States want to prevent schools from telling the truth about racism in America. Here’s what educators can do about it.
Rann Miller, Chalkbeat
It’s not enough to quote Martin Luther King Jr. and point to stories of Black success.
At least half a dozen states have introduced legislation to prevent the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools. Educators in states where such bills become law would be blocked from teaching about the racist roots of Western society, generally, and the United States, specifically, and how racism continues to plague us. Some states are trying to ban the use of the 1619 Project, as well.
To understand why Critical Race Theory, or CRT, and the 1619 Project — a New York Times magazine series about how slavery has shaped the U.S. — draw the ire of many Republican legislators, we can look to the late Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire for guidance:
Conditioned by the experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression. Formerly, they could eat, dress, wear shoes, be educated, travel, and hear Beethoven; while millions did [none of those things]. Any restriction on this way of life, in the name of rights of the community, appears to the former oppressors as a profound violation of their individual rights.
But it is not oppression.
It is entirely plausible that the lawmakers passing these bills feel that any restriction to or challenge of teaching and learning from a Eurocentric lens is a profound violation of their rights and those of their constituents, specifically because they’re white. That would explain why so many white people levy the claim of reverse racism on CRT or the 1619 Project.
There’s anxiety regarding America’s changing demographics and perceived direction, but the reality is that, even in this increasingly diverse nation, power and authority remain largely in the hands of white people. Roughly 80% of all teachers and administrators in U.S. public schools are white. These are the individuals who set the tone for what is taught and how it is taught.
By contrast, white students make up only 46% of American public school students.
In New Jersey, where I live, where I’ve taught, and where I currently direct after-school programming, lawmakers have chosen to embrace the teaching of Black history with the passage of its Amistad Law, which mandates that all public schools teach Black history. The commission notwithstanding, white teachers comprise the the vast majority of those making curriculum decisions about Black History.
In the district where I currently work, of the six curriculum supervisors of curriculum, only one is Black, while 24% of our district students are Black.
There is a common and specific rationale among those who argue against teaching the truth of American history. It goes something like this:
While enslavement and segregation did happen. It happened long ago and was not instituted by anyone alive today. Black people, like Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, have succeeded in spite of racism. Therefore we can move on. … Besides, I don’t see color; as Dr. Martin Luther King said, I judge people based on the content of their character alone.
I’ve heard these arguments numerous times from colleagues and superiors alike who didn’t understand the need for things like culturally relevant pedagogy and culturally responsive texts, more Black and Latinx teachers, and a Black Student Union. I’ve heard it in personal conversations with white people. I’ve heard it from some Black people, too.
But as a teacher and student of history, I am well aware of the truth of our society’s white supremacist roots, its racist systems, and its white spaces. It is responsible, for example, for white teachers suspending Black children at disproportionately high rates.
I understand the trepidation white teachers may have teaching enslavement and segregation; some of my colleagues have shared that with me. Some have told me that they don’t want to offend. Others have said that there’s information they just don’t know.
I also understand that white teachers may be unaware of the systemic racism within the Constitution or the nation’s history oppressing Black and brown people outside of its borders, such as in Haiti and its role in overthrowing governments in Black and brown lands like Hawaii. I never learned those truths in school. Why would teachers and parents and politicians be comfortable with history lessons they were never taught and ones that debunk much of what they always believed to be true?
So what is the solution? Thankfully, there are some things that district leaders can do.
First, they must really invest in their professional development programs — ones that teach about historical truths surrounding white supremacy and racism and ones that teach educators how to apply this knowledge to their content area and the grade levels they teach.
Second, district leaders must identify teachers willing to teach — or willing to learn how to teach — these necessary truths to students in all content areas. It certainly doesn’t hurt to hire more Black teachers. Not that white teachers can’t do it, but speaking as a former Black social studies teacher, I wanted to teach about racism, enslavement, and the Africans who arrived in the Americas before African enslavement, and I wasn’t scared to do it.
In addition to hiring more Black teachers, hire Black curriculum supervisors and directors — those with the power to select and distribute culturally relevant and responsive texts, teaching strategies, and assessments.
State policymakers can attempt to outlaw what students learn. But they cannot outlaw what teachers learn, and they cannot prevent school districts from hiring more Black educators. This is a way to circumvent their legislative efforts.
Certainly, some will disagree with these suggestions, just as my children disagree with eating their vegetables. However, it doesn’t stop me from putting the vegetables on their plate, nor should we fail to teach the truth of American history.
Rann Miller is an educator from New Jersey. He is a former social studies teacher and a director of a local after-school and summer program. In addition, Miller is a professional development presenter and public speaker. His writings on race, education, politics, and history are featured in the Hechinger Report, Education Week, and the Grio. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.