Outlawing the Truth
The Pennsylvania bill, introduced by Republican state lawmakers in June, is similar to many of the bills proposed in more than twenty states to ban “critical race theory.” HB 1532 bars teachers from teaching or using materials that describe the United States as “fundamentally racist,” that say “merit-based systems are either racist or sexist,” or that suggest an individual “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by members of the individual’s race or sex.”
The expansive language of these bills, if passed, will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the classroom; forcing teachers to exclude lessons on each of these three points would, in effect, amount to them having to hide the truth of racism—past and present—in the United States.
As a teacher of African American history, I find it impossible to look at this country’s founding without acknowledging that the U.S. Constitution originally counted enslaved people as three-fifths of a human being for the purpose of taxation and representation. And in terms of rights for enslaved people, the important number was not three-fifths, but zero.
As Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote for the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, Black people were “inferior” and therefore “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Many students might rightly conclude from this that the United States is “fundamentally racist,” given that for decades the highest law and court of the land regarded Black people as less than fully human.
While no one would argue that people living today are responsible for actions in the past, many prominent anti-racists—including Martin Luther King Jr.—have argued that white people have a responsibility to address the consequences of past actions by other white people. In his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait, for example, King made the case for reparations: “No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries,” he wrote. “Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages [and this] should be made to apply for American Negroes.”
Elsewhere, in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King argued that the average white person also has a responsibility to “rise up with indignation against his own municipal, state, and national governments to demand that the necessary reforms be instituted” to provide social justice and economic progress for Black people.
Reading these words, it’s not hard to see how students may reasonably conclude that King—a national hero with his own federal holiday—believed that individual white people do, in fact, “bear responsibility for actions committed in the past” by other white people.
This fall, a lawsuit aiming to hold the Pennsylvania General Assembly accountable for decades of inequitable funding will go to trial. It documents how Pennsylvania spends, on average, $4,800 less per student in poorer districts that serve predominantly Black and brown populations than in wealthier, whiter districts.
If I discuss this lawsuit in class—a compelling subject given that the outcome will have a direct effect on the quality of my students’ educational experience—students might conclude that the “merit-based system” is a myth. They might come to regard the fiction they are told that individuals get ahead based primarily on talent and effort masks deep racist inequities where wealthy white kids are given more resources to succeed.
Under HB 1532, these justifiable conclusions that students draw from engaging with the real history of the Constitution, Martin Luther King Jr., and school funding inequities could put my job and my school’s funding in jeopardy. And that’s the point.
Bills similar to HB 1532 have already passed in Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas; others are working their way through more than a dozen other state legislatures. Georgia, Montana, and Utah have been able to enact similar bans through state boards of education or state superintendents, bypassing the legislative process altogether. While this is certainly alarming, rightwing operatives are also mobilizing white parents to demand local school boards ban “teaching critical race theory.”
These bills—and the Tea Party-like movement they’ve stirred up—have little to do with critical race theory, which is an academic framework created to analyze how racism is perpetuated through the legal system. Few K-12 teachers have even studied critical race theory, much less taught it. But, largely due to Black Lives Matter protests, teachers are increasingly discussing systemic racism with their students, and it’s these discussions that the right is attempting to silence.
What Republican politicians pushing these bills want taught is the version of history found in the corporate textbooks shaped by Texan conservatives, where the three-fifths clause is characterized as a “compromise” among the founding fathers (about half of whom enslaved people), where Martin Luther King Jr. is played on a loop repeating his famous line about judging people based on “the content of their character,” and where debates about unequal and segregated schools ended decades ago.
This is the educational equivalent of the “Big Lie” that Trump won the election, occasioning and the wave of voter suppression laws promoted by the same political forces. Denying the depth of our racist past makes it easier for rightwing politicians to implement racist policies today. For example, the Republican Party in Pennsylvania—including the sponsors of HB 1532—have presided over one of the most inequitable and racist public school budgets in the country.
In 1992, Pennsylvania implemented a “hold harmless” policy that ensured that school districts could not receive less funding than they did the previous year. This means that districts with declining enrollments are given millions of dollars every year tied to students they no longer educate, while districts like Philadelphia, with growing student populations, struggle to receive adequate funding.
According to research conducted by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, “Black and Hispanic students bear the brunt of the systemic underfunding. More than 80 percent of the state’s Black and Hispanic students attend growing school districts.”
There are currently thirty sponsors of HB 1532. According to 2010 census data, only three of the bill’s sponsors represent districts with a Black population of more than 5 percent and twenty-one sponsors represent districts that are more than 90 percent white. The Republican-led house has continually blocked fair funding legislation in Pennsylvania and pushed hard for the privatization of public schools, which has exacerbated segregation.
