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Black History Month is not critical race theory, Alabama educator says in response to complaints

Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey says some parents are complaining that Black History Month programs constitute critical race theory. (Video still/YouTube/WSFA)

As the country celebrates Black History Month, some parents in Alabama are calling education officials to complain to schools that they believe celebrating the month is a way of practicing something else in the classroom: critical race theory.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey told members of the Alabama House Education Policy Committee this week that he has received at least two calls from parents in recent days who said they consider celebrating Black History Month a way of educating students on critical race theory, an academic framework for examining the way laws and policies perpetuate systemic racism. The issue has been turned into a contentious culture war in which conservatives nationwide have pushed back against racial equity initiatives by schools, including teaching about racism in American history.

“There are people out there who don’t understand what CRT is. And so in their misunderstanding of it, they make a report but it’s not actually CRT,” Mackey told officials Wednesday, according to AL.com. “Having a Black history program is not CRT.”

Even though critical race theory is not taught in K-12 classrooms in Alabama, the state has already approved a resolution banning the teaching of divisive concepts associated with critical race theory, and it is considering passing additional similar bills. Although education officials and Democrats have long stressed that critical race theory does not have a presence in Alabama classrooms, especially during Black History Month, some state Republicans have insisted, without evidence, that it does.

The acknowledgment from the state superintendent that some parents are concerned about teachings during Black History Month was met with criticism from many, including Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin (D).

“Welcome to reality,” he tweeted. “Alabama’s history is Black history. It’s enslavement, lynching, Jim Crow, brutality, and oppression. And it’s about the brave heroes that worked, fought, bled and even died for equality.”

Steve Murray, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, told The Washington Post that the complaints from parents that Black History Month programs constitute critical race theory are “foreboding indicators of what we can expect following passage of legislation restricting topics in history classrooms.”

“Vaguely worded laws against divisive concepts won’t do anything to excise CRT from the classroom, because it doesn’t exist there,” Murray said. “But those laws will have consequences, creating confusion on the part of parents and apprehension on the part of educators who rightly will worry that a perfectly appropriate lesson on slavery or civil rights could prompt a deluge of criticism or even the loss of their job.”

The news out of Alabama comes as at least 16 historically Black colleges and universities have received bomb threats at the start of Black History Month.

The debate over the teaching of race and history in the classroom that dominated much of 2021 has spilled into this year. Nationwide, some school boards with conservative majorities are already reconsidering lessons about systemic racism, which often get labeled critical race theory, and scrutinizing policies aimed at promoting diversity. In states such as Florida, the Republican-controlled Board of Education voted to ban public schools from teaching students about critical race theory. Several other states have passed bills banning the teaching of certain race-related issues in schools and elsewhere, with legislation pending in many other states.

What is critical race theory, and why do Republicans want to ban it in schools?

In vowing to keep critical race theory out of the classroom last summer, the Alabama State Board of Education drafted a resolution saying the board “believes the United States of America is not an inherently racist country, and that the state of Alabama is not an inherently racist state.”

A handful of educators nationwide have been dismissed or forced to resign in recent months over the teaching of race and history in the classroom. In Alabama, the state’s Education Department is investigating a CRT complaint from a parent in Huntsville who accused an elementary school teacher of using training materials that examined discrimination, racism and equity, reported AL.com.

Teachers across the country are caught in the middle of the latest flash point in America's culture war: critical race theory. Here's what it entails. (Video: Adriana Usero, Drea Cornejo, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

Issues involving race and history have played out throughout Alabama during the first week of Black History Month. The University of Alabama announced Thursday it would rename Graves Hall to Lucy-Graves Hall, in honor of Autherine Lucy Foster, the first Black student to enroll at the school on Feb. 3, 1956. In doing so, she will share a building name with Bibb Graves, who was an Alabama governor and an officer of the Ku Klux Klan, according to the Crimson White, the student newspaper.

At this week’s Education Policy Committee meeting, Mackey reiterated that people who are calling to complain about critical race theory don’t know what it is.

“I can tell you what’s in the state curriculum,” Mackey said. “I can tell you what’s in our textbooks, and CRT is not in there.”

Murray emphasized that his department has “never encountered an Alabama educator who seeks to use history or civics to set one group of Alabama students against another or to teach them to hate their country.”

But state Republicans have continued to decry the alleged teaching of critical race theory in the classroom. State Rep. Ed Oliver, who filed one of the bills targeting divisive concepts linked to CRT, has claimed, without evidence, that the academic framework is being taught in K-12 classrooms. At one point, Rep. Bob Fincher, a former high school history teacher, asked whether the supposed teaching of CRT in the classroom would make students feel bad about themselves, according to AL.com.

“Are we going to make certain students with our classes feel uncomfortable or feel lesser than someone else by use of this critical race theory?” he asked.

Murray told The Post that if additional measures are passed regarding what Republicans consider divisive concepts in education, “the history classroom will be an unmarked no man’s land.”

“It should be no surprise that educators will have to spend more time avoiding land mines than teaching students to be empathetic, well-informed thinkers and members of society,” he said.

Critics such as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones concluded that Alabama parents accusing Black History Month programs of teaching critical race theory was “the logical result of these laws” targeting race and history in the classroom.

Many online observers pointed to how the satirical website the Onion predicted earlier this week what would happen in Alabama, with a headline that reads, “School Calendar Jumps to March 1 After Critical Race Theory Ban Prohibits Month of February.”

Judd Legum, the writer of the Popular Information newsletter, needed only a few words to sum up the story out of Alabama: “The Onion called this one.”

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