Accelerated Christian Education’s Ugly History of Racism
About the author: Jonny Scaramanga blogs on Accelerated Christian Education and leaving fundamentalism at his blog, Leaving Fundamentalism. He is building a resource on ACE here, and collects survivor stories from students with experience of ACE. Also by Jonny on HA: “How I (Barely) Survived Home Schooling.”
I remember staring at the text:
Economics is the major reason that apartheid exists. Some people want to abolish apartheid immediately. That action would certainly alter the situation in South Africa, but would not improve it.
It was 1996; I was 11. Nelson Mandela had been president of South Africa for two years, and apartheid had been officially abolished in South Africa for five. I was not exactly well informed about the situation. I knew it was complicated, and that the country was not exactly without problems. But I also knew that apartheid had been an evil thing that had treated black people as less than human. I suspected my book was written by a racist. I didn’t say anything about it to my parents though. That wasn’t how ACE worked. You just got on with it in silence.
ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) was at one time the leading curriculum for Christian day schools and home schools. It’s still big; ACE doesn’t publish numbers of home schoolers using it, but a claimed 6,000 schools worldwide are on the ACE program. I wasn’t the first person to notice that the curriculum had some ugly things to say about apartheid. In 1993, David J. Dent (writing for the New York Times news service) quoted an ACE book that said:
Although apartheid appears to allow the unfair treatment of blacks, the system has worked well in South Africa … Although white businessmen and developers are guilty of some unfair treatment of blacks, they turned South Africa into a modern industrialized nation, which the poor, uneducated blacks couldn’t have accomplished in several more decades. If more blacks were suddenly given control of the nation, its economy and business, as Mandela wished, they could have destroyed what they have waited and worked so hard for.
This quotation came to light when a black student, Priscila Dickerson, complained about it. Her school’s principal claimed that ACE’s racism was part of the reason the school used it. Dent quotes him as saying, “Racism still exists, and that’s one advantage of using a curriculum like this because we can show students that.”
Not long after I finished the lesson on apartheid, I struck up an email friendship with a disgruntled employee of ACE in Texas. I told him I’d noticed one or two things in my books which seemed kinda racist, and asked him what things were like where he worked. “Put it this way,” the ACE employee replied. “The only black guys working here are the janitors.”
In 1998, the book I’d used was finally updated. Now it said, “God’s Word teaches that no people should ever be wrongfully treated because of their race, since all people are created in God’s image.” That’s a lot better. But it also says this:
Apartheid was excused for several decades because of the advanced industrialization of the nation. However, due to the carnal nature of man, apartheid was also used to exploit the nonvoting black majority.
ACE, Social Studies 1086 (1998 revision)
I’ll let you judge whether I’m being biased about this, but I’m still not happy with that wording. The second sentence says apartheid was “used to exploit” black people because of “the carnal nature of man”. To me this sounds like they’re saying apartheid is not intrinsically exploitative; it was just used that way because men are sinful. In a perfect, non-sinful world, it seems to imply, you could have a system of apartheid were people were kept officially separated but not exploited, and this would be fine. That’s no world I want to live in.
In 2009, ACE again hit the headlines for defending apartheid.
Actually, ACE had worked hard to avoid allegations of racism. In his 1980 book Under Tutors and Governors, ACE’s VP Ronald Johnson devoted an entire chapter to denying that the schools were for whites only. According to Paul F. Parsons’ book Inside America’s Christian Schools, by 1987 ACE had a policy of refusing to sell its curriculum to schools with discriminatory admissions policies. There are one or two explicitly anti-racist statements in the curriculum, too. They hailed Martin Luther King as a Christian hero, and praised the Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in American schools (although these blips are not enough to stop ACE from being endorsed by white supremacists).
There had always been a suspicion that private Christian schools in America were associated with racism, fuelled by the fact that their explosion in popularity happened shortly after segregation was outlawed in public schools. In ACE’s case, the suspicion was intensified by the fact that ACE’s founder, Donald Howard, had attended Bob Jones University, at that time a notoriously white supremacist institution. BJU’s chancellor had long preached about how God intended for the races to be separate, and BJU did not accept black students until 1971—as Wikipedia notes, this was eight years after the University of South Carolina and Clemson University were integrated by court order—and even then only if those black students were married. In 1970, institutions with racially discriminatory admissions policies were barred from receiving tax exemptions. BJU filed suit to stop the IRS from removing its tax exemption. Ultimately BJU changed its policy and allowed all black students to enroll, just moments before the Supreme Court decision that made it illegal for colleges to discriminate based on race. Still, BJU didn’t allow students of different ethnicities to date until the year 2000.
