What is behind the pressure to censor social research? American cultural mindset

The College Board, the organization that designs college-level curricula for high school students, recently removed a number of terms from a course design for African American Studies. One of the key words that has disappeared. “Systematic”.

In editing this term, the College Board missed an opportunity to help young people learn and think critically about the connection between the design of our institutions and the unequal way we use opportunities and resources in America.

The debate over whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis influenced this decision misses a larger point. These linguistic changes speak to the current state of American culture and how it is moving forward.

Conservative activists argue that curriculum changes are about keeping “politics” out of the classroom. But I see this as a disturbing example of state power being used to censor ideas. I worry about a future where students are not exposed to accurate, holistic perspectives on our past.

I think we can all agree on one thing. The College Board made these changes under pressure.

But where does this pressure come from? Pointing to politicians or social media influencers only gets us so far. We must consider the cultural mindsets that enable the term “systemic racism” to become a topic of educational controversy.

Cultural mindsets are the understandings and assumptions that operate beneath our surface opinions. They shape how we see the world and act in it.

As a psychological anthropologist, I have studied these mindsets for the past 20 years and have found a number of them—individualism, altruism, and fatalism—that underlie the way many Americans think about racism. These thoughts don’t justify the College Board’s decisions, but they show us what needs to be done to shift the culture to a place where there is no pressure to remove the words “systemic” and “compensation” from the high school classroom.

These reflections point to the need for more explanatory narratives in our public discourse and public education about social systems of all kinds, and systemic racism in particular. These stories should explain why these systems exist, how their design shapes our lives, and what we need to do to redesign them to achieve different outcomes. Importantly, these stories should make clear and undeniable the collective importance of this redesign to the future of our country.

Digging into Cultural Mindsets

Systemic racism refers to the way discrimination and prejudice are written into the code of policies and practices that shape our lives. This includes the health care system, the criminal justice system, the education system, the housing system, the economic system, and more. Experts who study systemic racism agree that our public policies and institutions are designed in ways that unfairly advantage some racial and ethnic groups and perpetuate an unfair disadvantage for others.

However, there are several cultural mindsets that make the concept of systemic racism fraught for many Americans, especially white Americans.

The first is the idea that success and failure are the exclusive result of someone trying hard. This individualism underlies the tendency to assess worthiness and paradoxically decide that those denied opportunities are unworthy of support. This mindset explains away any lack of well-being that someone experiences as a failure of character, leaving no room to criticize the broader systems that make opportunities available to some and not others.

The College Board also faced pressure from a cultural mindset of alienation; the threat many Americans feel to their status as the idea of ​​structural racism has become currency. In this way of thinking, distributing more to others, even if “more” means acknowledging and compensating for injustice, appears to be getting less for themselves.

If this mindset isn’t toxic enough, the idea of ​​systemic racism presents additional challenges for many Americans.

There is also a strong sense of fatalism, a third cultural mindset associated with thinking about systemic racism. People understand systems in a nebulous and naturalistic way, that systems are above and beyond human intervention. The result is that people view anything built into or resulting from the system as intransigent and beyond interference. As a result, we shut down and resist discussions of problems that are framed at the level of these systems.

These challenges do not mean that teachers and students, or those who communicate in the public sphere in general, should avoid discussions of systems. Instead, it highlights the possibility of leaning into such discourses and the importance of an explanatory approach. The very fact that the College Board has removed the concept of “systems” from the curriculum shows us how important it is to discuss and explain systems—how they work, their effects, and how they can be redesigned.

Until those of us who work to shape the discussion in the classroom and beyond change these underlying mindsets and rebalance the cultural landscape that shapes Americans’ understanding of racism, the people responsible for making decisions about our nation’s institutions (such as our education system ). will be constrained and limited in the directions they believe they can pursue in order to achieve full inclusion, opportunity, access and equity. We can argue about what should or shouldn’t be in the school curriculum, but the real work is also in changing the culture on which these arguments are based.

This requires persistently advancing a narrative that makes clear and obvious the impact of systems on the social problems we experience. It requires a story that makes the engineered nature of these systems undeniable. It calls for a story that speaks with pragmatism and hope to our ability to redesign these systems for more equitable outcomes, and affirms the urgency of these changes to secure a future for the country where all have a share and opportunity for good and prosperity.

Reversing the mindsets that lead to bad decisions, such as censoring history lessons for students, requires promoting alternative ways of thinking that make better decisions more common sense.

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