US school row over black history

From September Philadelphia will become the first major US city to require its students to take such a course. Officials say the course will not only benefit black children by teaching them more about their history and culture but will also provide insights to their non-black classmates.

But critics say the new measure will further polarise the city by drawing attention to just one race and by not dealing with other racial and ethnic groups.

John Perzel, the Republican speaker of the Pennsylvania state House of Representatives, has asked the city's school board to make the course optional. Motivated partly by the comments of some of his mainly white constituents, Mr Perzel wrote that the plan "will divide, rather than unite the city and thereby erode the positive learning environment".

He said schools would do better to concentrate on "basic reading, writing and arithmetic". Once we have them down pat, I don't care what they teach. Students should understand basic American history before we go into African-American history."

The plan to teach black history in Philadelphia has been a long time coming. As far back as the 1960s, the city, which is two-thirds black, experienced demonstrations and appeals by parents to include more black history in the curriculum.

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