Combating Racism – Teaching American History

Last week I wrote about Critical Race Theory (CRT)—what it is, how it developed, the current debate about CRT, and the way teachers are being caught in the middle of a culture war.

Following the killing of George Floyd last year, schools across the country have worked to address systemic racism and the systemic barriers that have penalized students of color. They’ve formed diversity, inclusion and equity committees made up of students, teachers, and administrators, hired equity officers, and offered ongoing training for teachers to recognize and rid themselves of their unconscious biases, which many experts argue lead to, among other things, disproportionate suspensions and expulsions for Black and Latino students. But where advocates have seen this as racial progress, opponents see these efforts as an attempt to shame White teachers and White students for being part of an oppressive system. Schools have been accused of promoting Critical Race Theory.

Now, those efforts, advocates and district administrators say, would effectively come to a halt. As of July 15, 2021, six states have banned the teaching of CRT, and 26 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict teaching critical race theory and/or impose limits on how race is discussed in the classroom. [See last week’s newsletter for a list of actions in your state.] At this point it is unclear whether these new bills are constitutional, or whether they impermissibly restrict free speech.

Scholars who study critical race theory in education look at how policies and practices in K-12 education contribute to persistent racial inequalities in education, and advocate for ways to change them. Among the topics they’ve studied: racially segregated schools, the underfunding of majority-Black and Latino school districts, disproportionate disciplining of Black students, barriers to gifted programs and selective-admission high schools, and curricula that reinforce racist ideas.

Critical race theory is not a synonym for culturally relevant teaching, but it’s related in that one of its aims is to help students identify and critique the causes of social inequality in their own lives.

THE TEACHERS’ DILEMMA

According to Education Week, teachers are worried that new restrictions on "critical race theory" will change how they can teach. How can teachers avoid portraying history if they worry that, under these new laws and restrictions, teaching history will get them into trouble, even though it’s unclear what kind of trouble that could be?

  • Could a teacher who wants to talk about a factual instance of state-sponsored racism—like the establishment of Jim Crow, the series of laws that prevented Black Americans from voting or holding office and separated them from White people in public spaces—be considered in violation of these laws?
  • Will these newly adopted laws require educators to paint a rosy picture of America’s past? Or do they still permit legitimate discussions about the role that racism played in legally sanctioned racist practices, such as slavery and racial segregation? How do teachers explain why Japanese Americans were kept in internment camps during the Second World War?
  • How can teachers open a conversation about how we inherit a society that we were born into through no fault of our own? And live in a society beyond our choosing?
  • How can a teacher explain that the United States was not “fundamentally racist,” yet at the time of its founding, race-based slavery was legal and stayed that way until after the Civil War?

These are not philosophical questions. These are questions that lawmakers have essentially forced teachers to confront before they set out to teach American history.

Teachers may be torn between whether they should follow these new laws and policies or follow their professional code of ethics, which says teachers “shall not deliberately suppress or distort subject matter relevant to the student’s progress.”

It would be extremely difficult, in any case, to police what goes on inside hundreds of thousands of classrooms. But social studies educators fear that such laws could have a chilling effect on teachers who might self-censor their own lessons out of concern for parent or administrator complaints.

To address claims that teachers are indoctrinating students to hate white people and accept LGBTQ cultural norms, legislatures are moving to censor or place often-ambiguous conditions on classroom discussion of divisive topics, using a combination of financial penalties, state-mandated professional development reviews, and the threat of tangling administrators up in court and red tape, according to a review by Education Week.

Administrators who have closely read the bills or laws in their states say this sort of broad ban will make it difficult for teachers to talk about the day’s news, most American social justice movements, and many historical events that involved explicit acts of White supremacy. Many of the bills would drastically curtail how districts conduct anti-bias training for teachers and severely limit schools’ ability to offer ethnic studies courses or partner with outside advocacy organizations.

According to Joy Surrat Baskin, the director of legal services of the Texas Association of School Boards, “. . . there’s a chilling effect on just basic instruction.”

LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS

Below is a sample of some recent state actions and their implications for teachers.

