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There is a learning gap that is threatening economic and social productivity in the U.S. that must be addressed. The untreated white achievement gap continues to tear our country apart.
Voting can be considered a test of sorts for assessing our knowledge and comprehension of the world around us. Voting data gives us insight into how people put into practice the information, facts and teaching they’ve received.
Exit polls conducted by the research firm Edison Research show that President Donald Trump received 57 percent of the total number of ballots cast by white voters. They voted for a man who has denigrated established science, supported racist conspiracies and spewed the racist assertion that four U.S. congresswomen of color “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” He struggled throughout his term to renounce white supremacist groups. And as the election returns came in last week, he spun a web of lies about how the American democratic process works.
By their votes, the vast majority of Black and Brown citizens showed themselves to be proficient judges of character and political leadership. This achievement is saving the country.
Millions of people, most of them white, either put aside what they learned in school to vote for the president — or they never learned it at all. Racism is illogical, and the irrationality it produces leads to policies and actions that are dangerously wrong for individuals and the country as a whole. While we so often wring our hands about the lagging educational achievement of Black, Latino and Native students, this election reminds us there’s an education crisis for white students in America, too.
Voting for a person who downplays wearing a mask during this Covid-19 pandemic and shrugs off a record wildfire season reflects a lack of understanding of biology, viruses and science in general. Thousands of deaths might have been prevented if Americans had adhered to medical science. But American students aren’t great at science. White students, who are more likely than other racial groups to attend well-financed, higher-performing schools, scored nearly 20 points below the level needed to show proficiency on the National Assessment for Educational Progress in 2015.
This election showed the critical connection between life and social sciences. Teaching civics is not only supposed to give people the basic skills to participate in a democracy, it should instill an appreciation of the fact that ignorance can be scaled up through policy. For example, a climate change denying lawmaker from Connecticut attempted to strike the subject from the state’s climate curriculum. Unfortunately, the average score for white students on NAEP civics in 2018 was 16 points below the 178 needed to be deemed “proficient.”
White students also lack a good grasp of history — they scored 22 points lower than the minimum level of achievement or “cut score” on the NAEP U.S. history exam — so they may have trouble understanding the roots of systemic racism and how ruthless politicians throughout American history have wielded race to divide people and gain power.
White people’s inability to address the intellectual dissonance created by racism is tearing the country apart. Learning whitewashed lessons about slavery, the Civil War and the Confederacy not only prevents students from absorbing American history, it sets up children for an anti-intellectual life.
Trump didn’t create this achievement gap; he reflects it.
The white achievement gap helps explain why a majority of white adults are willing to vote for a racist pathological liar who dismisses a pandemic that’s taken more than 200,000 lives and fawns over dastardly dictators like Russian president Vladimir Putin, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un.
On the night of Election Day, Trump had the audacity to suggest voter fraud without evidence, sowing mistrust and confusion and inviting violence in a country that is on edge. Most white Americans — not all — voted for him either without regard for or without an understanding of the fact that his presidency has constantly and consistently risked democracy itself. How can you ignore dishonesty, bigotry, deception and duplicity unless you endorse those values or deem them a necessary component of leadership?
The exit polls show that a majority in all other racial groups seem to recognize the harm Trump caused, as evidenced by their actions at the ballot box. Though Trump increased the number of voters of color who supported him over 2016, most cast their votes for Biden. To be clear, when it comes to race, Biden had many policy blemishes throughout his political career (most notably the 1994 Crime Bill). He is not the archetype of a racially conscious politician. But, by their votes, the vast majority of Black and Brown citizens showed themselves to be proficient judges of character and political leadership. This achievement is saving the country.
The difference between Black, Brown and white voters is, perhaps, lived experience. Black and Brown families that have suffered higher death rates from Covid-19 know very well that the science is as real as the racist policies that gave birth to the neighborhood conditions that advanced the spread of the virus.
Clearly we need to do a better job of teaching history and civics — to all students. The ignorance about slavery, Jim Crow, the contributions of people of color and the continued effect of racism in shaping our institutions keeps us from creating policy solutions that might bridge racial disparities in housing, employment, banking and education. It’s impossible to really understand civics without knowing how Black people transformed the idea of who was considered a citizen and earned the rights we all should have been given from the start.
We are a country at risk; there is an educational problem the country must address. We must close the white achievement gap.
This story about the white voters was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.