Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and Race

The controversy over President Obama’s school speech is mostly about race. And those parents are teaching their kids exactly the wrong thing.

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While it’s true that some on the left criticized Republican presidents when they addressed school children in the past—House Democrats accused President George H.W. Bush of playing politics when he gave a nationally televised speech to students at Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington, D.C., in 1991, encouraging them to study hard and avoid drugs—there was no widespread move to take children out of school so they wouldn’t have to listen to President Bush’s speech or to bully school principals and superintendents to not show it. Nor did parents vociferously attack the president.

The groundswell of hate was not anywhere near the level that we are seeing now. Maybe that’s because neither the first President Bush, nor his son, President George W. Bush, who also gave speeches to school children, are black.

One of the most positive aspects of President Obama’s campaign for the presidency was that it inspired millions of young people across the racial spectrum that in turn inspired white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Arab parents of another generation to think differently about race. Young people’s embrace of Obama challenged parents to think outside of their own limited racial prisms and adopt the “race doesn’t matter ideologyof their children. Countless news stories quoted white parents who said they supported Obama at the urging of their children, and what was most telling about these stories was the parents’ surprise and genuine pride about having learned important lessons from their kids.

Today it’s the protesting parents who are teaching their children lessons, though not positive ones. Their lessons are about close-mindedness and not trying to find common ground with those with whom they disagree. They are modeling for their children a lack of respect for the office of the president. They are teaching their children to distrust authority figures when they disagree with them, and signaling to children that their government, and thus their country, is working against them.

If these parents were sincerely concerned about the best interests of their children, they wouldn’t be worried about the rise of socialism in this country; they’d be worried about the death of optimism. They would not be wasting time spewing ugly, mendacious invective about the president and encouraging an “us” versus “them” mentality in their children; they would be encouraging them to embrace the civility that President Obama has tried mightily to bring to the national discourse, sometimes to his own political detriment.

At the least, the parents would be willing to admit that telling children to stay in school and study hard is a positive and harmless message, even if that message is coming from a black man.

The president’s speech is an opportunity for a national teachable moment for American children at a time when the country is reeling from an economic meltdown and unemployment is at a 26-year high—a perfect time for a lesson on the importance of being educated and skilled, and over the long term, of being marketable and employable.

These misguided parents may insist they’re teaching their children to stand for this country’s highest ideals, but in truth they’re teaching them to stoop to its lowest.

Marjorie Valbrun is a regular contributor to The Root.