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As I drove through the industrial streets of Chicago’s West Side and crossed the city limits into the village of Oak Park, I was fascinated by the lively downtown area, where Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright once strolled. I felt like I was stepping back in time to ancient America, where mom and pop shops and restaurants dominated the streets instead of chain stores. I saw children and adults of various races playing and clapping. Those real moments seemed to hold hope for the future in an America still struck by the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. I was interested in these interactions because I came here to interview a multiracial family who believed that this hope was threatened by the introduction of Critical Racial Theory in local schools.
Part of my interest in this family has been personal. I come from two generations of interracial marriages. And, whether or not Takyrica and Martin Kokoszka knew it, the symbolism of their multiracial family put them at the forefront of the recent American culture war.
Both Takyrica and Martin would be the first to protest that their skin color doesn’t matter and that their love matters above all and that is something I understand. As I walked into her humble and warm home, I was greeted by her smiles and three lovable children, including Takyrica’s handsome adult son from a high school relationship. Martin told me that he grew up in a working class town in Connecticut and that his love for basketball led him to discover he wanted to be a PE teacher when he was 14. For Takyrica, it was a professor at Malcolm X College who inspired her to study mathematics. She eventually accepted a $ 40,000 cut in salary and left her company job to go to Chicago Public Schools as a math teacher.
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This inspiring conversation would have continued without a mention of race if I hadn’t brought up the decision of local educators to introduce America’s newest racial ideology, Critical Race Theory (CRT), into local schools.
The crisis that opened the door to the CRT was particularly shameful. In the primary school attended by the two younger Kokoszka children, 55% of whites and 13% of blacks in grades three to five were at the level of the ELA metric. In math, 66% of whites did worse at the class level, while only 8% of blacks graduated.
What made these statistics even more shameful was that they occurred in Oak Park, a village that was rightly proud of its integration efforts since the 1960s. Months after the Federal Fair Housing Act was passed, Oak Park passed its own Fair Housing Ordinance to combat segregation. These good residents put Oak Park on the road to integration, and many of them would certainly not have predicted such racial performance differences decades later.
Martin provided me with a link to the Parents University’s recent virtual session for parents of high school students in the Oak Park School District. The first slide was titled “K-5 Lessons for Social Justice: Building a Foundation for Inclusive and Anti-Racist Work in District 97”.
What followed was an uninspired presentation of materials memorized at various social justice conferences across America. The only memorable moment came when Maggie Cahill, the district’s climate and culture coach, declared, “All schools are rooted in white supremacy” and that racism is “so systematic” that it is “in the air we breathe” and “The water we breathe” is drinking. “
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It wasn’t Maggie’s stereotypes that stuck with me, it was her righteousness. There is something deeply disturbing when that righteousness is based on a racial ideology – after all, if there is no truth about race, then the only thing to be had in its man-made constructs is power. But power over what?
Maggie reminded me of the high school teacher who told my teenage father on the secluded South Side of Chicago that he would be lucky enough to be a janitor. This teacher valued the racial ideology of her day about my father’s upbringing, and she saw it as her moral duty to remind the black boy of his place in society. She was blind to the dreamer who stood before her.
I wondered aloud to Takyrica and Martin if Maggie had pondered how her CRT beliefs would affect a multiracial family that doesn’t comfortably fit into America’s racing boxes. Martin turned to me: “How does it work? Are my children half suppressive and half suppressed?” Takyrica went one step further: “And when you come home, who do you see? Your parents? Or do you see an oppressor and the oppressed?”
What could the Maggies of America gain from segregating a multiracial family?
There is no doubt that the CRT’s defenders will be passively aggressively claiming that it is only a theory and that their critics are overreacting. But this theory ceases to be theory as soon as it crosses the threshold of school. There is nothing theoretical about assigning social value to students based on their skin color, there is nothing theoretical about telling children that the universal values of merit and hard work are constructs of white supremacy, and there is nothing theoretical about the enormously complex beauty of . to reduce math and literature to the low value of the breed.
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It is also nothing theoretical to put Martin and Takyrica in the middle of a CRT-dominated culture war in which they have to fight daily not only as parents but also as teachers in order to adhere to their basic principles. I asked Takyrica why she chose to teach in one of Chicago’s “busiest” neighborhoods, where gunshots go off every day, even though she could have applied to one of the cozy schools in Oak Park. All she said was that she was coming from the West Side and teaching there. Then she said, “Math is a superpower and I know that if I can teach my students the love of math, it will open the world for them. Education got me where I am today. It wasn’t activism.”
Martin repeated similar feelings. More than Takyrica, he has already felt the effects of the CRT on his school; he argued with administrators about his refusal to be reduced to white. I asked him why fight? Why not bow your head and collect your paycheck for the good of your family, especially as a white teacher in an almost exclusively black and Hispanic school? He said that parenting commitment and teachers’ high expectations are the two keys to a student’s success and that he will not give up his responsibilities. He also said, “If I am taught self-hatred because of my whiteness, how can I love? You have to love yourself in order to love and inspire others.”
As I drove away from Kokoszka’s house and headed for the shimmering Chicago skyline in the distance, I felt empowered by my encounter with Takyrica and Martin. The energy they radiated was infection and full of possibility and I knew that many of their students would find fuel in this soulful force, perhaps enough to last a lifetime. This power was very different from the power Maggie derived from her racial ideology. Their power placed them on the “right” side of the community in the fight against the shameful performance gap, but in reality it separated them from the massively difficult task of raising a left-behind population. A racial ideology that puts people down to their skin color does not have the power to uplift people.
It wasn’t until I went to Michigan Avenue that I realized I was wrong. I thought it was the symbolism of Takyrica and Martin’s multiracial marriage that put them at the forefront of this culture war. The look certainly plays a role, but it was their bedrock principles that put the steel in their backbone. They grew up in different worlds, went different paths, and yet they happened to meet and fall in love because they shared the same universal human values and principles. There is tremendous power in that truth, far greater than any man-made racial construct, and we have to hold on to it or whatever.
Eli Steele is a documentary filmmaker and writer. His latest film is “What Killed Michael Brown?” Twitter: @Hebro_Steele