NPR is out with a list of “Summer Reading for Your Woke Kid.” It opens with the example of a father who wanted to read a picture book to his son about “the importance of social justice,” but couldn’t find any. One would think that’s because his child is two. In my family, we encourage our toddlers to befriend all people regardless of what they look like or where they come from. Discussions of racial differences happen once children gradually realize that external appearances matter to some people, because it typically doesn’t to them.
At any rate, this father decided to write the book he was looking for. It’s a board book called “A Is for Activist.” You know, so kids can learn identity politics along with their skin colors, or something. Occupy Wall Street, which corporately blurbed the book, says “Reading it is almost like reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, but for two-year olds.” Apparently these people don’t know that Zinn’s history is one of the most politicized and most inaccurate history books in use, despite widespread adoption in American public schools. But who cares about facts when you’ve got a narrative to push on innocent kids who don’t have the emotional or intellectual resources to fight propaganda?
It’s rather shocking that staid, mainstream-left NPR is pushing material this hard Left. Its book list comes courtesy of Teaching for Change, an organization that trains teachers and parents, recommends race-charged books for kids, and spreads copies of Zinn’s history in schools. Let’s look at the real likely outcome of such activities: increased intolerance and social friction.
Todders Can’t Understand Fossil Fuels
The Amazon reviews of “A Is for Activist” are unintentionally both humorous and facesmacking. They highlight, however, that political propaganda is not appropriate for small children, quite plainly because they can’t understand it. Reviewer Monica Lundberg, despite praise for the book, notes it’s not really “age-appropriate.”
“The ‘R’ page, for example, uses a facetious/sarcastic tone that is way beyond the understanding of young children, especially when it’s such a departure from the tone of the rest of the book,” she (zer?) writes. “The ‘S’ page has a great little poem celebrating solar power, but follows it up with ‘silly selfish scoundrels sucking on dinosaur sludge? Boo! Hiss!’, a line I could easily imagine leading to a rather upsetting conversation for a sensitive preschooler, since right now the vast majority of families simply don’t have access to fully sustainable power sources.”
“I prefer the pages that advovate [sic] for change without quite so much negatively towards existing practicies to children who can’t weigh other factors on complicted issues,” says Amazon user Griffins.
“[T]here’s too much text on the page with too many unexplained referents for it to be satisfying in and of itself, and it’s too exhausting to explain each of them with additional references. Kids will wander off. It doesn’t put much meat on the bone where I might want it to be (‘And Z is for Zapatista, of course!’ That’s it, kids! Go home! Figure out for yourselves what that means!)” says Literary Equivalent.
Also noted is the book’s preferred use of narrative to accuracy in terms of the letters it uses. It uses “jicama” to illustrate the letter H, and a picture of a butterfly to illustrate the letter T. Perhaps because some think using standard spelling and letters is complying with colonialism. That’s actually an argument some “educators” use against teaching disadvantaged children how to read and spell well.
Obsessing About Race Makes People Intolerant
Far beyond these technical complaints, however, are findings from social science that suggest identity politics like this increase intolerance. They suggest heightening the profile of social justice within education and kids’ reading menus will only undermine national unity and interracial harmony. That sounds counterintuitive to some people, so let me explain some of the findings.
Discussing the failure of race-related programs on college campuses last year, psychology professors Jonathan Haidt, of New York University, and Lee Jussim, of Rutgers University, highlighted the psychological principle of cooperation: “When groups face a common threat or challenge, it tends to dissolve enmity and create a mind-set of ‘one for all, all for one.’ Conversely, when groups are put into competition with each other, people readily shift into zero-sum thinking and hostility.”
In other words, kids (and other citizens) need cultural leaders like NPR and school teachers to focus not on differences and group identities, but to emphasize what we as Americans citizens share in common. Not only will this reduce racial tensions and bigotry, it also has the amazing consequence of improving academic achievement for all, as the longtime work of E.D. Hirsch and others such as Sandra Stotsky on transmitting core cultural knowledge through a coherent curriculum has shown.
