Stop Dividing Children By Race. It's Harmful and Divisive | Opinion

Last week, the Lower Manhattan Community Middle School reportedly separated middle school students into racial groups for a two-day program meant to explore how "racial identities influence our experiences." The students were divided into five groups: whites, Asians, mixed-race students, and combined African American and Hispanic students. There was also an additional group made up of those uncomfortable with the format.

Of course, this is not the first nor the only such racial affinity group exercise. Earlier this year, after a brutal shooting in Atlanta caused eight fatalities, six of whom were women of East Asian ancestry, Wellesley public schools in Massachusetts hosted a Zoom session called a "Healing Space for Asian and Asian-American students and other students of color." "This is a safe space for our Asian/Asian-American and Students of Color, not for students who identify only as White," the school administrators who organized the event explained.

We are a Black-Jewish woman, a Chinese woman, and a Jewish man of Middle Eastern descent. One might think we would celebrate this identity exercise in the name of "diversity." But nothing could be further from the truth. Such racially segregated groups are harmful to the participants' sense of self and highly divisive. Public schools in particular have no business holding them.

Students walk to their classrooms at a public middle school in Los Angeles, California, September 10, 2021. - Children aged 12 or over who attend public schools in Los Angeles will have to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 by the start of next year, city education chiefs said September 9, 2021, the first such requirement by a major education board in the United States. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

What's wrong with school-imposed racially segregated affinity groups?

First, the majority of segregated affinity groups are exercises in indoctrination. Racial affinity groups may differ, but the majority of them task kids with "owning" their level of "privilege" or "complicity," based on where they fall on a hierarchy of racial privilege.

Students of color are asked to examine their internalized racial inferiority. School officials pretend to know who has power and how much of it. Apparently, school officials are equipped with a special 23andMe radar that allows them to see how much power a student is endowed with!

While reflecting on one's own fortunes and showing gratitude are healthy human endeavors, telling people how much power they have based on their skin color or any other immutable characteristic is, putting it charitably, an act of coercion. And it is opinion masquerading as fact. Many parents understandably do not want their children to go through such humiliation or indoctrination.

Second, these exercises force children to identify in ways that may be uncomfortable and inconsistent with their personal identities. What if a child chooses not to identify as a specific race? Who is the school to say that a child needs to be racialized at all?

One of us is a Jewish male whose mother came from Iraq and is more than 50 percent "Western Asian." Should a child with a similar ethnic make-up be forced into the Asian group—or the white group, because he's deemed by some as "white presenting"? What if he doesn't feel he belongs in either group?

Two of us see our Jewish identity as being both an ethnicity and a religion, yet none of these schools organizing affinity groups has deemed being Jewish a relevant identity category. Who are they to make that choice for Jewish kids?

Third, these racial classifications themselves are arbitrary. Who says that one of us, a Chinese American, shares more in common with an Iranian American, a fellow Asian, than she does with a Russian American? Who's to say a Black American student will feel greater solidarity with a Nigerian international student than a Vietnamese student, whose socio-economic background may be more closely aligned with her own?

And these arbitrary classification raise the question: What's next? Calssifying kids by religion? By socioeconomic status? Neighborhood? Country of origin? Once you open the door to school officials defining students' identities, we are likely to see all manner of outrages.

Finally, these affinity group exercises are manifestly bad for race relations. They reinforce a racially essentialist vision of American society and foment division through institutionalized segregation. In the more traditional view of our pluralistic society rooted in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, working toward racial justice and harmony is best done by bringing people together, not setting them apart.

School officials may try to dodge these charges by assuring you that students can opt-out of the exercises. But such a program inevitably involves peer pressure, making students feel that they have to partake and define themselves accordingly. Moreover, once a school as a public institution holds such an exercise, it will have defined the values of the entire community. And yet, these values aren't shared by many American families that make up the tapestry of our democracy.

Why should school officials with a skewed view of diversity decide for parents and the rest of society how to best make "a more perfect union"?

True diversity does not put people into racial boxes. Schools should not force children into a perverse racial classification system but allow them and their families to define their own identities.

David Bernstein is the Founder of Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV). Dr. Brandy Shufutinsky is a social worker, writer, researcher and advocate. Ye Zhang Pogue is a Researcher of Mental Health, Disparity, and Race.

The views in this article are the writers' own.