Last month, Gov. Ned Lamont delivered his 2023 State of the State Address. In it there was a clear emphasis on hope and unity, literal bridge-building was highlighted, and signs that Connecticut cities and suburbs are “working together as one” were noted and celebrated. I am hopeful about the possibility for progress and unity in the state of Connecticut, but one important caveat to working cooperatively is that all parties must participate.
We are in a contentious moment in U.S. history in which various inequalities are resurgent and the right to even discuss them is contested. In this context, the governor’s message threatens to abandon vulnerable communities and leave us unprepared to face this challenge.
In other states the resurgence of inequality is unequivocal. Access to critical gender-affirming care is shrinking throughout the country as is access to reproductive health care. Just last month, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order asking for a review of education policies that “promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as CRT” or critical race theory. In Florida, similar restrictions of rights and speech gain momentum. These actions reflect a broader cultural zeitgeist of intolerance and bigotry that seeks to restrict how we talk about, plan around, and upend inequalities in our country.
Central to these cultural trends is a political strategy debate about how or when to talk about the various inequalities in our society. More conservative political strategists tend to recommend avoidance of these topics in our classrooms because such a curriculum would vilify white children and boys. Moderate strategists tend to follow this advice for political expediency and in the name of unity, subscribing to the belief that messaging about inequality loses elections.
The evidence suggests that none of the reasons for avoiding direct confrontations of inequality are valid. Contrary to claims and ongoing attempts at classroom thought control, public opinion polls generally favor teaching about inequality in schools. In a 2021 survey by ABC news, for instance, there is broad support for teaching the complex history of racism in the United States (including support from 44% of Republicans), and social science studies find that white parents can have constructive color-conscious conversations with their children. Political science research also suggests that messaging strategies that directly discuss racial inequality are more effective than more neutral messaging strategies.
In our own research, we found that using data to talk directly about American racism leads to learning, and lays the groundwork for progress toward eventually upending that inequality.
In our study, Connecticut residents were assigned one of three options for learning about racial inequality. In the first, participants were told a story about a single Black family and their own specific struggle with American racism. In the second, participants were exposed to real data about Black-white inequality in wealth, housing, and education. The third group received both the story and data information in a combined format. We then asked participants what they learned.
We found that the story did not change people’s views about American racism— perhaps because a single family’s story of facing inequality was too easy to dismiss as an anecdote. In contrast, we found that both white participants and participants of color that were given facts through real data in our study became more accurate about the magnitude of Black-white wealth inequality in the U.S. Moreover, exposure to the data changed how they discussed American racism: After learning about data on racial inequality in the U.S. participants were less likely to see personal success, motivation, and striving as a remedy for this deeply structural problem.
As a father with two children in public school in New Haven, and as a scholar who has talked and written often about inequality, I know that the same cultural currents that threaten to curtail our rights do not respect state borders.
Connecticut’s governor could stand in sharp contrast to these currents, but instead, he appears largely avoidant of these issues in contrast to the above evidence: In his State of the State speech, Governor Lamont celebrated the diversity of Connecticut but, potentially in a strategy to appear bipartisan, declared that our diversity is “not woke,” thereby distancing our state from grassroots movements toward racial justice and equity.
In November debates, Lamont stated that Connecticut schools should not teach about gender identity during sex education, a statement that conflicts with evidence about the importance of these discussions and public opinion polls which find majority support for these conversations. The governor also continues to preside over a public education system with a $639 million funding gap between districts that are majority people of color versus majority white. That is roughly $2,300 less per student in those districts with majority-minority students.
It is good for Lamont to chart a hopeful and unifying course for his second term. But, let’s not do so by avoiding the persistent and central challenges facing our state and nation. As James Baldwin writes, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Michael Kraus is an Associate Professor at Yale University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network Connecticut Chapter,