As States Build Barriers to Racial Justice Teaching, Educators Fight Back
Illustrator: Brian Stauffer
January 3, 2022
Heather Smith is a middle school technology teacher in Youngstown, Ohio. In late May she watched in horror as Republicans introduced House Bill 322, legislation that would restrict how educators like her could teach about racism.
“No teacher or school administrator . . . shall approve for use, make use of, or carry out standards, curricula, lesson plans, textbooks [or] instructional materials” that suggest “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,” the bill read.
Backed by national conservative organizations, more than 25 other states have introduced similar bills that would require educators to pare down or even eliminate their lessons around systemic racism. As of December, nine of those states — Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Arizona, and South Carolina — had enacted their bills into law. In other states, including Florida, Georgia, and Utah, state education boards have introduced guidelines and resolutions to restrict teaching about racism in schools.
The advent of legislation and rumblings of more to come have created an intimidating environment for educators, who already felt embattled after a year of pandemic teaching. Threats of legal retribution abound. In New Hampshire, the conservative group Moms for Liberty pledged in November to pay $500 to the first person who could catch a public school educator “breaking” their new state law. In December, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis introduced a bill to allow parents to sue school districts that teach lessons about race they object to.
In response to the new rules and guidelines, district administrators have started pulling books from school libraries and reconsidering what educators can permissibly say in their classrooms. In October, one Florida school district ordered the removal of a 5th-grade reading text that depicted a child and father attending a Black Lives Matter protest in Atlanta in 2020. The school district required it be replaced with a narrative that was similarly constructed but that took place in 1963 instead, during a Civil Rights Movement march. The contemporary anecdote “contained content that may be controversial and in conflict with [Florida Department of Education] requirements,” the school district wrote in a letter to parents. The problem with the text, in other words, was the suggestion that racism is not confined to the past.
Recognizing the danger this sort of censorship poses to students and society, teachers nationwide have been standing up to register their resistance and solidarity, organizing rallies, supporting school board candidates who reject these bills, and doubling down on their own efforts to learn and teach about race.
Pledging to “Teach Truth” Across the Country
When Smith heard about the national day of action educators were organizing on June 12 in response to these types of bills, she felt relief, and looked to find something local she could attend. But when she realized that no one was planning anything in Youngstown, she thought, “Well, why don’t I just try to do it myself?”
She reached out to Penny Wells, the director of the Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, which takes high school students on immersion trips to southern Civil Rights Movement landmarks. The Zinn Education Project (coordinated by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change) had called for the day of action, and was encouraging organizers to hold events at the kinds of historic sites that teachers would have to lie about or omit entirely from their curriculum if the oppressive bills became law. So in Youngstown, Smith and Wells invited activists to gather at a local swimming pool that was segregated throughout the 1940s. At the rally, they explored the history of segregated pools and an Ohio State Board of Education member, despite what the state legislature was doing, read the board’s official resolution against racism and hate.
Smith is not alone in feeling the pull of action and responsibility. In Providence, Rhode Island, 3rd-grade teacher Lindsay Paiva felt worried as Republicans introduced House Bill 6070 in her state legislature — to ban teaching so-called “divisive topics” in public schools. Although the bill ultimately died in committee, conservative groups have continued to organize for its reintroduction. So when Paiva saw the call to action for educators in June, she too felt compelled to organize. They held their local rally at the DeWolf Tavern in Bristol, which formerly held enslaved people between auctions. Michael Rebne, a teacher in Kansas City, Kansas, heeded the call too, and with his chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice helped organize a roughly three-mile march of educators from a historically Black high school to the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, Missouri. “We wanted our rally to be a message to push back against all the white parents and community members in the suburbs who have been protesting CRT [critical race theory] at school board meetings,” he explained.