I can find no record of Donald Howard or anyone else from ACE ever speaking out against BJU’s racism. Instead, Howard wrote (in his 1979 book, Rebirth of Our Nation):
Regardless of the reactions of the media, the Christian school movement is not racist. Schools are opening in white and black communities alike. Schools are segregated, integrated, multiracial, and as cross-sectioned as any program that’s all-American.
So the schools are integrated and segregated, huh? He seems to be saying that the schools can choose whether to be segregated or not. I wonder if he also thought slavery was a states’ rights issue.
It wasn’t until years after I escaped my ACE ordeal that someone pointed out what had been staring me in the face: ACE’s books depict segregated schools. Most ACE books have cartoons set in a fictional city called Highland. There are two Christian schools (and adjoining churches) in Highland: Highland Christian School, and Harmony Christian School. The students and the staff at Highland are all white. The students and staff at Harmony are all black. According to one of ACE’s books, Social Studies 1029 (page 7), “Harmony is a part of the larger community of Highland.” So it’s a ghetto, then.
In the last five years, ACE has been revising its curriculum entirely, and the new editions feature new cartoons. You’d think that in this new era, when even BJU has publicly apologised for its racist past, ACE would redraw the cartoons with integrated communities.
That is not what they’ve done.
Instead, they’ve added a new, third church-school, called Heartsville. The ethnicity of those in Heartsville is best described as “other”: Some appear to be Asian, and some Latino. Rather than abolishing segregation, ACE has reinforced ethnic divides by splitting its fictional universe into “white”, “black”, and “somewhere in between”.
I feel lucky that I noticed ACE’s stance on apartheid was ugly. Because I recognised it was racist, I could choose to reject it, although I worried about other students who might not. I’m much more bothered about the page-and-a-half of casual racism that introduces ACE’s study of Asia, because I only noticed it when I re-read it last year. I never noticed at the time, which means I thought this was OK (or I just didn’t bother reading it, which is completely possible given that you can complete ACE work just by skimming the text to find the missing word to write on the blank):
Michael tried to fight his panic as he raced from place to place, searching vainly for something familiar.
In desperation, Michael watched the people passing him on the street, but their physical appearance provided him no comfort. Their skin was light brown, their hair was dark and straight, and the inner fold of their eyelids made their eyes seem to slant.
If you were suddenly transported to a village like the one in which Michael found himself, how would you react? Far Eastern cultures, languages, and religions seem alien to most Europeans and Americans. Oriental people appear mysterious and inscrutable, and their religions seem strange. Do these people have anything in common with European or American Judeo-Christian heritage and beliefs?ACE, Social Studies 1106 (Geography), 2002 revision.
People I trusted gave me this as a schoolbook, and none of them ever commented on it to me. Either they too thought it was OK, or they didn’t read it. And whichever one it is, it’s inexcusable coming from people whose job was to teach me.
I don’t think ACE would accept that their books are racist, and I don’t think they intend to be. The newest books have pictures of a more ethnically diverse group of people than the old ones, and I even found two cartoons (TWO!) where black children are pictured in the same classroom as white ones. I don’t think ACE’s authors are hateful; they’re just ignorant. But when education is your business, ignorance is no excuse.
Every year, ACE holds regional and international student conventions. Students from ACE schools and home schools around the world come together to compete in various events, from athletics to preaching. As you’d expect from a fundamentalist organisation, the dress code is very strict.
And it has different acceptable hairstyles for black boys and white boys.
If you’re a white boy, you can have hair any length as long as it is off your collar and above your ears. If you’re black, though, your hair can’t be longer than one inch.
Oh, it doesn’t say this is a racially discriminatory policy. The exact wording is “Extra curly or afro hair is not to exceed one inch in length”. But the fact that this is also going to affect a small minority of white students doesn’t change the fact that this policy discriminates against black boys. While most white boys’ hair is neat and appropriate at three inches, a black boy’s natural hair at the same length is somehow offensive and indecent. And if you turn up with hair that doesn’t fit the dress code, you’ll be turned away: “Those who require a haircut will not be permitted to register until they have located a barber and complied with the Student Convention standards.”
ACE’s ugly history of racism seems to still be alive and well.