I’m a first generation, 17-year-old Black American who grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Brooklyn neighborhood made famous by Jay-Z.
Given that brief biography, perhaps you’d assume that I’m a Black Lives Matter slogan-chanting, capitalism-chastising teen activist. Or that I’m an at-risk youth, destined for dropping out or incarceration.
You’d be wrong on both counts.
I'm a religious Christian and political conservative with an after-school job as a dishwasher at Panera: three things that, if we’re to believe the statistics about Gen Z, make me an outlier.
One thing the studies definitely get right: my peers and I are online all the time. I’ve had a cellphone since I was 11 years old and immediately downloaded Instagram. While there had always been references to social justice, they didn’t dominate. Until the past two years. Suddenly, they were everywhere I clicked and, often, at the centerpiece of our lesson plans at school. As classes moved from the classroom to bedroom, I began to notice my classmates denouncing their “white privilege” in Instagram posts, updating their bios with their gender pronouns, and posting links to various social justice causes.
Even though I find myself in similar circles as my activist counterparts, I did none of those things. I’m a proponent of equality and pluralism. But I don’t believe in the kind of self-aggrandizing, virtue signaling that accompanies so much of “woke” politics.
My inoculation — against woke politics and the social accreditation thereof — was given to me in stages.
The first shot came early, care of my parents, who run a Baptist church in our Brooklyn neighborhood. My mom and my dad, both immigrants from Haiti, have always been devout. Before they had a space for their church, they held services in the living room of our Bed-Stuy apartment.
They were strict. Way stricter, I now realize, than the parents of any of my friends. I was treated to death stares if I was fidgety at a church or at a family friend’s house. The television could not be turned on until the weekend. And even then, I had only two hours after I’d finished my homework. I was not allowed to play sports because they wanted me to focus on education. (As I grew up, they loosened up: I could watch TV at any time and I played soccer from 7th to 11th grade.)
In 2016, when I was 12 years old, we traveled to Haiti to build a church, this one high upon a hill in the village of Tavern, an hour away from Les Cayes. I remember the gleaming pews we installed there, the lightbulbs we screwed in, and the brand new piano keyboard we bought for the community. You cannot deny the privileges of being American when you see Haitian children weep over new shoes we deem uncool.
My parents lived by the values they instilled in me — charity, civility, responsibility, and tenacity — and their moral code follows me whenever I step out my door. I have plenty of Manhattanite friends whose families are wealthier than mine, but as my mother says my greatest inheritance is her belief in the Word.
I got my next layer of protection from Leadership Prep Ocean Hill Charter School, which I attended from first until eighth grade. Our dismissals there did not end at the school door. Instead, it was at the end of the block, with teachers escorting us and pleading us to walk directly home so as to avoid the gang violence that plagues the surrounding streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn.
We left school later than other public-school children. We had to wear uniforms, fold our hands, sit up straight, and track the speaker with our gaze. Essays were assigned every week. We took regular quizzes to ensure we read the books in our logs. There are those who admonish charter schools for their hardcore discipline — and my friends and I had plenty of complaints. In retrospect, I realize how lucky we were.
In the beginning of eighth grade, I started studying for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test to enroll in New York’s set of schools for high-performing students. Now, I had two hours of free test prep in addition to eight hours of school. One night at the dinner table, as I fell asleep with my head in my arms, I felt my mom gently tap me. “Li fatige,” I heard her tell my father as they continued their prayer.
When I finally did take the test, I got into Brooklyn Tech, which has an 8% acceptance rate.
Most assume I sing the tune of those who want to remove the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test in the name of diversity. Wouldn’t I like to see more faces similar to mine? Woke progressives accuse the test of filtering in wealthier students who have the family means to get tutored.
I find that argument puzzling, considering over half Brooklyn Tech’s student body (58.6%) are eligible for free or reduced lunch. That is also true for Brooklyn Latin (58.1%) and Queens High School for the Sciences at York College (61.9%). Just below half of Bronx Science (43.4%) and Staten Island Tech (42.8%) attendees are eligible. For context: In 2019-20, a family of four had to earn less than $3,970 monthly to qualify for free or reduced lunch.
In Intellectuals and Society, my favorite thinker, Thomas Sowell, notes that “it may be surprising . . . to discover large intergroup disparities” when viewing students as “abstract beings.” The conventional wisdom among liberals these days is that different admission rates along racial lines must necessarily be the result of systemic oppression. I think the truth is simpler: those who prioritize education will get in.
I got my next booster shot during my junior year. One history teacher’s office hours — usually a throw-away 20-minute period after class — became an antidote to woke politics for those who attended. This was a genuine “safe space” where we could debate unpopular ideas that didn’t fit neatly into social media posts. Beneficiaries of “white privilege” shared stories of their parents’ struggles when immigrating to the United States. One of them is my friend Julia, who talked of the abject poverty her parents endured upon their arrival from the Soviet Union.
When COVID hit and Black Lives Matter protests swept the country, I tried to understand why so many of my peers were so immersed in groupthink. I spoke to that history teacher, and I also found books like Stephen Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism and Richard Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind. On YouTube I discovered Jordan Peterson’s lectures, Peter Robinson’s Uncommon Knowledge at the Hoover Institution, Ben Shapiro’s show, and more. I ultimately started a channel of my own. (There is a lot of pressure to think the same on social media, but if you look hard enough you can find content online that deepens and enriches you.)
Here is the main thing I have learned:
When acceptance is the highest value, when avoiding condemnation online is worth more than the truth, the truth will be swiftly discarded. Online likes, followers and reputation — weak, empty values — dominate the teenage world because teenagers are not being taught alternative ones by the culture or, often, by the adults in their lives. They — we — are not being given the tools to answer the questions that really matter: What is truth? What is justice? And what is the purpose of life?
My generation’s been told that truth or justice are merely assertions of power. Except here’s the thing: The square root of 64 is 8, the Moon is nearly 239,000 miles from the Earth, and you do not need to believe in God to see that goodwill is a force for positive change. Believing in that is the ultimate immunization against nihilism.
Daniel Idfresne is a senior at Brooklyn Tech. You can follow him on YouTube.
I realize we’ve hit your inboxes with a lot this week:
Peter Boghossian’s powerful resignation letter to Portland State University.
What happens when a billionaire gives a small, liberal arts college $12 million, no strings attached? Peter Savodnik reports on the unintended consequences of MacKenzie Scott’s largesse.
Homeschooling is exploding in America. Suzy Weiss meets the parents yanking their kids from schools they say aren’t cutting it.
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