Rebecca Coven and Ari Abraham, two Chicago educators, teamed up to plan a local rally in late August with the support of the Chicago Teachers Union. Their city has a strong community of anti-racist activists, and Illinois is doing far better than most states in encouraging inclusive curriculum. In 2019, Democratic Gov. J. B. Pritzker signed the first law in the nation requiring public schools to teach Asian American history, and a month later he signed another bill to ensure that contributions of LGBTQ+ people are represented in classrooms. Still, Coven said, there is not always enough time and resources for educators looking to teach about systemic racism.
“In Chicago, what we wanted to do was stand in solidarity with fellow educators who live in states that are fighting bans on teaching truth, and we also wanted to create a community of educators here who are committed publicly to teaching truth and empowering our students,” Coven explained. They gathered together at the 1919 Chicago Race Riot marker, near where Eugene Williams, a Black teenager, was stoned to death by a white man while he was swimming in Lake Michigan. Coven herself made a pledge that day to not only teach the difficult parts of U.S. history, but also to teach more about joy and resistance among Black people, Indigenous communities, and other individuals of color. “Education can be a tool for liberation by centering our shared humanity,” she said. “But our schools don’t spend as much time as they should uplifting our students and the contributions of people who look like them.”
Like Coven and Abraham in Chicago, Lena Amick, a high school teacher in Maryland, also felt it was necessary to help organize an event in a blue state. “Not because there’s a huge threat of those anti-CRT laws happening in Maryland but because the rhetoric behind those laws is what’s dangerous in this area,” Amick said. “The rhetoric is just one more tool used to undermine public education and undercut teacher autonomy.” About 70 people attended the local Teach Truth rally she co-organized, where they gathered near the historic East Towson neighborhood, a community founded by formerly enslaved peoples in the 1850s.
Fighting Back Against a History of Classroom Censorship
The contemporary wave of bills attacking teaching about systemic racism and so-called “divisive topics” is not, by any means, the first time that educators committed to social justice have had to battle efforts to censor content in the classroom.
Back in the 1930s, conservative groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution ginned up opposition to leading school textbooks that encouraged exploration of American racism, exploitation, and inequality. (Anti-capitalist critiques had grown more prevalent and pronounced following the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression.) In the 1950s, conservative groups like the American Legion and National Council for American Education targeted so-called “unpatriotic” textbooks and teachers, accusing educators throughout the McCarthy era of teaching students disloyalty. Fights around textbooks and appropriate curriculum grew even more contentious in the years following desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.
But educators don’t have to look back decades to find antecedents to the most recent backlash. More recently has been the wars around ethnic studies, which sparked major resistance beginning in 2010, when conservative Arizona lawmakers banned the Mexican American ethnic studies program in Tucson public schools. (The Rethinking Schools publication Rethinking Columbus was one of the banned books.) The lawmakers claimed the program had “radicalized” and “indoctrinated” students. In fact, the objections to ethnic studies then sounded almost identical to critiques leveled at “critical race theory” today: that the curriculum makes white students feel bad about themselves, that the lessons are too focused on race, that the material should be taught only at the college level.
The Tucson ethnic studies program launched in 1998, and efforts to shut it down ended up galvanizing new efforts to promote similar programs across the country. In 2020, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1010, which will require every public school student in California to take an ethnic studies course before graduating.
Momentum to diversify teaching, pursue equity initiatives, and push ethnic studies further accelerated during the Trump era, when immigrants faced heightened threats of deportation and the movement to end police brutality against Black Americans picked up steam.
Many teachers point to September 2020 as a turning point, when Trump attacked the New York Times’ 1619 Project, calling it a “crusade against American history” that “will destroy our country.” He kept up his public criticisms, and shortly before he left office in January 2021, he established a commission to counter the idea that “the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.”
Following his lead, state lawmakers began introducing their bills targeting educators last spring. More than 7,500 educators responded in turn by signing the Zinn Education Project’s Pledge to Teach the Truth. The pledge endorses Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Pledge signers also promise to “refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events.”
Signing that pledge carried consequences for some teachers. The Daily Wire, a conservative news outlet, reported on the pledge and call for action, and numerous educators who signed publicly said they were subjected to harassment, intimidation, and physical threats. Other teachers and administrators have resigned or been threatened with firing over the last year due to their classroom lessons and public advocacy.
