Black American Educators: New Laws Silence UsHistorians in the News
tags: racism, African American history, culture war, education history, critical race theory
History teacher Valanna White filed into the auditorium the first week of August for the customary back-to-school all-staff meeting at Walker Valley high school in Cleveland, Tennessee. What she heard shifted her outlook for the coming school year. On 1 July, a new law took effect banning the teaching of critical race theory in Tennessee public schools. White listened intently as a school district official gave a vague overview informing the group that critical race theory was prohibited, though without fully explaining what critical race theory entails. Instead, teachers were told a list of actions – such as discussing racial discrimination – that were forbidden.
White left the meeting confused and frustrated. Tennessee’s academic standards for US history require high school teachers to cover topics including Jim Crow laws, Plessy v Ferguson – the 1896 supreme court case upholding the separate-but-equal doctrine – and the civil rights movement. “I can’t talk about the civil rights movement without talking about Bloody Sunday and the premise behind Bloody Sunday, the premise behind voter suppression,” she said, dreading the repercussions “for just teaching my standards”.
As the one Black teacher in a high school of 1,400 students, White felt alienated. Racial discrimination is not an abstract concept to her. Classroom conversations about race and institutional racism were already a delicate dance of carefully chosen words delivered by White to her school’s majority white student body. “No matter what I say, it’s constantly scrutinized or even misconstrued,” she said, adding that students often equate material on race as her opinion, as opposed to factual information. Now teaching a precise accounting of history was going to be not just tricky but professionally risky. “It’s all about interpretation, regardless if I’m presenting facts or not … if they perceive it wrong, I could get in trouble.”
In Tennessee, teachers are now required to avoid materials that state “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously”. Among the repercussions for violating the new measure are Tennessee districts losing state funding and individual teachers having their licenses revoked or suspended.
Teaching America’s complex racial past has become infinitely more difficult with a spate of new laws passed in some states in recent months. As racial justice protests and a so-called national reckoning on race have prompted a closer examination of whose history is excluded in schools and why, outlawing critical race theory (CRT) became the rallying cry of conservative lawmakers in state houses, by state boards of education, and at raucous school board meetings. CRT emerged in the 1980s as an academic discipline commonly taught in colleges and law schools. The concept interrogates the ways that institutional and structural racism have fundamentally shaped the country’s policies and laws. Experts view it as a way of explaining deep racial disparities in the US and grappling with America’s history of white supremacy. Others argue that CRT amounts to racially divisive indoctrination of students.
Twenty-two states have passed or are considering legislation to ban or restrict discourse on race and racism in the country’s public K-12 classrooms, according to a Brookings Institution analysis completed in August. Starting this month, teachers in Texas are barred from telling students that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality”. And in July in Iowa, teaching concepts that could lead to “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of that individual’s race or sex” were prohibited.
The external pressures on Black teachers like White are intense as they struggle to bring their full selves to the classroom, while cautiously navigating new policies that constrain their teaching and feel increasingly unsafe. Other times when Black teachers have taken a stand they were purged from their jobs – casting an ominous shadow over what can happen when Black teachers are thrust into the country’s larger culture wars.
Historian Charles C Bolton chronicles the systematic firing of Black teachers who advocated for civil rights in The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle Over School Integration in Mississippi, 1870-1980. The US supreme court’s 1954 Brown v Board of Education ruling not only struck down segregation in public schools but also invigorated the civil rights movement; this placed Black teachers squarely in the bullseye. Following the landmark decision, segregationists focused their antipathy on the NAACP – the legal powerhouse behind the case. Across the south, states outlawed the organization and passed legislation barring NAACP members from holding state or local government jobs.
Black teachers – whose activism was the lifeblood of local NAACP chapters – were swiftly fired or forced to resign. Candace Cunningham, assistant professor of history at Florida Atlantic University, recounts the story of 21 Black teachers in South Carolina who were dismissed from their jobs in 1956 for refusing to sign an oath disavowing the civil rights group. She writes of Black teachers “as community leaders whose work was politicized because it challenged white supremacy” – an observation that seemingly holds as true today as it did 65 years ago.
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