Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

What's Right about Afrocentrism?

James Skillen


May 26, 1997

In a recent column in The New Republic (May 19), Boston University professor Glenn Loury comes to the partial defense of Afrocentrist schooling. Afrocentrism, he explains, "arises from the existential condition of blacks in this nation of immigrants." Slaves were cut off from their pre-American history and, until recently, were denied a role in interpreting America's past. In this context, says Loury, Afrocentrism should, whenever possible, be accommodated and not denounced.

Surely it is no threat to a black student's education, he says, if the school curriculum gives more attention to the heroism of the underground railroad than to the building of the transcontinental railroad. If it is honorable for Jews to try to "remain Jews," it can be no less honorable for American blacks to act on the same impulse. Loury does not approve of every item in Afrocentrist curricular proposals. But who approves of every item now contained in the so-called "objective" curricula in public schools?

Loury's most important point comes when he agrees with those who object that Afrocentrism politicizes the curriculum. "Teaching the young is necessarily and inevitably political," he asserts. "It entails the authoritative promulgation of values as well as information. It is paternalistic. When we educate, we cannot escape the necessity of making judgments about the kind of citizens we want our children to become."

Yet, how shall we deal with the twin facts that education is inevitably political and that various groups of citizens hold quite different ideas about how to educate their young? Loury stops before answering this question. The reason for turmoil over Afrocentrism in the Oakland, California schools, for example, is not just that school curricula are political; the schools themselves are part of a political structure, and the current structure cannot accommodate genuine differences of viewpoint. Afrocentrism either wins big or loses entirely.

Loury is correct that Afrocentrism should be accommodated. But how and for whom should it be accommodated? Just as there is no "white" curriculum that satisfies all whites, there are blacks who reject Afrocentrism as the organizing principle for their children's education. How can diverse viewpoints be accommodated?

The best way to deal with this political reality is to move beyond the false distinction, which Loury exposes, between so-called "objective" schooling and "ideological" schooling, as if there are only two options and as if only one should win. The question is structural and not merely curricular. Parents and educators should have real freedom to fashion different schools that have different organizing principles for their curricula.

A just political resolution to a matter that is inevitably political is to do justice to diversity: to legitimize pluralism. Let's quit fighting all-or-nothing battles that leave the public schools in the hands of only one winner. Let's change the governing structure of public education so that "public" comes to mean equal public recognition and financial support for a diversity of schools, governed in various ways (not all by public authorities), offering a variety of curricular programs.

Some blacks along with some whites will then be free to develop an Afrocentrist school. Other blacks and whites will build Christian schools. Many blacks, whites, Muslims, Jews, and Christians will choose so-called secular schools. Why should they not all be accommodated in a truly pluralistic America?

—James W Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”