Jennifer Lee, a high school educator in Killeen, Texas, worked to support teachers in her state who faced threats from The Daily Wire’s attention. Lee spoke with educators facing retribution and encouraged them to contact the Texas State Teachers Association, her teacher organization and the state affiliate of the National Education Association. “One Texas teacher got a letter from her superintendent saying that they did not appreciate her signing the Teach Truth pledge, and so we talked through the process to join TSTA,” Lee said. The organization, as well as its parent union and the American Federation of Teachers, have all promised to defend educators who face punishment for doing their fundamental jobs.
Lee herself has also been organizing local rallies in defense of teaching un-sanitized history. She describes her community as “very Republican” and “passionate about certain kinds of history” — namely Confederate history. In her town of Killeen, there have been multiple protests dedicated to keeping Confederate statutes up.
Given this local context, Lee and her colleagues decided to organize a Teach Truth rally in front of their county courthouse, where a Confederate monument still stands on the lawn. Lee acknowledged that those in favor of Confederate memorabilia also use the “teach truth” language in their advocacy. “They would say they also want history to be taught but correctly,” she said. “Correctly to them means that you don’t bash slave owners.”
As summer break transitioned into the fall, some activist teachers acknowledged that the new school year brought about barriers to organizing against attacks on anti-racist teaching, especially as educators contended with new staff shortages and shoddy COVID-19 safety protocols.
“When our governor put a mask mandate ban in place — even as COVID cases were skyrocketing — our organizing energy shifted to that,” said Lee. Still, the group of Texas activists who came together over the summer to organize their rally has not dissolved. “We now have a Facebook page, we have Zoom meetings, a group text, and we can pivot again [after COVID-19] to other things,” Lee said.
Paiva, in Rhode Island, also said educators have had to slow their work down since the new school year started. “There’s a lot of school-based organizing that pops back up and union organizing also resumes,” she said. Amick in Maryland highlighted the additional barrier of burnout. “Our staffing shortage has forced us all into enormous stress this year,” she said. “When you literally do not have enough adults to put into the classrooms with the students, you start to lose valuable time and energy.”
Study Groups and School Boards
Yet another avenue educators have embraced to register their resistance has been through study groups. Teachers are joining new study groups and attending online classes and professional development focused on deepening their commitments to racial justice.
Rebne from Kansas is involved with one of the Zinn Education Project’s Teaching for Black Lives study groups, which explore anti-racist perspectives to teaching. His cohort is using the associated readings to plan the first Black Lives Matter Week of Action at their high school, organized in collaboration with student groups and the student council.
Rebne says his own learning has made him a more conscious educator during periods like Thanksgiving. “Even in physics class, we spend some time dispelling these myths and featuring Indigenous mathematicians and scientists,” he said, adding there’s also now a greater focus on connections between racism and the underrepresentation of people of color in STEM fields.
With Chaplain Cole Knapper, Amelia Haynes Wheeler, a former public school teacher who is now a graduate student in the Social Studies Education program at the University of Georgia, helped plan a new series of professional development modules this year for teachers called “Teach the Truth Thursdays.” The sessions consisted of eight weekly workshops hosted by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, a civil rights nonprofit, and Haynes Wheeler helped design the curriculum. Their goal, she said, is to support classroom teachers “in whatever place they are in their journey to become anti-racist educators.” A similar series is being planned for the spring.
School board elections are another ripe domain for organizing. Earlier this year the 1776 Project PAC, a right-wing national group, formed to elect school board members who oppose critical race theory, racial justice teaching, and lessons that could make white students feel uncomfortable. Any endorsee from this group must agree to restore “honest, patriotic education that cultivates in our children a profound love for our country.” Rebne and his colleagues have been working to support school board challengers who reject these ideas, though it’s been something of an uphill climb. In November, seven of the 10 Kansas candidates the 1776 Project PAC backed won their elections.
