Lisa Pierce Flores (opinion): In defense of Black, Latino studies in CT schools

Photo of Lisa Pierce Flores
A sign in Greenwich in June protesting the masking and vaccination of students, as well as the alleged teaching of critical race theory.

A sign in Greenwich in June protesting the masking and vaccination of students, as well as the alleged teaching of critical race theory.

File photo

School’s back in session, and from Greenwich to Guilford, the controversial masks are on and the political gloves are off.

Anti-diversity curriculum activists are eager to erase all mention of racism from the state’s classroom blackboards (and white boards and SmartTVs, and well, you get it).

But what if diversity curriculum opponents are actually working to undermine their children’s future earning capacity?

First, some scene setting: Right now teachers in 52 public high schools across the state are beginning to teach a Black and Latino studies course that will become a mandated elective offering at all 431 public high schools in Connecticut beginning next fall. At the same time, anti-diversity candidates are running for office in school board elections throughout our region.

Tensions over DEI initiatives in the Easton-Redding-District 9 school district led to the resignation of the district’s first Black superintendent in June, and in July members of the State Education Resource Center were unable to complete a presentation on the new Black and Latino studies elective at a Trumbull school board meeting when anti-diversity audience members began shouting them down.

I’m using the phrase “anti-diversity” rather than “anti-CRT” for a reason. Focusing on the obscure academic framing of critical race theory is a clever rhetorical ploy crafted by national players like the Heritage Foundation to rile up parents who fear the unknown. And it’s working.

Some parents fear that examining our country’s complicated story of egalitarian ideals and racist realities will cause white children to feel ashamed. As the mother of an African American son, I would just ask those parents to consider how actually experiencing racism makes brown and Black children feel.

But perhaps the easiest argument to counter is the one that may seem most reasonable to parents who do not see themselves as inherently anti-diversity: that focusing on DEI will crowd out more “practical” educational priorities like reading, writing and especially STEM skills.

Nitza Diaz, a curriculum expert who worked as a consultant to help SERC develop the new Black and Latino studies course curriculum, notes that today’s employers are looking for “21st century competencies”: inquiry-based learning, critical thinking and cultural competency — or the ability to understand and respect differences of experience, histories, values and beliefs across cultures.

“We’re teaching the whole child; we’re not teaching widgets,” Diaz said.

Parents insisting that “reading, writing and arithmetic” should be the only focus of are likely picturing their children entering a workforce that no longer exists. The late 19th century push for universal public education was spurred by industrial employers who needed a workforce with basic reading and math skills. But those skills will not be enough for our children to succeed in a workplace that increasingly relies on diverse teams to optimize innovation and profit.

According to Stamford-based Gartner, for example, diverse teams have measurably higher employee performance — and HR professionals know this. Or consider data from McKinsey showing that a commitment to diversity enhances the bottom line — by a lot.

When McKinsey analysts monitored profit margins for thousands of companies across multiple sectors over a five-year period, they found that those with more women and racial and cultural minorities in their executive ranks dramatically outperformed less integrated employers. In fact, companies with the most diverse leadership achieved profit margins almost 50 percent higher than their sector counterparts with the least diverse executive teams.

Some of the country’s largest employers, including Adidas, Google, JP Morgan Chase and Amazon, plan to significantly increase their minority hiring over the next few years. Companies that aren’t focused on diversity initiatives are likely be left behind in the marketplace, as will job seekers who lack the educational foundations needed to implement diversity-focused business strategies.

I do have some sympathy with parents who fear that their children are learning to embrace a perspective that differs from their own understanding of the world. But evidence suggests younger millennial and Gen Z job seekers are already thinking about diversity as an issue that needs to be leveraged at the organizational level. According to a recent survey:

86 percent of job seekers say they factor an employer’s reputation on DEI in their job search.

70 percent of employees expect their company to be transparent about DEI initiatives and results.

62 percent of job applicants say they would turn down an offer from a company that did not support DEI.

Whether you envision your child as a future HR executive, engineer or entrepreneur, parents would profit from taking a more careful look at the numbers.

As SERC consultant Diaz points out, “Independent schools are already teaching this.” That’s because many elite schools understand that cultural competency will make their students more valued by future employers. Why wouldn’t parents whose children attend public school want their children to have the same advantage in the job market of the future?

Lisa Pierce Flores is a Newtown resident, instructor at Fairfield University, author of “The History of Puerto Rico,” and past editor of The American Mosaic academic database.