With Black History Lessons Under Attack, Associations Fight Back
In recent months, some states have proposed legislation and policies that restrict how educators may teach students about race and history. Several associations are fighting these efforts, whose real-world impact in classrooms is showing up during Black History Month.
The Alabama Department of Education has received a slew of complaints this month. The callers contend that educators in the state are teaching critical race theory (CRT), a concept that examines the impact of race in American institutions. The Alabama State School Board banned teaching CRT in K-12 schools.
The state school superintendent responded that schools are not teaching anything that even resembles CRT, which is a college-level academic concept. They’re having lessons for Black History Month, which occurs every February.
This story is emblematic of the problems educators are facing nationwide, as policies and legislation in a number of states would—or already do—restrict what teachers can say about history and race. These policies are chilling and hamper a free society, says Jeremy Young, senior manager of the Free Expression and Education program at PEN America.
“These are a series of attacks on the educational system itself, on the freedom of students to learn and teachers to teach,” Young said. “We really think it’s a five-alarm fire.”
Organizations like the Heritage Foundation and No Left Turn in Education oppose teaching CRT in schools, arguing that examining how race affected events and continues to shape society promotes divisiveness. The Heritage Foundation contends that “CRT makes race the prism through which its proponents analyze all aspects of American life, categorizing individuals into groups of oppressors and victims.”
But dozens of other organizations, including PEN America, have joined the Learn From History Coalition to oppose legislation that limits teaching history, particularly related to racism. PEN America keeps track of these measures.
“This is not about critical race theory, even though a lot of the legislation says that it is,” Young said. “This is not about indoctrination in the classroom. It’s something that isn’t happening. This is simply people speaking from fear, attacking teachers doing their jobs. We want people who see our materials to speak out against that.”
Black History Month shines a light on the real-world consequences of these policies, Young said.
“In terms of Black History Month, there is going to be a huge impact. There are large portions of the Black experience historically that will not be allowed to be taught in certain states if these laws go into effect,” he said.
Young offered an example. “There’s a [proposed] law in Oklahoma that would make it illegal to teach that slavery in the United States was uniquely caused by one race against another race,” Young said. “So, there are places where you wouldn’t be able to teach the books of the founder of Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson.”
The problem isn’t just the language of the bills—many of which have not yet passed—but the chilling effect they have on educators who choose to self-censor rather than risk getting in trouble, Young said. For example, Virginia’s governor created a tip line to report teachers promoting “divisive practices.”
Young noted that some legislation includes “draconian penalties,” such as stripping schools of state funding or their tax-exempt status if they are caught teaching banned concepts.
“There are a lot of administrators out there who want to make sure their school doesn’t come into the legislators’ crosshairs,” Young said. “A lot of teachers are really scared right now.”
Resources for Educators
Because educators are so concerned about these policies, the American Historical Association, which has also been opposing the measures, is taking action to help.
“We’re working with a couple of collaborators on organizing an online program asking teachers how we can help,” said James Grossman, AHA’s executive director. “Once we learn what they need to deal with these laws, we’re going to work with two or three other organizations to create the materials and resources that they need.”
While helping educators teach accurate history is high on AHA’s priority list, the reason for the effort goes beyond academics. Grossman said educating people about their history is key to maintaining a free and well-functioning society.
“One of the things that divides the country is partisanship; another is race,” he said. “If we don’t understand the histories of what divides us, we’re never going to be able to unite, to work together, to establish the kinds of communities that a democracy needs and wants.”
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