Excessive focus on our differences does the opposite. Haidt and Jussim point out, among others, a 2004 Harvard study that examined “ethnic enclaves” on campus. It measured attitudes of most incoming freshmen at the University of California at Los Angeles before entry and then each spring for the next four years. For black, Asian, and Latino students, the study found, “membership in ethnically oriented student organizations actually increased the perception that ethnic groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and the feeling of victimization by virtue of one’s ethnicity.”
Elsewhere Haidt has discussed the work of political scientist Karen Stenner, author of “The Authoritarian Dynamic.” She found that a large subset of people get triggered when what they perceive as group norms and values becomes threatened, or appear to be disintegrating. After a certain threshhold, these otherwise kind and tolerant people will suddenly become racist and intolerant. It’s not irrational, either. It’s tied deeply to the “otherization” of which race is merely a symbol. In other words, as identity groups continuously separate themselves from and place themselves in competition with their fellow Americans, they are inciting racism and intolerance despite telling us they mean to do the opposite.
“People don’t hate others just because they have darker skin or differently shaped noses; they hate people whom they perceive as having values that are incompatible with their own, or who (they believe) engage in behaviors they find abhorrent, or whom they perceive to be a threat to something they hold dear,” Haidt explains.
Our Sense of Shared Identity Matters
Stenner did experiments that included having different groups read fake news stories about how the United States is changing. When they read that Americans are becoming more alike, “authoritarians” were no more racist or intolerant than other study subjects. When they read news stories saying the opposite, however, they did become more racist and intolerant. Other studies have shown similar effects to racially mixed neighborhoods: Rather than increasing tolerance, they decrease social trust among all races and therefore social capital.
Stenner’s comprehensive work concludes with this summary:
[A]ll the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference—the hallmarks of liberal democracy—are the surest ways to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the increased expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors. Paradoxically, then, it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness…. Ultimately, nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions, and processes. And regrettably, nothing is more certain to provoke increased expression of their latent predispositions than the likes of ‘multicultural education,’ bilingual policies, and nonassimilation.
Of course this doesn’t mean children should not learn about the various people groups and cultures that have entered and contributed to America, nor the injustices American governments and citizens have perpetuated against others based on race and ethnicity. This is part of our history, and children need to know those truths. They also need to know the whole truth, which is that “white people” such as the Irish and Poles have also faced ethnic discrimination, and that the appropriate response to black slavery and the Trail of Tears is not revenge politics centuries later against people who have done no wrong.
Children, and all Americans, need to know the truth at the appropriate time and in the right context. If we are to be a united nation that holds true to our founding principles that “all men [mankind, meaning sex-inclusive] are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights,” rather than a nation riven by ethnic conflicts as so many are, that context is our shared ideals as Americans, which are defined in our Declaration and Constitution.
These political documents, not our skin color or ancestry, define our identity as Americans. They are the criteria by which we know what America is and ought to be, what an American is and ought to be. They hold out fundamental promises that, like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., we all have an equal right to demand our country make good on.
Who Really Benefits From Dividing and Degrading America
The real truth of the matter is that some people who hold American citizenship do not assent to the foundational ideals, rights, and promises given in our founding documents that define citizenship itself. These people are at war with America’s identity. They create their own substitute identities and attempt to attract people to them, even small children, to grow their political power. That is the heart of identity politics. It is a flat contradiction of the American experiment.
It says people are not equally endowed with inalienable rights, but must engage in a zero-sum game for political dominance in which the winner takes all, even the rights of the vanquished, such as property (redistributive taxation, environmental socialism, etc.); free speech, association, and worship (forbidding Americans to think and act in accord with their consciences in private transactions; regulating commercial transactions within an inch of their lives); and self-government through representatives (enacting an administrative state, an unelected, unfireable bureaucracy that combines all three branches of political power and therefore constitutes tyranny).
Although it is best for society and people of all ethnicities if we talk in shared aspirational terms about the promises America makes equally to all citizens, this would undermine the political power of entities that thrive on fomenting racism, misunderstanding, misguided rage, and victimization. No matter what they say otherwise, they don’t really want racial harmony, or any kind of harmony. That’s not good for their business.
This is identity politics. It is not compatible with self-government under the rule of law. That is really why identity agitators hate America, and want you to, too. And NPR shouldn’t participate in it, nor should anyone else.