First, a fact: racism is a fundamental part of the past and present of the United States. It’s impossible for teachers to educate their students about the slave trade, the Japanese Exclusion Act, Jim Crow, the Know-Nothing Party, the Civil Rights and the Black Lives Matter movement, among countless other historical phenomena, without acknowledging the presence and role of racism and white supremacy. Pretending that those forces simply disappeared from American society at some point in the recent past is similarly inaccurate and doing so is a disservice to kids about to enter the real world.
Here’s What the Bans Are Really About
So the true goal of a slew of bills seeking to limit what teachers can say in the classroom is not teaching good history; it’s fostering an unquestioning belief in oft-unjust American institutions and quashing the widespread questioning of them prompted by recent events like the Trump administration’s Muslim Ban and the murder of George Floyd.
Of particular concern is “critical race theory”—a “practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society“—and the 1619 Project from the New York Times, two key drivers of outrage in the conservative media ecosystem that are being translated into legislation in GOP-controlled state governments around the country much to the chagrin of educators.
Five States Have Banned CRT And More Will Probably Come
So far, five states have passed such laws. In Florida, the state education board banned critical race theory and forbade the use of the 1619 Project in classrooms. Arkansan teachers are not allowed to teach “divisive concepts” like that of America’s long history of structural racism. Idaho’s schools and universities are prohibited from teaching that “any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior.”
That’s true, of course, but the people behind that bill definitely think that teaching the history of white supremacy and structural racism is the equivalent of teaching that white people are worse than other races. (It isn’t.)
Oklahoma’s new law is similar but with additional language against saying that any individual “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex” and making students feel “guilt” or “anguish” because they are a particular race or sex, two things that there isn’t much evidence were happening before it was passed. Iowa’s law has a similar clause.
Twenty-two other states are debating similar bills, but teachers are not taking these efforts to restrict their speech lying down.
These Bans Are Terrible For Kids
“Our children deserve to be taught authentic, connective histories,” said Tamara Anderson, a member of Black Lives Matter at School and an organizer in Philadelphia told USA Today. “Indigenous, Black, Latino, Asian and other people of color make up the fabric of what is actually America.”
Anderson is one of the many organizers planning rallies and other events this Saturday in cities around the country to bring attention to the threat that the anti-CRT hysteria poses to their profession and their students. The Zinn Education Project, which is coordinating these events, also created a pledge that teachers can sign, promising to “continue our commitment to develop critical thinking that supports students to better understand problems in our society, and to develop collective solutions to those problems.”
Part of the problem with these bills is that they could create a “chilling effect” on classrooms across the United States as teachers will be reticent to break the law and will be unsure of will, or won’t, be considered illegal under these CRT bans.
For example, few teachers will probably bring up critical race theory as a concept, but they might talk about the history of systemic racism in the United States in something like the Reconstruction era, a state-sanctioned backlash against the freedom of formerly enslaved Americans. It limits what speech can and can’t take place in the classroom — and could stop teachers from discussing things like racism or sexism.
But The Fight’s Not Over
But with Republican politicians apparently eager to whip up their base with another culture war, it will fall to the courts to protect the First Amendment rights of teachers and academic freedom in schools from the interference of a party that ironically claims to be against “cancel culture” and “snowflakes” who are ostensibly afraid of ideas they disagree with.
The president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher’s union, is already threatening legal action against these laws and promising to defend any teachers charged with violating them. This fight is just beginning, and unless they want kids to learn a sanitized, dishonest version of American history, it’s up to teachers—and parents—to fight back.