Let’s Multiply, Not Divide: A Closer Look at the ‘SDP Equity Framework’

There’s an old saying that a mother doesn’t divide her love among her children, but instead multiplies it like the stars.  America’s recent push for “equity” – a focus on equal outcome over equal opportunity – is sometimes viewed as being “zero-sum,” of dividing or redistributing resources rather than multiplying them.

The Philadelphia School District’s “Equity Framework” is at times zero-sum, and reveals two shifts in thinking from their traditional approach to improving schools and raising quality of instruction. One, it now uses race and social identity to guide instruction and the implementation of educational resources.  And two, it not only aims to provide extra services to marginalized students, but seeks to eliminate, disrupt, or remove so-called “dominant cultures” or systems that are viewed as privileged or predictably successful, which supposedly serve as obstacles or impediments to the success of marginalized groups.

The school district’s definition of “equity” is as follows: “Cultivating prosperity and liberation for students and staff, starting with historically marginalized populations, by removing barriers, increasing access and inclusion, building trusting relationships, and creating a shared culture of social responsibility and commitment to organizational accountability.”

I would agree that this kind of “equity” is admirable, being that it focusses resources on populations that face the biggest challenges.  No dedicated educator would object to giving extra help to children and families who need it most.  The school district’s Equity Framework becomes counterproductive, however, when it ties the success of marginalized groups to the disruption and elimination of so-called “dominant cultures,” and uses race and social identity to guide instruction and the implementation of educational resources.

One of the commitments under the Equity Framework is “redistributing resources to our most marginalized students in order to eliminate the predictability of success or failure based on historical trends.”  It’s one thing to eliminate the predictability of failure, but why get rid of a pattern of success?  Perhaps it might be better to increase the predictability of success so that it applies to all students?  Further, the notion of redistributing resources is problematic, as it suggests taking away from one group to give to another.  Which begs the question: which students from which schools/cultures are going to have things taken away from them?

The school district uses a “living glossary” of equity related terms to specifically define what they call dominant and marginalized groups.  Dominant Culture is defined as “the cultural beliefs, values, and traditions of the colonizer that are centered and dominant in society’s structures and practices,” and states that “indigenous and diverse ways of life are devalued, marginalized, and associated with low cultural capital.”

The definition leaves much to be desired, as it’s not only an overgeneralization, but insinuates the so-called “dominant culture” is negative, and assumes its dominance is arrived upon not through legitimate entrepreneurship or scientific, academic, or artistic achievement, but through oppression and the devaluing of others.

Interestingly, “Whiteness” is defined by the school district as “the component of each and every one of ourselves that expects assimilation to the dominant culture.”  This definition is not consistent with most equity-related definitions of the word, as “Whiteness” is defined by Critical Whiteness scholar Robin DiAngelo as “a term to capture all of the dynamics that go into being defined and/or perceived as white and that create and reinforce white people as inherently superior through society’s norms, traditions, and institutions.”

Still, the fact that the school district defined “Whiteness” as being associated with assimilation to a negative and oppressive dominant culture is unfortunate.  If “Whiteness” is associated with all people, why use the confusing and contentious term at all? 

Although not directly stated by the school district, the dominant culture by default is made up of white, male, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied, English-speaking, American citizens.  This becomes apparent when reviewing the school district’s definition of “marginalized.”

“Marginalized” groups are defined as “individuals or groups that have been systematically disadvantaged, both historically and currently, lacking representation in dominant culture and have limited to no power or capital.”  The district lists as marginalized “a person of color/non-white based on race and/or ethnicity,” as well as women, immigrants, English Language Learners, the LGBTQIA+ community, people with disabilities, special education, economically disadvantaged, and non-Christians.

This is the aspect of equity that becomes zero-sum – the splitting and dividing up of groups and cultures into “dominant” and “marginalized,” and insinuating that the gaps between these groups stem solely from oppression.  In other words, the complexity of the achievement gap is boiled down to racism, which the school district wants all staff to adopt as the culprit of all racial disparities.  Which is why the school district’s Equity Framework asks staff to commit to dismantling policies and disrupting practices “steeped in institutionalized racism and other systems of oppression” in schools and classrooms throughout the city.

