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For Black Americans, teaching about systemic racism is more urgent than ever

A gunman is accused of targeting Black people in Buffalo at a time when studying race has drawn controversy

A memorial on a wall near the scene of the mass shooting at the Buffalo supermarket last weekend. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)
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Ever since 10 Black people were slaughtered in her hometown of Buffalo simply because they were Black, Sophia Howard-Johnson keeps thinking about this quote from author Rachel Cargle: “White feelings should never be held in higher regard than Black lives.”

Howard-Johnson, a Black teacher in the Buffalo Public Schools, has watched as efforts to talk about race and racism in schools have come under scrutiny and, in many states, been restricted by law. Opponents object to, among other things, conversations that appear to blame White people today for sins of the past.

But last weekend in Buffalo, racism was not a policy up for debate. Authorities allege it was the stated motivation of a gunman who went to a supermarket hunting Black people to kill because of his belief, according to the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory, that White Americans are being overrun by people of color. For Howard-Johnson and many other Black educators and students, teaching about race has never felt more important.

“They need to take veteran teachers, activists and hire these people and have us come in there and teach this every day,” said Howard-Johnson, who is on medical leave from her position as an early-childhood educator. “I wonder if the school he went to had any cultural sensitivities, where he was taught about different ethnic backgrounds and contributions people made to America.”

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer two years ago, another death that sparked conversation about the racism Black Americans face, many school districts embraced racial equity programs and curriculums meant to address systemic bias.

A backlash followed, with conservatives accusing schools of indoctrinating children and trying to turn them into “social justice warriors.” More than a dozen states have passed legislation restricting how schools can talk and teach about race, affecting the way educators around the country address these subjects.

New critical race theory laws have teachers scared and confused

Conservative activist Christopher Rufo regularly obtains internal documents from trainings and curriculums regarding “critical race theory,” an intellectual movement that has become a catchall term Republicans use to describe teachings about race and racism. Last year, his targets included the Buffalo Public Schools. He went after the district for adopting “culturally responsive teaching” and “equity-based instructional strategies,” among other things.

He quoted a district official as saying the United States is “built on racism,” and he cited details from a curriculum that included Black Lives Matter principles. His critique was repeated on Fox News, online and on Tucker Carlson’s popular show. Carlson has also used his show to repeatedly promote versions of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that authorities say the alleged gunman in Buffalo embraced in a 180-page document published two days before the shooting last Saturday.

A Buffalo schools spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Last year, Fatima Morrell, the associate superintendent for culturally and linguistically responsive initiatives for the district, told a local news station that the district wanted to take on systemic racism and implicit bias in the district. “All of us have the power” to “create opportunities for honest conversations and create a landscape of equity if we want it,” she said.

In the aftermath of the mass shooting, some Black students and teachers in Buffalo and beyond are making connections between the views of the alleged shooter and school restrictions around the country. They say failure to confront systemic racism, in schools and elsewhere, fuels horrific events like the shooting last weekend and shows why it is important to teach these subjects.

“It just proves it is a current issue, not just something in the past,” said Zion Alexander, a high school senior from Missouri City in Texas. “I think a lot of people see talking about race as, like, bringing up something that doesn’t necessarily paint America in a positive light, and they’d rather live in ignorance rather than admitting what the problem is.”

He said his history teacher has made clear there are topics from the news that he is not supposed to address, including those dealing with race. If he does bring something up, Alexander said, the teacher needs to give both sides, even if, as in Buffalo, “there are some evils that just need to be called out for what they are.”

15 users signed into chatroom of suspect before Buffalo shooting

Daphne McNab, a Buffalo teacher who works with English-language learners, was deeply shaken by the attack. Her best friend was in the supermarket, hiding in one of the freezers. “To see her this shaken disturbs my soul because she has always been the strong one,” she said.

In the days since, McNab has been thinking about how to dismantle systems that breed racism and is acutely aware of the criticism of the Buffalo schools for including culturally responsive teaching and lessons about the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It has been very difficult to infuse these lessons into the classroom,” she said. “Many of the parents have called the school in anger that they don’t want their children learning these lessons.” She added, “Many of the Caucasian teachers do not feel ‘comfortable’ teaching these lessons. However, these lessons are of great importance.”

In the wake of the killings, she said, there is an urgency to put that discomfort aside. “People of color have been uncomfortable for hundreds of years. But now we have to come together, comfortable, uncomfortable or otherwise, to dismantle and deconstruct these structures that are holding us all back.

These connections are also being made by some national figures. “Critical race theory literally explains why Great Replacement Theory exists, but now just days after a white supremacist massacre the same people who created an entire book-banning hysteria around CRT are justifying and promoting GRT,” writer Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted on Monday. “Absolutely shameless. Absolutely shameful.”

Conservative media familiar with alleged theory of Buffalo suspect

Jerquila Slaughter, a high school teacher in Dallas, said her first thoughts after the Buffalo tragedy were that it could have happened in any neighborhood. “It could have been me. It could have been one of my students. It is a big thing that we have to bear as Black people, not being able to feel free in your own country that you were born,” said Slaughter, who teaches history at Kathlyn Joy Gilliam Collegiate Academy. Her thoughts also went to the restrictions that Texas and other states have imposed on discussions of race.

“As a history teacher, it’s even harder for me ‘cause I feel like I’m being restricted a lot about the truth about history, and so you always have to have this, ‘Oh I don’t want to get in trouble,’ you know. ‘Oh I better not say this, I got to say it this way.’ But I try to teach it exactly how it happened. But we still are restricted. That’s how we feel as African Americans. We’re always feeling restricted,” she said.

One of her students, Kiara Green, 17, added that teaching about race in schools might have prevented the actions of the assailant in Buffalo: “If more people are educated about it and more people are educated about how wrong it is or how it affects people and how it affects families, and they’re taught that no matter what color you are, you’re human, I feel like if he was taught that and he was grown into that, then he would have been less likely or he probably wouldn’t have done it at all.”

Desiree Breckenridge, a veteran high school teacher for Buffalo Public Schools, said students and others in the Black community first need to heal. She thinks about the importance of culturally relevant lessons that meet kids where they are but emphasizes that the schools do not teach critical race theory, as some conservatives charge. They teach about diversity. “This tragedy emphasized more of a need to teach diversity,” she said. “It just shows you how much more needs to be taught.”