Black Voices Excluded from Critical Race Theory Debates in VirginiaHistorians in the News
tags: culture war, Loudoun County, Virginia, teaching history, critical race theory
The flashpoint was the “runaway slave” game during Black History Month.
For many years, Black parents showed up en masse at school board meetings to object to the racially biased treatment of Black children in Loudoun County, a suburb in northern Virginia. Then, in February 2019, students at Madison’s Trust Elementary School in Ashburn were told to navigate an obstacle course in gym class to simulate enslaved people escaping through the Underground Railroad.
In one instance, a Black child was chosen to play the “runaway slave.”
The incident pushed Loudoun County Public Schools into the national spotlight, said Katrece Nolen, a Black mother of two school-age children in the district. Loudoun’s history of structural racism in education, however, dates back decades. Its school system was the last in Virginia, and one of the last in the nation, to desegregate following the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. By the time Loudoun fully integrated in 1968, the school board and county leaders had engaged in years of massive resistance to maintain segregation — and, in the process, denied Black students and families equal access to public schools.
It is the legacy of that inequitable treatment that Loudoun County is now aiming to address, explained Nolen, who’s lived in the county for 19 years and recently chaired the LCPS Minority Student Achievement Advisory Committee. An equity assessment conducted in the spring of 2019 documented a pattern of systemic racism and discrimination within the school system — from racial slurs and racially motivated violence to discriminatory discipline policies and practices. What followed was a 16-point action plan in summer 2020 that identified steps to combat systemic racism in the county’s schools. The plan received resounding support from a diverse cross-section of the community at the time, Nolen said.
“At least 75 individuals virtually spoke in favor of it,” she said. “I was there. There was no press ... and people weren’t yelling. And then they started to implement the plan.”
Soon after, Loudoun County was back in the news, as the school system was thrust into the contentious national debate surrounding critical race theory ― an academic framework, previously little-discussed outside of universities, that examines how racism is embedded in American institutions and society. Across the country, the panic over CRT has become a catchall for disapproval of any teaching on race. In Loudoun County, the pendulum had swung from transforming the racial climate to raucous school board meetings. The pushback intersects with rapid and significant demographic changes in the county, in particular the tremendous growth of families of color and the sharp decline of the white population: from some 85% in 2000 to just 60% in 2020.
Against this backdrop, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Glenn Youngkin appeared, capitalizing on white parents’ angst by vowing to ban critical race theory from Virginia schools on his first day in office. Political commentators have credited his upset win on Nov. 2 to his campaign’s focus on education and parents.
But whose education, and which parents?
With the attention on “parents’ rights” in the widely covered Virginia election, one group was conspicuously absent: Black families who support teaching about race and racism. Some Black parents say their voices and viewpoints were sidelined. And amid all the uproar and outcry, the effect on Virginia’s Black children was largely overlooked.
Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor of history at Norfolk State University, said the impulse to miseducate students by hiding America’s true past is a consequence of not fully understanding history. Taking a deep dive into history is inherently controversial, she explained — people are complex and flawed, and the complexities are even greater once you introduce race. “If telling history makes you feel guilty about something, then maybe the issue is not the story, but rather what you’re hiding from,” she said.
When she’s taught African-American history to diverse groups, students are riveted by the stories, which she says is because they’re discovering new information that deepens their understanding of present society. The refusal to challenge students’ thinking is the antithesis of learning, she said.
“With tools of knowledge they come back and offer some really interesting points of view,” Newby-Alexander said. “That’s the kind of relationship you want in your class; young people having the opportunity to read a lot, and then discuss it.”
In 2019, Newby-Alexander was tapped to co-chair Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s Commission on African American History Education, which reviewed Virginia’s standards and instructional practices for teaching African-American history. Its final report found the standards were “tainted with a master narrative that marginalized or erased the presence of non-Europeans from the American landscape.” The commission’s recommendations led to the inclusion of more Black history in all Virginia history classes, and a new high school elective course in African-American history.
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