"
New York City's education system is no stranger to race-based affinity groups. In June 2020, the DOE's Early Childhood Division held an "Anti-racist Community Meeting" at which 700 employees were given the option to join breakout sessions in one of the following groups: "blacks or African-American, Latinx, Middle Eastern and North African, multiracial or mixed, Native and Indigenous, Asian Pacific Islander American, White Allies."
That same month, the principal of a public elementary school in Queens instructed teachers that they needed to become "interrupters" of racism, then sorted staff into three groups: "Latino/a/x/Hispanic; White/Asian/Other; and Black."
My daughter's middle school has voluntary affinity groups for students and teachers alike, as does the district as a whole among staff. And as the whistleblowing Manhattan teacher Paul Rossi can tell you, private schools in this neck of the woods are not necessarily a respite from the racial-sorting hat.
How do advocates handle the cognitive dissonance of segregating in the name of anti-segregation? Like this, care of an email from a friend of mine's private school principal:
"Affinity groups allow people with a shared identity to meet with one another in an emotionally safe and brave space. Unlike legal racial segregation which was a tool to maintain white power and control, racial affinity groups are anti-racist spaces in which participants can build their skills and capacity to unlearn and dismantle racism." (Emphases in original.)
If parents of private school kids truly want to voluntarily organize themselves based on melanin or nationality background, I suppose that's up to them (and I will politely decline). But forcing public school teachers—and, Lord help us, students—to affirmatively and publicly choose their own racial silo strikes me as awful, possibly illegal, and worth striking down in every instance I've heard about so far.
The initial practical problem, whose obviousness should nevertheless give affinity-promoters pause, is of classification. Why should African American/Hispanic be a single category? Or white/Asian? What do we do with the ever-elusive "white Hispanic" category? Don't naturalized immigrants have far more in common with one another than they do with fifth-generation natives who may happen to share their skin pigment?
These definitional sorting questions point to a truism routinely treated by progressives and educational bureaucrats as false: Racial/ethnic/national identity is inherently fluid, not fixed. Immigrant Greeks and Italians and Jews in the late 1800s and early 1900s would have been shocked to hear that they were "white," yet that's what we call them now. Cubans ain't Mexicans, literal Caucasians (as in, from the Caucasus Mountains) are routinely categorized as Asian, and Hispanics are seceding from their own identity. In a country founded not on nationality but ideas, this fluidity should be considered a feature, not a bug.
And yet we are sending the exact opposite message, in some cases to 11-year-olds. By making them choose their own group (even if one such group is the opt-outs), we are doing two bad things: making them feel as if their narrowly and often inaccurately defined subcategory is stamped upon them like a scarlet letter, and also that it is an important or even defining aspect of their personality.
What makes this effort all the more strange is that the exact opposite message is being sent, from and to the exact same people, when it comes to gender and sexuality. On my daughter's first day of middle school math class, kids were invited to share their preferred pronouns; soon they were informed that it was National Coming Out Week, in case they needed some encouragement. Making a 10-year-old conscious about multiversal choices many of them are not remotely close to understanding, even while drilling into them the odious concept of racial determinism, is an off-putting way to go about the business of education.
This is the part of the story when anti-anti–critical race theory commentators sneer about Nice White Parents who just don't want their precious Kyles and Dylans to hear about the real and ugly history of U.S. racism. But here is where that contemptuous mix of mockery and denial crash on the rocks of reality.
Yes, affinity groups are often sold as ways to protect the weary ears of minority students, parents, and teachers—it can be "exploitative and emotionally taxing" for people of color "to educate privileged persons about their unearned privilege and the nature of marginalized person's oppression," P.S. 307 Principal Cecilia Jackson explained to her staff in June 2020—but even that quote demonstrates a deliberate attempt to put people classified as white on the defensive about their immutable characteristics.
"It's not enough to be, 'not racist.' That's just complicit," Matt Gonzales, an affinity group advocate and member of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's School Diversity Advisory Group, told the New York Post last year. "I think the idea around white allyship is that we want white people to be actively anti-racist."
As leading anti-racist consultant (including to public schools) Robin DiAngelo puts it in her recent book Nice White Racism, "Many white people do not have the skills to engage in cross-racial work without causing further harm….I have been leading white affinity groups for years, and there is a consistent pattern that emerges as soon as it is announced that we will be separating by racial group for a brief period of time (typically sixty to ninety minutes): white people panic."
I do not doubt that Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi (who my daughter has been assigned to read), the leadership of many New York schools, and perhaps the entire campus of Columbia University's Teachers College think that such formulations are just commonsensical observations in describing our fallen world and suggesting methods to improve it. I am also confident that a sizable number of parents, including in progressive New York, find such talk wrongheaded, insulting, and borderline deranged.
Eleven-year-olds should not be told in first period to join an ethnic tribe. Their teachers should not be directed to act along those essentialist lines, either. A public school system that mainstreams segregationist exercises in the name of combating racism will discover, sooner rather than later, that it's losing customers for a free product.