Public school teachers in states where new laws could prevent them from teaching about systemic racism and white privilege are incensed — and say they just want to teach the truth.
“If I’m gonna teach the real history of the United States of America, there are some realities that need to be included — like systemic racism,” said Christopher Green, who teaches U.S. history to eighth-graders in San Antonio, Texas.
“Our country was built on the backs of enslaved Africans, so we can’t leave that out and adequately prepare our students for what they need to know to be civically engaged.”
Republican lawmakers are pushing bills in nearly two dozen states — and have so far enacted laws in Texas, Tennessee, Iowa, Idaho and Oklahoma — that seek to limit how teachers can discuss systemic racism in public schools, often under the guise of banning “critical race theory” from classrooms.
However, critical race theory, an academic discipline focused on how racism is embedded in the country’s legal, political and social institutions, is usually only studied in graduate or law school, and certainly not in K-12 classes.
While the laws passed so far don’t all explicitly mention critical race theory, they are all written with similar language meant to stifle instruction about racism, privilege and white supremacy.
Texas’ new law, for instance, says social studies teachers in public K-12 schools can’t talk in class about the concepts that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual’s race” or that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” based on their race or sex.
Tennessee’s law says public school teachers can give “impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a group,” yet can’t discuss how “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged.”
Iowa’s law says teachers can’t discuss how the U.S. is “fundamentally or systemically racist.”
It’s educational malpractice to whitewash American history by not teaching slavery or racism. Daniel Santos, eighth-grade history teacher in Houston
“That’s the whole crux of the problem: it’s focused on taking people and documents out of the classroom where you might have to delve into sticky subjects talking about race,” said Nelva Williamson, an AP U.S. history teacher in Houston who is Black. “But you can’t talk about this country unless you’re talking about race.”
Richard Beaulé, who is white and a former public school teacher in Killeen, Texas, said it would be harmful to prevent teachers from tackling subjects that cause people to “feel discomfort,” as the law puts it.
“When you’re talking about racism, it’s an uncomfortable topic, plain and simple,” Beaulé said. “To say ‘well, I’m not comfortable, so I’m not gonna teach it,’ it prevents our students, the next generation, from becoming the critical thinkers they need to be.”
— Richard Beaulé (Rick) (He/Him) (@loudguyrickyb) June 12, 2021
Critical race theory has become a focus of the right since last summer, when millions of Americans took to the streets to protest racist police violence. The Trump administration banned racial sensitivity training in federal agencies, ordering in a memo that any contracts involving instruction on “white privilege” or “critical race theory” be canceled.
Former President Donald Trump also repeatedly criticized The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project — led by Pulitzer-winning Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones — which explored how slavery and racism were part of the founding of this nation. In an effort to push “patriotic education,” the Trump administration then launched its own “1776 Commission” report, which excused America’s founders for owning slaves and defended the racist Three-Fifths Compromise.
For Daniel Santos, who has taught middle school U.S. history in Houston for the past 15 years, the right is using critical race theory as a “bogeyman” and “distraction to feed the false narrative that teachers are indoctrinating students.”
“It’s the opposite: I like my students to be critical thinkers, to see themselves as part of American history, to be tolerant of others,” said Santos, who is Latinx. “The idea that teachers are teaching students to hate white people, it’s false. We embrace diversity — we just want to hear not just from the group that’s had greater political power in history.”
For teachers, it’s the government seeking to legislate what historic facts can and can’t be taught in school that’s worrisome.
“These efforts by Republican policymakers, who don’t share the pedagogy or training I have as a history teacher, to dilute and water down history is just irresponsible,” Santos added. “It’s educational malpractice to whitewash American history by not teaching slavery or racism.”
Belton, TX pic.twitter.com/rfDMqHnqLD
— Richard Beaulé (Rick) (He/Him) (@loudguyrickyb) June 12, 2021
Teachers have protested in the streets and on social media in response to the reactionary bills being pushed in state legislatures. And thousands signed a “pledge to teach the truth” from the Zinn Education Project, saying laws shouldn’t prevent educators from teaching about “the role of racism, sexism … and oppression throughout U.S. history.”
Diarese George, a former teacher and executive director of the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance that led the letter, takes issue with the law’s language saying lessons should not include the concept that individuals “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish … because of the individual’s race.”
“Instead of saying ‘don’t teach it,’ why don’t we create the conditions where we can teach it?” said George, who is Black. “It’s like saying, ‘let’s remove all the generational trauma and hurt in this country and make another collective feel comfortable by not discussing it at all.’”
The teachers HuffPost spoke to in Texas, Tennessee and Iowa said that since the laws passed in their states, they haven’t received further guidance from their school districts or education officials as to what would have to change, if anything, in their curriculums next fall.
