California’s schools increasingly are embracing the notion that students should be judged based on the color of their skin, rather than the content of their character. And these schools are not alone. Equality before the law, a fundamental American value, is under siege today in schools across the country. From the singling out of a biracial high school student in Nevada as an “oppressor” to teaching white students that they are inherently evil in Manhattan, K-12 education is becoming fertile ground for an assault on the ideal of equality.
Whether it be under the banner of “critical race theory,” “equity,” or “intersectionality,” many activists and intellectuals have embraced the idea that one’s character is rooted in immutable and irrelevant characteristics such as race and sex, rather than one’s words and deeds. These activists have pushed for K-12 curricula that force students to participate in exercises in which they are separated based on their race and forced to describe the “privilege” or “marginalized status” they experience because of their race. This seeks to indoctrinate students in an ideology that emphasizes racial stereotyping and undermines equality before the law while silencing critics.
A radical model curriculum created by the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium, an educational advisory group that promotes race-based curricula in K-12 education, is the latest example of woke teaching in California. The home page of the group’s website emphasizes “lesson plans that center students in their self-identity” — based on race — and links to a YouTube video describing the sentence “I can expect my children to get a good education” as an example of white privilege.
The curriculum serves as a cautionary tale for the pitfalls of education based on racial identity. It requires students to reflect on their racial ancestors and distinguish between individuals based on the supposed “privilege” derived from their race. It also mandates ritualistic “land acknowledgments,” which require students to proclaim that they occupy land owned by indigenous peoples. A similar curriculum created by this group is so radical that California Gov. Gavin Newsom rejected it in 2020 because it was “insufficiently balanced and inclusive” after it was dogged by accusations of antisemitism. Yet many school districts have rushed to adopt the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum and others like it.
By treating students differently based on their race, the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Racially divisive speech and harassment by teachers create a hostile environment for students. This emphasis on racial identity flies in the face of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream that children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Meanwhile, compelling students to express or adopt certain viewpoints violates the First Amendment to our Constitution. In 1943, the Supreme Court held that public schools could not force students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance against their will. Curricula forcing students to espouse woke dogma and requiring them to acknowledge that they are inherently “privileged” or “oppressors” because of their race raise similar concerns. Schools cannot compel students to express views that violate their consciences.
Fortunately, some parents are standing up against this rising tide of illiberalism in our public schools. Public interest organizations such as Pacific Legal Foundation are helping parents, students, and teachers fight for equality under the law and freedom of thought. People willing to fight for those traditional civil rights principles are needed now more than ever. As the Supreme Court noted in its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, “In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” Too many progressive activists have not taken this lesson to heart.
Jack Brown (@jebrown300) is a constitutional law fellow and Ethan Blevins (@ethanwb) is an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization that defends Americans’ individual liberty and constitutional rights.