KIPP Retires Its National Slogan, ‘Work hard. Be Nice.’

by Christopher Paslay

The founders of KIPP have been successfully reeducated by modern anti-racists.  

On July 1st, KIPP charter school founder Richard Barth announced KIPP was retiring its national slogan, ‘Work hard. Be nice.’  According to Barth, the slogan “ignores the significant effort required to dismantle systemic racism, places value on being compliant and submissive, supports the illusion of meritocracy, and does not align with our vision of students being free to create the future they want.”

Barth also stated that KIPP is committed to “eliminating the presence of police in our schools wherever possible,” and demands “a commitment to anti-racism as a condition of employment because everyone who works at KIPP must be committed to anti-racism in their beliefs and in their behavior.”

It appears we need to do some unpacking here, to use a phrase from the modern anti-racist movement.  But before we do so, let’s give praise where praise is due: KIPP charter schools have had legitimate success over the past decade, especially when it comes to preparing mostly low-income students for college and beyond.  As of the fall of 2017, KIPP’s national college completion rate was 36 percent for all alumni who completed eighth grade at a KIPP school, and 45 percent for those who graduated from a KIPP high school; low-income alumni of KIPP schools are graduating college at nearly 4 times the national average compared with the 11 percent rate expected for that student population.

Although there are many variables when it comes to academic success — educational achievement is indeed a complex equation — hard work is no doubt one of those variables.  KIPP founders knew this from the charter’s inception, which is why KIPP students spend 50 percent more time learning than students in traditional schools, with a school day that typically goes from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., along with a mandatory three-week summer-school program.

Jay Mathews, an education columnist for The Washington Post, agrees.  In January of 2019, he wrote:

I consider KIPP one of the best charter networks in the country, mostly because of its success attracting and developing great educators who help impoverished students learn. The teachers I have interviewed at 42 of KIPP’s 224 schools have supported the network’s long hours, high standards, intricate field trips, focus on character development, and creative use of music and games.

So why is Barth retiring KIPP’s mantra, “Work hard. Be Nice.”?  He is doing so in part as a response to the June 18thletter written by KIPP co-founder Dave Levin, who has decided to embrace the newly emerging cult of modern anti-racism, a highly political and extremely polarizing approach to social justice. Levin wrote to KIPP alumni:

[A]s a white man, I did not do enough as we built KIPP to fully understand how systemic and inter-personal racism, and specifically anti-Blackness, impacts you and your families – both inside of KIPP and beyond. It is clear that I, and others, came up short in fully acknowledging the ways in which the school and organizational culture we built and how some of our practices perpetuated white supremacy and anti-Blackness. In recent years, I have come face to face with the understanding that white supremacy doesn’t just mean the public and hateful displays of racism; it applies to all aspects of the world that are set up for the benefit of and perpetuation of power for white people at the expense of Black, Latinx, and other People of Color.

Incredibly Levin, a man who’s transformed the lives of thousands of low-income students of color through selfless dedication, sacrifice, and love, now believes he actually fostered a charter school system that “perpetuated white supremacy and anti-Blackness,” and that the world is set up “for the benefit of and perpetuation of power for white people at the expense of Black, Latinx, and other People of Color.”

In other words, his worldview is now zero-sum: in order for people of color to achieve, “white privilege” and “white supremacy culture ” must be dismantled; the advancement of one group requires the disruption of another.

Hence, the retiring of KIPP’s famously awesome slogan.  According to the cult of modern anti-racism (not to be confused with traditional multiculturalism, which is proactive instead of reactive, and is celebratory rather than accusatory), “hard work” is a racist term, because it implies that there is no systemic oppression for people of color.  Suggesting a student of color could simply “pull himself up by his bootstraps” discredits the impact of a white supremacy culture, and forwards the “illusion of meritocracy.”

In the world of anti-racism, there is no such thing as real merit.  Specifically, what whites have achieved is illegitimate, because it was gained through the oppression of blacks.  Likewise, the challenges that people of color face are the direct result of racist whites and anti-blackness.  And in order to disrupt this oppressive system, anti-racists must confront systemic white supremacy head-on — which is why “being nice” is no longer tolerated.  (See Angelina E. Castagno’s book The Price of Nice: How Good Intentions Maintain Educational Inequity, or her book Educated in Whiteness: Good Intentions and Diversity in Schools.)

Unlike traditional multiculturalism, anti-racism is rooted in confrontation, provocation, and agitation, and aims to shock implicitly racist whites out of their “privileged bubble.”  Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, is a textbook course in triggering whites through such agitation, only when whites feel bullied or stereotyped — or dare to offer an alternative point of view — DiAngelo informs them they suffer from White Fragility, and that they basically need to “get over it.”  

So the slogan “Work Hard. Be Nice,” has now been ripped down like the statue of Ulysses S. Grant in San Francisco.  According to the tweet by Max Eden, an education policy expert and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute:

“Don’t work hard, don’t be nice” is truly the message that woke whites are trying to send to at-risk POC youth.  This move by KIPP is an instantiation of systemic racism that will only help reify white privilege.

It’s quite disheartening that the co-founders of KIPP have been completely reeducated by the cult of modern anti-racism.  Their intensions are good, granted, but to use another phrase from the anti-racist movement: intention don’t matter.  Only impact does.

And what will the impact be when hard work and niceness are recast as “racist”?  When a white KIPP student — or a student from any school, for that matter — learns from his anti-racist teacher that theoretically his achievement is not earned, that all of his success has actually come as a result of anti-blackness?  Will his parents sue the pants off of the school?

We shall see.  That day is coming sooner than you think.

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