For some, that’s led to confusion about what they can and can’t teach.
James Compton, an English professor at Muscatine Community College in Iowa — where the new law applies not just to K-12 schools but also post-secondary schools like public colleges — said that the social justice film class he’s teaching in the fall would cover “most of the items prohibited in the law.”
“Whether it affects me depends on, say, if there’s a student who feels uncomfortable while we watch ‘I Am Not Your Negro,’ they complain to the dean,” said Compton, who is white. “I can see a student complaining, it going to the administration, and then having to defend ourselves.”
Pedro Berlanga, a 10th-grade social studies teacher in Austin, Texas, said he’s “still confused” about the specifics of the law, but his understanding is it “boils down to trying to dedicate time in class to teach all perspectives on a subject and avoiding blame of anything in history to white individuals.”
“A lot of teachers, myself included, will try to keep teaching the same way we have been,” added Berlanga, who is Latinx. “But it is scary. History is touchy and people are very defensive when you try to fight against a narrative pushed for years, even though it’s false. … There’s deep patriotic fervor in Texas. It’s hard walking that line.”
They can’t come against all of us if all of us say we’re going to teach the truth. Monique Cottman, a sixth-grade teacher in Iowa City, Iowa
Most teachers said that the new laws wouldn’t lead them to change any of what they’re teaching in the classroom.
“If they want to come see me, they can come in my classroom — I have a respectful space where we treat all people equally, and I teach the truth,” said Cartavius Black, a sixth-grade world history and African American history teacher in Memphis, Tennessee.
Even so, several teachers worried that the new laws, vague as they are, could stop other colleagues, especially teachers who are newer to the profession or aren’t already confident exploring issues of race and privilege in class, from broaching these tough but important subjects.
Many teachers’ biggest concern with these laws was how avoiding classroom instruction on systemic racism and privilege would do a particular disservice to their students of color, who experience racism in their everyday lives.
Black said for his students in predominantly Black Memphis, “the effects of racism are well felt.”
“Kids today have access to social media and see it in their face, so to have it not be taught why it exists and these things are happening?” Black said. “I, for one, will be teaching the origins of racism in my class.”
Monique Cottman, a sixth-grade teacher in Iowa City, noted that when the bills instruct teachers not to promote “discomfort” in discussing systemic racism in the classroom, lawmakers are clearly not focused on the comfort of students of color.
“We need to tell the truth and not necessarily focus on the comfort of people in the room,” said Cottman, who is Black. “Because ‘comfort’ in public education in America … We haven’t always cared about the comfort of every child in school. We separated some children [during segregation], because people weren’t comfortable having them in the school space.”
In Iowa, a state that is 90% white, Black teachers expressed concern about their own well-being as these laws try to quash conversation about systemic racism.
Cottman noted that for many of her students, she is the first Black teacher they’ve had — and for their parents, “I’m the first Black person they’ve experienced in a place of authority. For me, that’s where the fear is coming from.”
“I’m in Iowa, a predominantly white state, and white people are exercising their power to shut down my voice in teaching white people how they grew up in a country that’s systemically racist,” Cottman said.
“Yes, I’m gonna keep doing what I’m doing, but I need all the teachers in Iowa to be on the side of right. They can’t come against all of us if all of us say we’re going to teach the truth.”
Systemic racism is not hypothetical. These are facts. Lisa Covington, founding member of Black Lives Matter at School – Iowa
One teacher, Tre’Chiondria Lathan, recently moved to Rock Island, Illinois, after teaching second grade in Iowa for the prior three years. Part of the reason behind her move was that, as a Black woman, she didn’t feel she had the support she needed, given the new law passing.
“The majority of my co-workers and community was white and most of my students were white, so finding someone who I felt would understand me and commit to doing this work and make tangible changes was few and far between,” Lathan said, noting she is committed to anti-racism in her teaching.
“It’s either I’m going to stay here and break the law and potentially lose my mind in the process, or I’m going to leave and find a place to grow and feel safe to do this work. I did not feel safe to do that work in Iowa.”
For teachers, the value of discussing systemic racism in the classroom is not just about being accurate about this country’s past, but also about educating students about how racism affects our present society and institutions to create a better future.
“Systemic racism is not hypothetical. These are facts,” said Lisa Covington, a founding member of Black Lives Matter at School – Iowa. “Knowing the truth about the past can help create a more equitable future. The country was founded in an inequitable, exploitative way. Enslaving Africans was a part of this, creating laws to benefit white, male landowners. We allow students to understand the truth and avoid the same mistakes.”
George had a message to his fellow educators across the country facing the threat of these laws: “Commit to teaching the truth. There’s too much harm when you don’t.”
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