Arizona

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a law that will fine districts $5,000 each time a teacher makes a student feel uncomfortable about their race or gender. In addition, teachers could have their teaching licenses suspended or revoked, and schools could lose accreditation, if the investigation finds evidence that they taught banned concepts about racism and sexism.

The new rules also allow parents and legal guardians to now “have the right to inspect curriculum, instructional materials, classroom assignments, and lesson plans to ensure compliance.”

Arkansas

In May, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson allowed a bill to become law without his signature. The law prevents government agencies from training employees, contractors, or any other group on “divisive concepts” of race and sex during racial and cultural sensitivity training.

Florida

Governor Ron DeSantis called for $17 million to fund curriculums that exclude “unsanctioned narratives like critical race theory.”

Idaho

Critics of critical race theory in Idaho pointed to a school handout asking teachers to incorporate “cultural diversity” into their classrooms. An Idaho state Representative led opposition to a teacher funding bill in the Idaho House over the issue.  He and others refused to approve the state budget for teacher salaries until the legislature fast-tracked a bill prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory in Idaho classrooms. A college student who protested said, “I really feel they are trying to silence a lot of history that puts the United States in a bad light. I feel we need to learn all sides of history.”

Montana

In late May, Montana’s Attorney General Austin Knudsen issued an opinion about the state’s ban on discussing racism and sexism in the classroom, deeming critical race theory illegal. He also condemned anti-racism training as “discriminatory.” Asking students to reflect on their racial identities and privilege is an example of the “race-based discrimination” that Knudsen said parents or students can file complaints about.

Oklahoma

Oklahoma’s law similarly bans diversity training “that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping or a bias on the basis of race or sex. . .”

“If any child in the classroom at any point feels [discomfort], then the teacher essentially is violating this law,” said Cecilia Robinson-Woods, superintendent of the predominantly Black Millwood school district in Oklahoma.

Tennessee

On June 30, a parent group from Tennessee wrote to the Commissioner of Education stating that, among other things, a lesson on Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to desegregate an elementary school in Louisiana, made white students feel uncomfortable and violated the “critical race theory law.”

“Targeting elementary age children with daily lessons on fighting past injustices as if they were occurring in present day violates Tennessee law and will sow the seeds of racial strife, neo-racism (and) neo-segregation,” Robin Steenman, the chair of the Williamson County chapter of Moms for Liberty wrote in the complaint.

Texas

Texas’ restrictions are among the broadest in the nation, and will affect nearly 5.5 million students, nearly three-quarters of whom are students of color. (Texas lawmakers could still enact additional restrictions—though on July 12, Democratic legislators fled the state, preventing a quorum and delaying any action during the special session.)

The Texas law makes it illegal for teachers to “be required to engage in training, orientation, or therapy that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping or blame on the basis of race or sex.”

A few years ago, the Dallas school district started offering courses on Black and Latino studies. Now, according to Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, it will have to stop offering those classes because the Texas law requires teachers to teach social studies “without giving deference to any one perspective.”

Texas lawmakers have tried to regulate the use of CRT as an approach to teaching in public schools. Below is a tweet originally published by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and now deleted from Twitter.

Virginia

In Northern Virginia Loudon County, two reports issued in 2019 showed that wide-spread racism was disadvantaging Black and Hispanic students. The reports showed that the school system’s discipline policies were stacked against children of color. The school system undertook an extensive plan to combat systemic racism, including teacher training, and implementing alternative forms of discipline. Now a political action committee is attempting to recall most of the county’s school board. There have been death threats made against the pro-equity board members. Ku Klux Klan fliers have been placed outside Black, Hispanic, Asian, and LGBTQ homes.

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Districts across the country often partner with local community organizations to assist with efforts to make diverse groups of students such as English-language learners or homeless children feel more welcomed in the classroom. But school districts in Texas and Iowa will have a difficult time conducting this sort of training or offer lessons on anti-racism under their new state laws.

