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Is ‘systemic racism’ the right diagnosis?

“Your mind is like a parachute; it only works when it’s open,” my seventh-grade teacher counseled. That inspiration – and Mr. Rogers’ assurance that he liked me just the way I am – helped me surmount the challenges of my ugly scoliosis-correcting brace.

I told this trauma-to-triumph story when applying for school and work, and later to our son as he coped with the challenges of dyslexia. His teachers inspired him to think again – he wasn’t different; he just learned differently.

Imagine his pride when chosen to address his eighth-grade graduation, where he shared his lesson that though we can’t choose what happens in our lives, we can choose how to react.

In fact, people don’t shape stories as much as stories shape people. The Jewish Peoples’ slavery-to-freedom story repeated each Passover for 33 centuries cultivated a collective resolve not just to survive relentless persecution, but to craft ethics centered on human equality, helping civilize the world.

Similarly, America’s Fourth of July story forged a common identity derived from human history’s most revolutionary ideas – e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) and the democratic self-rule of a free people who are “created equal.” The conviction that human-made laws must reflect natural law birthed the anti-slavery, anti-Jim Crow, and Civil Rights movements, and attracted multitudes yearning to be American.

As the lucky heir of both stories, I’m alarmed by “anti-racist” theories overtaking institutions, including K-12 schools. To advance “justice,” the book “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction” advocates upending our “liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism and neutral principles of constitutional law.”

Books like Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” popularized the misconception that our liberal order is not systemically self-improving; it’s “systemically racist.” To address inequality, they argue, we must treat people differently based on race.

Coining the term “KenDiAngelonians,” Black intellectuals John McWhorter and Glenn Loury call Kendi and DiAngelo neo-racists whose illiberal ideas disempower minority children by suggesting they are unable to compete within objective standards of excellence.

Advocating the abandonment of our “created equal” premise and the dreams it spawned – including being judged by our character, not skin color – CRT advocates hide behind benign words and vague, unsubstantiated claims to justify diverting scarce resources away from the classroom and into school administrations.

Case in point: The Durango 9-R school board resolution, passed on Jan. 26, commits to “engage third-party subject matter experts specializing in diversity, equity, and inclusion for the purpose of identifying systemic racism and injustices throughout the district.”

The National Equity Project, advising districts, suggests evaluating “data through an equity lens” to “ensure equally high outcomes.” Though performance metrics reveal racial disparity, how do we know racism is the cause, and why assume students in each racial category are homogeneous, defined only by their race or ethnicity?

Might “systemic racism” be the wrong diagnosis, polarizing people while diverting attention away from specific interventions to help students advance based on their unique circumstances and talents, thereby deriving self-respect and empowerment?

In fact, lifting differently talented kids from where they are to where they’re capable of going is education’s purpose. Though our son became a reader, not all dyslexics do, even when equally supported. Considering Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Muhammed Ali were dyslexics whose talents changed the world, children can surmount disparity when inspired to develop their unique potential.

Helping kids realize their individual capabilities is how Durango schools can best help them claim their “created equal” birthright, not by diverting resources to fund bureaucrats.

Think again – to promote real diversity, equity and inclusion, shouldn’t we inspire students to recognize that they’re created both equal and different, and valued just the way they are?

Melanie Sturm is founder of Engage to Win. She lives in Pitkin County and can be reached at melanie@engage2win.org.

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