Nichols Middle School’s use of affinity groups that were separated by race came under fire again on April 11. An op ed piece in Crain’s Chicago Business reported that Peter Kirsanow, a Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, sent a letter to Adrian Harries, Principal of Nichols, expressing his view that the practice may violate the law.

In a quick rebuke to Mr. Kirsanow, Catherine E. Lhamon, the Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, sent a letter dated April 11 to Principal Harries stating, that Mr. Kirsanow’s letter “does not reflect the views of the Commission.”

Several residents of New Trier Township have published op ed pieces challenging the practice, including the one on April 11.

The Affinity Groups

On Nov. 14, 2017, Principal Harries said in a memo to Nichols’ staff that at an upcoming staff meeting, “we will explore the concept of equity “through affinity groups.” The affinity groups, he said, “will be based on racial identification” with one group consisting of staff that identify as “individuals of color” and the other group consisting of those who identify as “White.”

Principal Harries’ memo said in part, “Affinity groups are an effective means through which people can explore and affirm aspects of their identity, as well as provide each other guidance and support for interacting with those who might not share, understand, or respect that identity. … Racial affinity groups can provide a space for reflection, dialogue, and support. The goal of affinity groups is to facilitate positive identity exploration and development towards the larger goals of creating an inclusive and thriving school environment.”

Commissioner Kirsanow’s Letter

Mr. Kirsanow, an African American who is generally regarded as holding conservative views, made clear in his letter that he was sending the letter as one member of the Commission, not on behalf of the Commission.  

Mr. Kirsanow said he assumes the segregated meetings were instituted in response to a recommendation in District 65’s May 2017 Equity Report that the District create “social identity affinity groups.” He said, “I am astonished that District 65 spent taxpayer money on a report that includes the recommendation, ‘separate teachers by race.’ Separating teachers by race fosters racial division and is prima facie unlawful. By its nature, it forces teachers to view themselves in terms of what divides them, rather than what they have in common. It also encourages a binary view of society that, depending on your perspective, is either, ‘whites against everyone else’ or ‘everyone else against whites.’ It may even foster a sense among both groups that they are threatened by the other.

“However well-intentioned, this is segregation for the 21st century,” Mr. Kirsanow said. “Unless a legitimate, nondiscriminatory educational reason can be articulated, the segregation almost certainly would be found unlawful. Discussions of politically correct notions of ‘privilege,’ unsupported by methodological rigor, do not qualify as legitimate reasons, and they are by their own definition discriminatory.”

The letter also suggested that the District’s hiring practices may run afoul of prohibitions against racial discrimination in hiring.

He also raised a question about the Equity Report’s analysis of the achievement gap. While stating that the achievement gap is concerning, he says, “It’s interesting that the equity report assiduously avoids any examination of the home lives of the children as a possible partial explanation for the achievement gap.

“The racially-conscious efforts you and District 65 have undertaken will foster racial division instead of racial understanding. Sending teachers to racially separate meetings is a stark picture of the future you are sowing. You are encouraging students and teachers to view each other as members of groups, not as individuals.”

D65 Superintendent’s Response

The RoundTable asked District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren to comment on the points made in Mr. Kirsanow’s letter to Mr. Harries. Dr. Goren provided this response:

“In District 65, our mission is to prepare each student to achieve academically, grow personally, and contribute positively to a global society. Yet, for decades we have fallen short of achieving our goals for every child, even with the implementation of curricular best practices and focused interventions. Despite our best efforts, academic outcomes of our students of color remain several grade levels behind their White peers. For longtime Evanstonians, District 65 educators, and especially for members of our Black and Latinx communities, this is a familiar story.

“Nearly three years ago, we renewed our focus on racial and educational equity with a strong, unwavering commitment from our school board and administration. I believe that this work is critical for the well-being and academic success of our Black and Latinx students and to prepare our White students for success in a multicultural world that is far from race neutral.

“In an effort to close the racial opportunity gap, our approach is multi-faceted and goes far beyond the classroom. We have taken an equity lens to our strategic priority areas to make systemic change across all levels of our organization – ranging from curricular practices, to employee hiring, to examining school climate – acknowledging that programmatic fixes and one-off solutions have not and will not make a sustained difference.

“Changing the practices and policies of a system takes time yet must be faced with urgency. Shifting attitudes and beliefs is not easy. We must equip our staff with the knowledge and skills to talk about race in productive and meaningful ways. We do this by offering a range of professional learning opportunities, mostly in whole group settings and occasionally through self-identified affinity groups. This technique has been used for staff and family groups in District 65 for several years and is commonly used throughout the Evanston community, across public education, and in the corporate world.

“We recognize that the idea of separating by racial identity feels uncomfortable for some. Staff can opt out of school-based affinity groups and the district groups are voluntary. Our aim is to create as many opportunities for reflection and conversation as possible so that adults are equipped to support students of all racial identities and meet each and every one of them where they are.

“As a White superintendent, I strongly support our equity champions who are living and breathing this work day in and day out. I support the efforts being undertaken by our staff members who hold multiple social identities to address race, racism, and bias in an open and honest manner. While we are not the first to do this work, we are excited to be at the forefront of these efforts and to see other districts embark on this work as part of the State of Illinois required training on implicit bias in schools.

“Our agenda will continue to promote racial and educational equity in our schools and we will not shy away from difficult conversations. Only by naming and learning about race, can we create a socially just and welcoming environment where children of color and white children have opportunities to fulfill their true potential.”

The Commission’s Chair Disavows Mr. Kirsanow’s Letter

In her April 11 letter to Principal Harries, the Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said individual commissioners are not permitted to use official letterhead as part of their communications (which Mr.  Kirsanow did).

The Chair also said, “As Mr. Kirsanow noted in his March 23, 2018 letter, his letter does not reflect the views of the Commission. … I hope you take care and I thank you for your important educational leadership in your school.”

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...