The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teachers across the country protest laws restricting lessons on racism

Ben Frazier, founder of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, chants “Allow teachers to teach the truth” at the end of his public comments opposing Florida's plans to ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools during a meeting on June 10 in Jacksonville. (Bob Self/Florida Times-Union/AP)
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The backlash is sparking a backlash of its own.

On Saturday, thousands of educators and others gathered virtually and in person at historic locations in more than 20 cities to make clear that they would resist efforts in at least 15 Republican-led states to restrict what teachers can say in class about racism, sexism and oppression in America.

Organized by local educators across the country in association with several social justice organizations, the National Day of Action is meant to raise public awareness about the legislation and to send a message that they will not lie to students about the country’s racist past and present.

Several thousand teachers have signed a pledge that says: “We, the undersigned educators, refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events — regardless of the law.”

Ever since the May 2020 slaying of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis sparked a national social justice protest movement, many public schools have attempted to introduce and expand lessons on the systemic racism that has existed since the nation’s founding.

That sparked a backlash among conservatives. Republican-led legislatures are or have already passed legislation (whose wording is remarkably similar or identical, reflecting a coordinated effort) with such restrictions. On Thursday, Florida’s State Board of Education voted to ban the teaching of critical race theory in the state’s public schools.

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework that holds that racism is systemic, embedded in government policies and laws that are evident in any serious examination of American history. Critics say that racism is the work of individual bad actors, and, they say, teachers are improperly injecting race in the classroom. Teachers say it is impossible not to discuss race in any honest discussion or lesson about American history.

As my Post colleagues Laura Meckler and Hannah Natanson reported here, the educators who are teaching about racism aren’t actually pushing critical race theory into the classroom. What they are doing, they say, is addressing systemic barriers that have harmed students of color.

As schools expand racial equity work, conservatives see a new threat in critical race theory

In Iowa, where Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds this week signed legislation banning the teaching of “specific defined concepts,” including critical race theory, teachers say the law is already a chilling effect.

“I will say it’s already playing out,” sixth-grade teacher Monique Cottman said in an interview with Jesse Hagopian, a Seattle high school teacher and co-founder of Black Lives Matter at School.

“The White teachers who started doing a little bit more teaching about race and racism are now going back to their old way of teaching,” she said. “I’ve had conversations with teachers who said things like, ‘I’m getting so much pushback for teaching Alice Walker, I’m going to go back to teaching what I used to teach.’ So all the teachers who would have done a little bit of what I was doing — anti-racism work and culturally responsive teaching — they’re not going to do anything next year. They’re already declaring, ‘I’m not doing nothing,’ or ‘It’s not safe,’ or ‘I don’t want to lose my job.’ ”

At dozens of sites across the country on Saturday, educators and others gathered to push back.

In Memphis, protesters met at site where Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, ran a market of enslaved people from 1854 to 1860. Then they walked to the marker for the 1866 Memphis Massacre at Army Park and the National Museum of Civil Rights. The event was organized by educators who teach on the downtown lot where Forrest’s enslaved person market was located.

The organizers of Saturday’s Memphis event issued a call for action with the following explanation about why the state’s new law, passed last month by the legislature, is so problematic.

On May 24, Tennessee approved a law that intimidates teachers into lying to students about the role of racism, sexism, and oppression throughout U.S. history. As a part of a national day of action against similar laws being proposed in states nationwide, we’ll walk downtown Memphis to highlight historical markers that describe events in Memphis history that teachers would be forced to lie or omit facts about to ensure compliance with the new law.
Overall, the law brings the state government into our classrooms to restrict the ways teachers can discuss race, sexism, and oppression in American history. The law uses vague language to ban teachers from talking about racial/social privilege and responsibility for the effects of historical oppression in class. It bans teachers from including material that makes an individual feel “discomfort” when learning about race or gender in U.S. history.
Unfortunately, a lot of American history is uncomfortable. But if it really happened, we should never lie to students in order to preserve comfort over truth. The law’s vague undefined language makes it even more of a problem. For example, it includes language that bans teachers from any lesson that could promote “division between” racial groups, genders, social class or other affiliations. Imagine having to teach about the massacres, lynchings, and systemic oppression of Black Americans that all went unpunished by the U.S. Justice System - but instead of prioritizing historical fact and legacy, teachers must prioritize appeasing state regulations that ban divisive history, whatever that means.
Certain interpretations could clearly be weaponized to punish and persecute teachers who discuss social justice in class. At best, too much of the law is unnecessary and subjective. At worst, it purposefully hamstrings teachers from teaching real history to students. Either way, educators understand what this is, a threat from state politicians: teach the history we don’t like and you’re breaking the law in Tennessee.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country, said the restrictions on teaching racism are dangerous.

“No matter our color, background, or Zip code, we want our kids to have an education that imparts honesty about who we are, integrity in how we treat others, and courage to do what’s right,” she said in a statement. “But some lawmakers want to play politics with the truth and do more than that. The most feared phrase in education is, ‘I’m a politician and I am here to tell you how and what to teach.’ ”

Saturday’s National Day of Action was organized by the Zinn Education Project, a nonprofit group that provides learning materials based on the approach to history highlighted in Howard Zinn’s best-selling book, “A People’s History of the United States,” which emphasizes the role of working people, women, people of color and organized social movements in shaping history.

Materials from the Zinn Project have been targeted by those promoting state action, including the right-wing Goldwater Institute, which has promoted model legislation for legislators to adopt.

Also targeted is the 1619 Project, a collection of essays and stories published in the New York Times magazine in 2019 which argue that America was not founded in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was adopted, but rather in 1619, the year that enslaved Africans were first brought to the land that became the United States.

Why Republican efforts to ban the 1619 Project from classrooms are so misguided

Other organizers of Saturday’s event include Black Lives Matter at School, a national social justice movement inspired by Black Lives Matter; the D.C.-based nonprofit organization Teaching for Change; and the Milwaukee-based Rethinking Schools, a nonprofit publisher and social justice advocacy organization.

(Correction: Fixing spelling of Becky Pringle)