A closer look at the Philadelphia School District’s “Equity Professional Learning Guiding Principles” contained in their Intro to SDP Equity Framework video reveals that teachers must “acknowledge that racism is systemic,” and “woven throughout all of the structures of our nation.”  Another guiding principle is “recognizing privilege,” and instructs teachers to “acknowledge my privilege,” and to “gain resources and strategies to confront and acknowledge privilege and how this contributes to my work, my role, and the larger system I’m in.”

The core objective of recognizing so-called “privilege” is to foster tolerance, empathy, and compassion, and one could argue it would be more beneficial (and less contentious) to simply have tolerance, empathy, and compassion as a guiding principle for teachers to practice.

Whether or not Philadelphia public schools are steeped in racism and oppression is a matter of debate, but one thing is clear: the SDP Equity Framework racializes the school system from top to bottom, encouraging all people to reject Martin Luther King Jr.’s colorblind “content of character” model in exchange for a color-conscious approach that views all things through the lens of race and social identity.

While it’s important to pay attention to systemic patterns and racial disparities in order to close gaps, an overemphasis on race-consciousness can become counterproductive.  As teachers, we should all work to form strong learning partnerships with all our students, and make sure all children – regardless of race and social identity – are given equal opportunities to succeed.

Christopher Paslay is a longtime Philadelphia public schoolteacher, education writer, and coach.  His new book, A Parent’s Guide to Critical Race Theory, is available on Amazon.

Widener University: ‘We Don’t Want Them: Faculty of Color’

On June 2nd at 5:00 PM, Widener University’s Graduate and Continuing Studies is hosting a program titled “We Don’t Want Them: Faculty of Color.”  This video analyzes Widener’s approach to recruiting a diverse faculty from the lens of systemic racism.  

According to Widener’s course description: “This session will share the experiences of faculty of color, explore the benefits of a diverse faculty population, and examine what we can do to support equity in the hiring process in academia. This session will challenge administrators, faculty and staff to think differently about how and who is recruited and hired in higher education.”  

Anti-Racism: The New Religion of Woke Millennials

by Christopher Paslay

Anti-racism, as it is currently configured, has gone a long way from what used to be considered intelligent and sincere civil rights activism.

Dr. John H. McWhorter is an African American Professor of English at Columbia University, and a native of Philadelphia.  A product of Friends Select School, his resume is quite impressive: he’s taught at Cornell University, the University of California, Berkeley, and has written for numerous publications, including TimeThe Wall Street JournalThe New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others.

In 2018, during a lecture on racism, McWhorter highlighted the ways in which modern anti-racism is less like a productive approach to racial equality, and more like a religion.

“Anti-racism, as it is currently configured, has gone a long way from what used to be considered intelligent and sincere civil rights activism,” McWhorter stated.  “Today, it’s a religion, and I don’t mean that as a rhetorical faint.  I mean that it actually is what any naive anthropologist would recognize as a faith, in people many of whom don’t think of themselves as religious.  But Galileo would recognize them quite easily.  And so for example, the idea that the responsible white person is supposed to attest to their white privilege, and realize that it can never go away — and feel eternally guilty about it — that’s original sin right there.”

McWhorter’s take on anti-racism is a growing perspective.  “We have a cult of social justice on the left,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York magazine, “a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical.”  Michael Barone wrote about the cult-like behavior of millennials in his Washington Examiner piece, “The new religion of woke anti-racism.” 

Unlike classic multiculturalism, where conversation and the exchange of diverse ideas and viewpoints are encouraged, modern anti-racism is about indoctrination — its ideology is to be completely accepted, no questions or alternative viewpoints allowed.  Anti-racism has a set doctrine that must be embraced, lest one risk being branded “racist” and chastised and/or silenced.  As National Book Award winner Ibram X Kendi teaches in his book, How to Be An Antiracist (which is part of the Philadelphia School District’s recommended anti-racism curriculum), “There is no neutrality in the racism struggle.”  You either get active fighting racism as an anti-racist, or you remain passive and help perpetuate systemic racism.