After decades of denying Black and brown children the funding they need, Republican legislators are now trying to deny them the right to discuss this robbery in their classrooms. And after decades of denying the resources Black and brown communities need to repair the harm of this country’s racist past, these lawmakers are now trying to deny children the right to talk about that racist past in school.
While Republicans have long feared educated and anti-racist Black and brown children, they now have an additional concern: In the face of inescapable evidence and ongoing police killings like the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, anti-racist discussions are seeping into majority white school districts.
“Black Lives Matter protests have even emerged in smaller and whiter suburbs and towns in deeply conservative counties,” scholars Lara Putnam and Jeremy Pressman wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “This is compatible with evidence that young people in outer suburbs and small towns are becoming less conservative . . . . Even the very smallest cities—which tend to have more educated, more diverse, and younger populations than their surrounding regions—have shifted leftward in recent years, while the surrounding regions have often shifted rightward.”
Because good teaching means bringing the world your students witness and experience into the classroom, more and more educators are rightly joining the debates and discussions this country is having about race and racism.
The Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, brought to Philadelphia by educators in 2017 to promote the teaching of racial justice in the classroom, tripled in size this year. The Zinn Education Project, where I am a teacher leader, is a project of Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change that offers free anti-racist curriculum to teachers. In the months following last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the number of visitors and new registrations at the Zinn Education Project website shot up to more than double previous months.
There is a growing group of teachers dedicated to teaching racial justice who refuse to allow Republican legislators to hide the truth about this country from our students. The Zinn Education Project launched a “Pledge to Teach the Truth,” and within a few weeks more than 5,000 educators have committed to help students understand the roots of U.S. racism “regardless of the law.”
Partnering with Black Lives Matter at School, the Zinn Education Project also called a national day of action on June 12 to “raise public awareness about the danger of these bills” and encourage educators to make their pledge public in gatherings nationwide. After two weeks of organizing, hundreds gathered in more than twenty-five states and territories.
Many actions took place at historical sites that legislation might bar teachers from discussing in class. In San Bruno, California, educators gathered at Tanforan Racetrack, where 8,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated before being sent to internment camps during World War II. In Waterloo, Iowa, educators spoke out at several sites where Black Iowans experienced segregation and employment discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s. In Memphis, Tennessee, protestors also walked to several historical sites; Alex Iberg, a teacher at Memphis’s Grizzlies Prep, which was built on the same block as the site of a former slave market, wondered: “Are we even allowed to talk with our students about our own school?”
In Philadelphia, high school teacher Kristin Luebbert declared, “We are at the site of the house of our first President, the very site where a talented Black seamstress named Ona Judge—one of many people enslaved by the Washingtons—declared her freedom and fled north . . . . Ona refused to be treated like a candlestick or an heirloom vase—as a human being, she had a right to her freedom—and she took it! She lived as a free person for the rest of her life. We will teach this truth!”
By gathering at historic sites that would be legislated off limits for classroom discussion, educators not only exposed the rightwing agenda, but continued to highlight the racist past in their communities that needed to be reckoned with.
At a rally in Philadelphia, Jordan Henry, a twelve-year-old Black student, cut through the conservative frenzy about critical race theory, when she said: “Up until this point in my education, most of my teachers have taught me how to count, rather than teaching me what counts.”
The truth is that the canned-corporate curriculum that perpetuates racist myths is still dominant in K-12 classrooms—even in predominantly Black and brown communities. The right wing is committed to maintaining its power by mobilizing its shrinking electoral base around a mythological past and delusional present.
The racial reckoning that began over the protests of George Floyd’s murder is pushing teachers to infuse racial justice into their curriculums. At a rally in Seattle, teacher Jesse Hagopian pointed out that last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests were “led by youth.”
He continued: “The media likes to talk about learning loss from summer break or from remote schooling, but the truth is the students have learned—and taught—the nation so much about the nature of structural racism. These youth who can think for themselves and challenge injustice really scare racists . . . . You can tell a scared racist because when they can’t win a debate, they just try to make it illegal for you to say—or teach—anything that challenges them.”
The fact that more educators are challenging racism in their classrooms and more young people are confronting racism in the streets is what is scaring the right into action. Republican lawmakers have thrown teachers into the frontlines of the battle against white supremacy and as the June 12 actions showed, we are stepping up to the challenge. We need all the support we can get.
As Jordan Henry stated at the Philadelphia rally, “We need education that empowers students, not controls them. We need to be honest about our past, so that we can create a better future. We need to learn how to organize and fight for change so that I can grow up in a world where I and people like me can thrive instead of merely hoping to survive.”
[Adam Sanchez is an editor of Rethinking Schools, the editor of Teaching a People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War, and a history teacher at Central High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.]