social justice education
Sarah Jane Woodson Early (1825-1907), community school teacher and the first black woman college instructor in the United States.Wikimedia Commons

“Clan of the Fiery Cross” is a Superman radio series from the 1940s. It was the first time the Man of Steel had a voice. The series portrays some of the Ku Klux Klan rituals with some accuracy. Although the evidence is still in question, there are decades of claims about how “Clan” was instrumental in trivializing the KKK’s principles, rituals, then their influence and membership numbers, which by 1925 had peaked at 6 million.

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Quantifiable evidence finds that the KKK contribution to violence and political influence remained small. The power to stoke fear, however, succeeded. There was never sound internal consistency about the goals of the organization, and convictions for corruption and murder unveiled the grim truth: A rotating group of leaders with little to no ideological purity were taking advantage of hatred and promoting violence for their individual benefit.

Questions that remain, as organization such as the Southern Poverty Law Center document limited yet loud membership of KKK hate groups to this day, are mostly about education and marketing.

  • What kind of educational strategies did the leadership led to convince as many people to join?
  • What kind of education did a KKK member get that would allow them to terrorize social groups with relative little effort?
  • Assuming its influence was real, how can we fashion “Clan of the Fiery Cross” type experiences to undermine the validity and status of xenophobia and discrimination?

A landmark research paper by Freakonomics co-author Steve Levitt along with Roland Friers, economists at the University of Chicago and Harvard, respectively, describe the KKK as a multi-level marketing scheme, with “highly incentivized sales agents,” and hatred, intolerance and fraternity –exclusive towards their own kind, that last one– as the products to be sold.

Interestingly enough, while it is common to think of the KKK as a terrorist organization –and designed as such by a grand jury– Friers and Levitt suggest violent actors were a only a small part of the group. Despite promoting values of “noble violence,” very few members were actually responsible for any lynchings, deaths or physical confrontations. Their members had higher levels of education and were more likely to have a professional occupation than the average American. The main victory of the KKK, or rather, the top of the pyramid, was financial. At its peak, the national KKK leader —the CEO of racism?— earned 500 times the average U.S. per capita income, with figures around 30 to 40 times for national and state head salesmen.

Can educators sell social justice the way the KKK sells hatred?

The pyramid scheme angle is supported by several dimensions of evidence. If fear is a natural response that is fairly abundant among us, and hatred and intolerance are the cheapest form of its extraction, there is always going to be a KKK-like organization. Many argue that the KKK throughout history has been several, often wildly different organizations refurbishing the name. The history of its leadership is a chaotic tale of schisms and power struggles, and there’s an episode of a sale and acquisition in the preamble to World War II.

To become a member and if you made the cut, you had to pay for the privilege, which gave you access to the local Klavern. And not much else. You had to buy the official robe separately, an annual fee and an “imperial tax.” You were also expected to get the merchandise. It was cheap to run the KKK but expensive to be a part of.

Under this light, one way to rephrase the question is: Can educators learn some of is these “successes” to promote the exact opposite values? Love, fraternity, embrace of differences.

Listening to others

The New York Times offers a “Student Opinion” section, part of its “Learning Network” and newsletter, where educators frame the current news with questions, to encourage students to read, then reply about the issues of the day.

Usually active during the school year, an additional article came out the week after it ended. “What Is Your Reaction to the Days of Protest That Have Followed the Death of George Floyd?” The comments on this article paint a rather disheartening picture, but compared to other comment sections online it shows young people processing their feelings and trying to make sense of it, by connecting it to their personal lives and other news.

But the Times’ most notable contribution to education on the history and sociology of racism in the United States is arguably The 1619 Project, spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones and turned into a curriculum in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Bold and necessarily controversial, it frames the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved Africans as a more accurate founding moment of the nation. A comprehensive guide for educators with reading materials, workshop recipes and supplements are available.

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offers guidance for educators on how to address political issues and become “active participants in a diverse democracy.” Curriculum support, information resources and activities aimed at promoting dialog are available. The program explicitly “emphasizes social justice and anti-bias,” encouraging “children and young people to challenge prejudice.” The section on police violence has been up and constantly active since 2014. It combines articles about the problem itself, as well as advice about keeping students safe from the easy exposure to violence on social media.

Listening to black educators

More resources

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