Last year, gun violence in Chicago left 762 people dead on the city’s mostly black and poor South and West sides. Numbers have dropped this year but remain high. While inner-city parents fear for their children’s lives, suburbanites living on the North Shore continue to argue over a New Trier High School seminar held in February that was designed to teach privileged students about the ongoing struggle for racial civil rights.
Opponents are calling for an independent investigation of Stand for Children, a national advocacy group that supported the seminar, and a newly released documentary claims that antagonists are part of a national conspiracy to destroy public schools.
Parents of New Trier (PONT), opposed the seminar because it encouraged frank discussions about racial disparities in the economy, education, and housing. They preferred to take a colorblind approach to race, one that invalidates racist experiences by not talking about them.
We can’t solve racial disparities if we don’t recognize them.
PONT formed not long after the seminar’s theme was announced. They claimed that workshop content was biased and demanded that conservative voices be added or the seminar cancelled. In the end, they collected 400 signatures to support their cause.
In public comments posted online, PONT cried reverse discrimination claiming that seminar topics were a way of “shaming white people for being white.”
They also denied racial inequalities by questioning the present-day orientation of the seminar and suggested instead that workshops focus on racial progress saying, “You might show all the great jobs blacks DO have or HAVE had that they would not have if racism was as prevalent as you think.”
PONT criticized the workshop session “Home Sweet Home,” which examined the “roots of structural racism in housing policy.” They seemed to forget that North Shore residents had opposed fair housing even after a sustained effort to open the area to black homebuyers in 1965. Indeed, North Shore segregation remains glaring, with African Americans representing less than two percent of the population, excluding Evanston.
Residents who opposed residential integration in 1965 argued that their freedoms were being infringed upon. PONT’s rhetoric opposing the seminar is analogous: “Does anyone else see the relation to communism with thought control…where are we, Red China??”
Many North Shore parents, however, realize the importance of talking about race and have defended the seminar. Over 5,000 people signed an online petition by the group “Support Seminar Day”.
New Trier consistently ranks as one of the best public high schools in the nation, benefitting from high property tax revenue paid by affluent North Side residents. In Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol compared New Trier’s college preparatory curriculum to those of underperforming schools that are located in poor Chicago neighborhoods and thus crippled by low tax revenues.
New Trier’s well-funded school district, then, could afford to hold the seminar. It was entitled “Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights,” and included high-profile keynote speakers and over 100 workshops examining such issues as voter suppression, cultural appropriation and mass incarceration.
North Shore demographics underscore why New Trier students should be taught about race. The school services 4,200 mostly white, economically advantaged students from seven suburbs. What these communities lack in diversity, school administrators compensate for through the curriculum. Like Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, the New Trier graduate currently overseeing the gun crisis, students will go on to hold important positions of power. To avoid his mistakes, they need a broader understanding of the world and must, therefore, learn to be color-conscious, not colorblind.
Mary Barr, Ph.D.
Author of Friends Disappear: The Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston
Department of Sociology and Anthropology