As I walked through the industrial streets of West Side Chicago and past the city limits in the village of Oak Park, I was charmed by the bustling downtown area where Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright once roamed. I felt like I had traveled back in time to old America where family-owned shops and restaurants dominated the streets instead of chain stores. I saw children and adults of different races playing and chatting. These authentic moments seemed to bring hope for the future in an America still reeling from the consequences of the murder of George Floyd. I noticed these interactions with interest because I came here to interview an interracial family who felt that hope was threatened by the introduction of critical race theory into local schools.
Part of my interest in this family was personal. I come from two generations of interracial marriages. And, whether Takyrica and Martin Kokoszka know it or not, the symbolism of their interracial family has placed them at the forefront of America’s latest cultural war around race.
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’s something I understand. When I walked into their modest and warm home, I was greeted by their smiles and their three adorable children, including Takyrica’s beautiful adult son from a high school relationship. Martin told me that he grew up in a working-class Connecticut town and that his love for basketball led him to discover that he wanted to be a physical education teacher at the age of 14. For Takyrica, it was a professor at Malcolm X College who inspired her to pursue math. She eventually suffered a $ 40,000 pay cut and quit her corporate job to join Martin in Chicago Public Schools as a math teacher.
GEORGIA BOARD OF EDUCATION AFFIRMS AMERICA IS NOT RACIST, WILL LIMIT DISCUSSIONS ON RACE
This inspiring conversation would have continued without mention of race if I hadn’t brought up the decision of local educators to introduce America’s latest racial ideology, Critical Race Theory (CRT), into local schools.
The crisis which opened the door to the CRT is particularly shameful. At the elementary school attended by Kokoszka’s two youngest children, 55% of whites and 13% of blacks in grades three to five were at grade level for the ELA metric. For math, it was worse with 66% of whites at school level while only 8% of blacks passed.
What made these statistics even more shameful was that they occurred in Oak Park, a village that rightly prided itself on its integration efforts since the 1960s. Months after the Passing the federal Fair Housing Act, Oak Park passed its own Fair Housing Ordinance to combat resegregation. These good residents set Oak Park on the road to integration, and many of them surely wouldn’t have predicted such racial success gaps decades later.
Martin provided me with a link to the recent Parent University Virtual Session for Parents of Oak Park School District students. The first slide was titled “Kindergarten to Grade 5 Social Justice Lessons: Building a Foundation for Inclusive and Anti-Racist Work in District 97”.
What followed was an uninspired presentation of materials learned by heart at various social justice conferences across America. The only moment to remember came when Maggie Cahill, district climate and culture coach, said, “All schools are rooted in white supremacy” and racism is “so pervasive” that it is “in it. ‘the air we breathe’ and ‘the water we breathe’ drink. “
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It was not the pictures of Maggie that marked me, but her straightforwardness. There is something deeply troubling when this righteousness is grounded in racial ideology – after all, if there is no truth about race, then the only thing left in its artificial constructs is power. But power over what?
Maggie reminded me of the high school teacher who told my teenage father in the segregated neighborhood on the south side of Chicago that he would be lucky if he became a janitor. This teacher valued the racial ideology of her day over my father’s education, and she considered it her moral duty to remind the black boy of his place in society. She was blind to the dreamer standing in front of her.
I wondered out loud, to Takyrica and Martin, if Maggie had thought about the impact of her CRT beliefs on an interracial family that doesn’t fit easily into American racing clubs. Martin turned to me: “How does it work? Are my children half oppressors and half oppressed? Takyrica went further: “And when they come home, who do they see? Their parents ? Or do they see an oppressor and the oppressed?
What was there to be gained by the American Maggies by separating an interracial family by race?
There is no doubt that supporters of CRT will passively and aggressively claim that this is just theory and that its critics overreact. But this theory ceases to be a theory as soon as it crosses the threshold of a school. There is nothing theoretical about assigning a societal 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 white supremacist constructs , and there is nothing theoretical in reducing the extremely complex beauty of mathematics and literature to the low value of race.
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There is also nothing theoretical about placing Martin and Takyrica in the midst of a CRT dominated culture war where they must fight daily not only as parents but as teachers to maintain their fundamentals. I asked Takyrica why she chose to teach in one of Chicago’s busiest neighborhoods, where gunshots ring out daily when she could have enrolled in one of the cozy schools. Oak Park. She just said she was from the West Side and that was where she was going to teach. Then she said, “Math is a superpower and I know that if I can instill a love of math in my students it will open the world to them. Education is what brought me to where I am today.
Martin echoed similar sentiments. More than Takyrica, he has already felt the effects of CRT in his school; he clashed with the administrators over his refusal to be reduced to whiteness. I asked him, why fight? Why not put your head down and get your paycheck for the sake of your family, especially as a white teacher in an almost all black and Hispanic school? He said that involving parents and high expectations from teachers were the two keys to a student’s success and that he was not going to let go of his responsibility. He also said, “If I allow myself to learn self-hatred because of my whiteness, then how can I love? You have to love yourself in order to be able to love and inspire others.
As I walked away from Kokoszka’s house, heading towards the glittering Chicago skyline in the distance, I felt empowered by my encounter with Takyrica and Martin. The energy they gave off was infectious and full of possibility and I knew that many of their students would find fuel in this stirring power, perhaps enough to last a lifetime. This power was very different from the power Maggie derived from her racial ideology. Her power has placed her on the “right” side of the community in addressing the shameful disparity of achievement gaps, but in reality, it has taken her away from the extremely difficult task of knowing how to educate a population left behind. A racial ideology that demeans people to the color of their skin does not have the power to uplift people.
It wasn’t until I made my way to Michigan Avenue that I realized I was wrong. I thought it was the symbolism of Takyrica and Martin’s interracial marriage that put them at the forefront of this culture war. Optics certainly play a role, but it’s their fundamentals that put steel in their backbone. They grew up in different worlds, took different paths, and yet they met by chance and fell in love because they shared the same universally human values and principles. There is tremendous power in this truth, far greater than any human racial construct, and we have to cling to it otherwise.
Eli Steele is a documentary filmmaker and writer. His latest film is “What Killed Michael Brown?” Twitter: @Hebro_Steele