Some common points within the anti-racist doctrine are:

  • America is a systemically racist country, and all racial disparities are a result of this racism.
  • Being ‘colorblind’ is racist, because it denies systemic injustice and is “problematic.”
  • Color should not, however, be acknowledged when it comes to unflattering statistics like crime or school violence.  Bringing up color here is considered “problematic” and is not allowed. 
  • All whites have a ‘privilege,’ and perpetuate systemic racism by default.
  • All people of color are racially oppressed, and suffer from systemic racism by default.
  • Whites have zero authority on racial matters, while people of color have total authority.
  • Whites have zero understanding of the experiences of people of color in America.

Whites who fail to accept anti-racist doctrine — or challenge, question, or offer any alternative viewpoint— suffer from “white fragility,” a “problematic” condition where whites supposedly become extremely fragile when they are faced with talking about race. According to Robin DiAngelo, whose white fragility theory has become one of the most influential ideas about racism in America, whites consider a challenge to their worldviews on race a challenge to their worth as a person. As she explains in her book, White Fragility (which is part of the Philadelphia School District’s recommended anti-racism curriculum):

The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable — the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defense responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdraw from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.   

So if you’re white, and you are learning about anti-racism, you have one option: shake your head and say yes.  Unlike classic multiculturalism, which celebrates diversity and core values that unite the races, anti-racism goes on the offensive, provoking people by race, labeling and stereotyping them, forcing them to adopt the ideology or face backlash.  While multiculturalism is interpersonal, and offers practical solutions like inclusivity and tolerance for diversity on an individual or classroom level, anti-racism is mostly sociopolitical, and targets “systems” by disrupting or dismantling certain groups in order to end “injustice” and spread anti-racist doctrine.  Remember: white silence is violence.

During a 2018 lecture on racism (see video above), Professor McWhorter explains how modern anti-racism — a far cry from classic multiculturalism and the positivity of traditional civil rights activism — has become a religion all its own: 

The idea that, there is going to be a day, when America comes to terms with race, or that there could be.  What does that even mean?  What is the meaning of the ‘coming to terms?’  What would that consist of?  Who would come to them?  What would the terms be?  At what date would this be?  The only reason that anybody says that is because it corresponds to our conception of Judgment Day, and it’s equally abstract.

When we use the word “problematic,” especially since about 2008 or 2009, what we’re really saying is “blasphemous.”  It’s really the exact same term.  Or, the suspension of disbelief.  That is a characteristic of religious faith.  There’s an extent to which logic no longer applies.  That’s how we talk about racism.  So suppose someone asked, ‘Why are we to focus on the occasional rogue cop who kills a black man, when nine times out of ten that black man is in much more danger of being killed by another black man in his neighborhood?’

Gosh, that’s not pretty, but like many things that aren’t pretty, it’s also true.  If you ask about it — though you know you’re not supposed to — eyes roll, and you’re given an answer that doesn’t really completely make sense.  And there’s an etiquette that you’re supposed to stop there.  It’s rather like certain questions that you ask a priest, very gently, but you know that if you don’t get a real answer, then you’re just supposed to move on. . . .

But there are problems with [anti-racism], there are severe problems with it.  It does some good things — it gets some good people elected.  But there’s some bad things.  So for example, if you’re a good anti-racist, then you’re thinking about the cops that kill black men . . . but you’re not supposed to think about the fact that so much more murder happens to men like that in their own neighborhoods.  You’re supposed to think of that as maybe connected to racism in some abstract way, but you’re not supposed to think about it.  You’re not supposed to think about all of those homicides every summer in big cities across America.  Teenage black boys are killing one another in the hundreds over frankly nothing.  That’s somehow less important than what the occasional RoboCop does.  That’s modern anti-racism for you.  That’s backwards. 

And when we think about anti-racism . . . that whites need to undergo some sort of massive psychological revolution before we can have any kind of black success, beyond what we have already, why is somebody talking about their white privilege important, when we’re talking about making black schools better? . . .

Modern anti-racism turns a blind eye to most black homicide.  Anti-racism as currently configured, turns a blind eye to black young people’s upward mobility.  It turns a blind eye to doing the kinds of things that civil rights leaders of fifty years ago considered ordinary in favor of what is ultimately and inwardly a focused quest for moral absolution that has at best a diagonal relationship to helping people who’ve been left behind.  The issue here, I must repeat, is not whether or not racism exists; we know it does. . . . I had some racism of my own two weeks ago.  That’s not the issue.  The issue is whether modern anti-racism is the best way of combating the effects of that racism.  And it’s not.