In August 2020, the faculty and staff of Sidwell Friends, the Washington, D.C. area’s top private school, convened to hear a special talk hosted by the school’s director of Equity, Justice, and Community. The speaker was Ibram X. Kendi, no stranger to the podium at posh private schools. “We’re either educating our children to be racist, or we are educating them to be anti-racist,” Kendi said. According to the school’s press release, Kendi charged teachers with the task of creating “an anti-racist world, both in the School and in the world at large, because to not do so is to be complicit in maintaining racist policies.” A few weeks later, Kendi gave another talk for the students at Sidwell, who, like the teachers, had read his book in preparation. “Kendi emphasized that change can—must—happen on a personal level,” the press release says.
Private schools around the nation have adopted Kendi’s message, and Washington is no exception. The top five D.C.-area private high schools—Sidwell Friends, Georgetown Day, Holton-Arms, the National Cathedral School, and St. Albans—committed to this vision in the form of strategic plans. Similar plans may have generated backlash in New York, but so far, the D.C. schools have embraced diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) without notable dissent. D.C.’s top schools now require every corner of their institutions—from chemistry classes and athletic departments to boards of trustees—to demonstrate fealty to “antiracism.”
Some of the pressure for change has come from the students. Last summer, on “BlackAt” social-media accounts that emerged at nearly every top private school in the country, anonymous students alleged incidents of racism and demanded action. Similar accounts sprang up at all five of the top D.C. schools, and their strategy proved successful. A June 2020 letter from Georgetown Day School’s head of school and DEI director thanked the students running the “BlackAt” account for raising awareness, called for feedback to help the school effectuate “institutional and ideological change,” and concluded with a quote from Kendi: “What other people call racial microaggressions I call racist abuse.” Two months later, Georgetown Day’s administrators made good on their promise with a 14-point plan. Meantime, National Cathedral School explicitly cites the “blackatncs” account in its DEI plan overview. And in a letter in November, the head of school at Holton-Arms said she was grateful for the “Black@HAS” account.
The schools did not implement half-measures. St. Albans made ten commitments, including a curriculum audit and new affinity groups. Holton Arms listed 12 priorities in its Roadmap to Anti-Racist Education and provides mid-year updates on each. Sidwell Friends published a 16-page brochure that committed the school to establish new affinity groups and impose mandatory Equity, Justice, and Community (EJC) training. Georgetown Day’s Anti Racism Action Plan page listed eight immediate action steps along with six long-term priorities, including plans to “initiate curriculum program assessment and audit” and “establish accountability mechanisms.” National Cathedral School’s ten-step plan involved an anti-racist faculty reading group as well as work with the Glasgow Group consultancy—which, as Aaron Sibarium reports in the Washington Free Beacon, is deeply involved with the private-school accreditation process.
The diversity consultants, trainers, and outside partners employed by the schools exemplify the fusion of managerialism and identity politics. Georgetown Day says it has identified “an independent consultant to conduct a third party audit of our current policies, climate, curriculum and program,” and lists Alison Park, of Blink Consulting, on its main DEI page. Park provides such services as “DEI strategic planning” and “integrated implementation of DEI programs, policies and initiatives.” She also writes about combating “white supremacy culture,” frequently citing an article on the topic by Tema Okun, another diversity consultant. In the article, Okun explains that “white supremacy culture” equates to perfectionism, defensiveness, individualism, objectivity, and a right to comfort. Written in 2001, Okun’s article is an early text in the DEI canon, frequently referenced in DEI training material and “antiracism” resources pages. Among the supposed problems that white supremacy causes, Okun says, are a belief in “quantity over quality,” the “worship of the written word,” and the belief that there is only “only one right way.”
Woke language is now impossible to avoid at D.C.’s elite private schools. Their DEI plans require trainings and readings, while the schools recommend dozens of “antiracist” books, podcasts, and articles on their websites. St. Albans and Georgetown Day suggest Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. A National Cathedral update noted how teachers read Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and other “DEI content” in the summer of 2020; St. Albans required faculty and staff to read Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me; and Holton-Arms assigned Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Anti-racism, and You to every teacher and student between the sixth and 12th grades. The school’s study guide asks reflection questions such as: “Can you identify some racial inequities that exist today? How does Dr. Kendi explain why these inequities persist?” and “What do you think ‘telling a more complete story’ entails in schools like Holton-Arms?”
The school provides a ready-made answer for that last question. Holton-Arms promises an “extensive and ongoing training” in anti-racism for “all faculty, staff, and students.” Since last year, Holton has introduced a series of seminars containing dozens of lessons on race, gender, and identity: among them, “Intent and Impact & Microaggressions,” “Anatomy: Assigned Sex at Birth- Male/Female/Sex Review,” “Systems of Power, Privilege, Oppression,” “Take action for social change,” “Microaggressions/Implicit bias,” and “Instagram for Social Justice.” And as Holton’s DEI & Belonging Roadmap explains, academics aren’t immune. The history department’s new curriculum would “amplify the voices of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and to lay bare the intersection of power, race, class, gender, and sexuality in societies of the past and present.” Meanwhile, the English department’s new curriculum would “push students to question their own position in society and how to navigate systems of oppression and privilege.” As for the sciences? “Physics classes will include discussions of social justice such as kneeling during the national anthem, title IX, and paying college athletes while learning about concepts such as Newton’s Laws of Motion.”
The other schools won’t be outdone. Sidwell’s training reaches the highest level of the school’s governance, with “a regular schedule for equity and anti-racism training for administrators and trustees.” Georgetown Day provides an especially extensive “antiracism” regimen, including an anti-racism professional development theme, “antiracism” training for faculty and stuff, and an “anti-racist education program for White families.” Its plan also takes steps to ensure these measures don’t lose momentum: a “monthly check-in meetings between new faculty and DEI leadership” and a “teacher observation and evaluation tool” that incorporates “social justice standards” and the “GDS inclusion statement commitments.”
Few Christian schools would be so bold as to advertise that they include, say, discussions of Jesus’s outstretched arms on the cross while teaching Newton’s Laws of Motion. But with their cash and prestige, D.C.’s ultra-elite schools can promote their orthodoxy with zeal—using the managerial practices of the white-collar class.
John Sailer is a research associate at the National Association of Scholars.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by City Journal on August 26, 2021, and is republished here with permission.
Image: CDC, Unsplash, Public Domain