TEACHERS’ RESPONSES

Below is a sampling of teacher responses to the new Texas legislation:

A Fort Worth, Texas 4th grade reading, writing, and social studies teacher at West Handley Elementary School said, “If I say too much, if I really do answer their questions the way I’m supposed to, I don’t want to get in trouble. But you don’t want to leave a kid hanging. You want to tell them the truth, what’s happening in the world, not have them find out from other sources that may not be accurate."

Joe Shehan, a 7th-12th grade social studies teacher at Azle Christian School, near Fort Worth said, “When you’re teaching the civil rights era, it was a systemically racist time in American history, and you have to teach it that way. I do see the concerns of teachers who are afraid that that’s going to prohibit them from being able to teach certain things or give the power to parents to come in and say, ‘Well, I don’t want my children reading Ibram X. Kendi in the classroom.’ Well, why not? . . . . We want kids to be shown both sides of an argument and let them make that decision. If we start saying, “This can’t be taught,” and taking autonomy away from teachers, that is dangerous.”

Juan Carmona, U.S. and Mexican American history teacher at Donna High School, near McAllen, Texas said, “You’re going to end up having to stifle class discussion, which in a sense, won’t educate our kids. They’re going to go and get their information probably from social media, things without evidence, without sources, just rumor and lies. We are casting our students aside, casting our learning aside for someone’s political agenda.

And some of the language is vague. It says teachers must explore a topic from a variety of “perspectives.” Whose perspectives? How do you evaluate a perspective? It says teachers can’t be compelled to discuss certain current events. What certain current events? . . . . Soon you’re down to studying history as a box that happened a long time ago and we can’t talk about how it applies to us, which is part of historical thinking skills. . . . This just seems like something that’s just going to harm [our kids]. Why would we want to do that? We should be expanding educational opportunities, not shrinking them.”

And of the Arkansas legislation, Leron McAdoo, a teacher at Central High School in Little Rock, said, “We need critical dialogue in schools, we need children not to just simply know facts but to understand facts in a way that allows them to be full citizens and whole citizens, and understand your neighbor better.”

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TEACHERS’ UNION RESPONSES

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers' union, asked its members to “fight back against anti-critical race theory rhetoric.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers' union, said that critical race theory is not taught in U.S. elementary, middle and high schools. The theory is taught only in law school and in college. She noted that “culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism or discrimination as critical race theory to try to make it toxic.” She told union members that “They are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history.” While detractors of critical race theory argue that White students in public school are learning to hate themselves as historical oppressors, Weingarten responded by arguing that school systems harm children when they fail to instruct them fully about the darker parts of America’s history. “The new laws limiting what educators can say about racism will ‘knock a big hole’ in student’s understanding of the nation and the world.”

“We want our kids to have an education that imparts honesty about who we are. We want to raise young people who can understand facts, study the truth, examine diverse perspectives and draw their own conclusions.”

CONCLUSION

In July 2021, the EdWeek Research Center conducted a survey among 760 K-12 educators, including 262 district leaders, 247 principals and 251 teachers that showed that 92% of those surveyed neither taught nor discussed critical race theory with their students.

According to Brian Broome, author of Punch Me Up to the Gods, “taking critical race theory out of the curriculum won’t stop discussions of race in schools. The discussions will take place in the hallways, cafeterias, and gymnasiums. . . . Black children will learn to accept a history that does not fully or accurately include them. But history is always being made. Which means White children also lose. They are being denied the ability to understand a rapidly changing America.”

There are no satisfactory answers for teachers, who will be forced to “distort” history one way or another. The way to make every child of every background feel well understood and respected is by creating a multi-cultural environment. That has nothing to do with critical race theory as a form of legal scholarship.

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If you believe that the best learning for children about our democracy and our country is one where children can grapple with the issues and understand how our past informs our futures, here are some organizations to follow:

The National Education Association's EdJustice League supports racial, social and economic justice programs in public education.

The Zinn Education Project promotes and supports the teaching of "People's History" with the belief that the more clearly we see the past, the more clearly we'll see the present and be equipped to improve it. Teaching materials are provided.

Black Lives Matter at School is a national coalition organizing for racial justice in education.

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