In New York, Vanessa Spiegel has also been keeping her pulse on upcoming school board elections. Like many educators, Spiegel reflected during the pandemic about what role she could play in the movement for racial justice. “As a teacher in a New York City Title I school, it was easy to think I was doing enough just by showing up at work,” she said. “But I realized that I needed to be more affirming and purposeful in my efforts to fight racism.”
In her home community of Westchester, Spiegel began organizing other parents to counter the rhetoric coming from Save Our Schools for Westchester Children — a parent group formed to fight lessons about systemic racism. Spiegel is a founding member of Teach the Truth – Westchester, which helps mobilize parents to support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in local schools. “In Westchester it really runs the gamut of very liberal and very conservative school districts, and I think I was living in a bubble before that these attacks [on anti-racist teaching] couldn’t happen here,” she said.
Pushing Forward for Students
Anthony Downer, a teacher in Atlanta, is optimistic about the future of educator and student organizing for racial justice, but acknowledged the consequences for teachers doing so right now are real. Downer, who emerged as a leader in his former school district in Gwinnett County, Georgia, advocating for initiatives like more culturally responsive courses, anti-racist professional development, and restorative justice training, was not invited back to teach this year. He’s happy now in Atlanta Public Schools but was discouraged by what he felt was the message the Gwinnett leadership sent.
“I’ve been hesitant to share my story because I don’t want educators to be scared off, and my story is the ultimate fear,” he said. “This is why teachers worry about getting involved. We need more assurances that we won’t lose our jobs.” Downer says he remains hopeful nonetheless, because “so many teachers are saying ‘I’m going to organize anyway, come hell or high water.’” Activists in Georgia are now looking to push local school boards to pass more job protections for educators like Downer, and they have their eyes long term on the state level to push new requirements around multicultural curriculum.
Georgia so far has not passed a law restricting the teaching of racism and other “divisive” topics, but Republican Gov. Brian Kemp urged the Georgia Department of Education to get involved. In response, in June 2021 the state board passed a non-binding resolution declaring that the United States and Georgia are not racist. The resolution also says students should not be taught that racism or slavery are anything but exceptions to the country’s “authentic founding principles” — language echoed in other statutes, including Ohio’s House Bill 322.
Haynes Wheeler said the Georgia resolution has had a chilling effect on her friends teaching in predominantly white, affluent school districts. “Though the resolution is not law, the discourse they’re hearing from administrators is very much emphasizing that so-called ‘neutrality’ is the gold standard for teaching,” she said. “Parents have a tremendous amount of influence and teachers are told no one should know their own political beliefs. All it would take is for one kid to go home and say a teacher made them feel uncomfortable and it then blow up and the teacher receive very little support.”
In other Georgia school districts though, Haynes Wheeler says there’s been “a doubling down” of teaching about racism in the face of the state resolution. Dawn Bolton, a middle school teacher in Decatur, is one such Georgia educator doubling down. She says even with the state board resolution, she’s not afraid to lead real conversations about racism in her classroom. “I feel fortunate that in the city schools of Decatur, we are given a certain amount of autonomy to teach the truth,” she said. “I know that’s a rarity, for teachers in other districts.”
A critical role Bolton sees for herself in this moment is helping young people learn how to effectively fight for their rights and for change. “It’s important to me to teach students how to identify issues and have the courage to address them in an intelligent and informed way,” she said. “Because this orbit of discrimination and inequity and racial bias is just picking up velocity — it’s just spiraling — and I think as adults we even sometimes forget that.”
Ultimately these efforts of resistance and solidarity by teachers are in the service of students, who see the daily battles around racism and history reflected in their own lives. Bolton and Downer both say they’ve noticed new energy in their classrooms, with students asking new kinds of urgent questions about race and equity. “Students are standing up independently of us educators,” said Downer.
Bolton’s goal, she stressed, is to let students know that adults are here to support them as they navigate an unjust world. “The thing is, we adults need them as well,” she said. “But students need to know they don’t have to stand alone.”
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