Educators and Publishers Are Fighting the Right’s Attempt To Erase Black History (revised)
Judicial Watch (JW), a deeply conservative 29-year-old Washington, D.C.-based group that describes itself as a “non-partisan education foundation,” asserts that our military is “headed down the dark alley of anti-American wokeism.”
As JW sees it, the U.S. Air Force Academy is an egregious offender because it “has made race and gender instruction a top priority in the training of cadets.”
This conclusion, JW Executive Director Tom Fitton wrote in a March press release, follows a September 2022 Freedom of Information Act request that provided the group with 167 pages of documents. Included was a description of Behavioral Science 362, a required class about the impact of class, race, gender and sexuality on human development.
Neither Judicial Watch nor Fitton think that these topics have any place in military instruction. What’s more, they argue that the course is proof that the U.S. military is succumbing to “Marxist” critical race theory, or CRT.
And they’re not alone. A bevy of conservative groups — including longstanding organizations like the Heritage Foundation and newly formed organizations like Moms for Liberty — have put aside their differences to oppose what they’re calling critical social justice in education. Their efforts have been aided by a Glossary of CRT-Related Terms that was compiled by the Center for Renewing America (CRA), a group founded in 2021 by Russell Vought, the former head of the Office of Management and Budget under Donald Trump. CRA’s goal? To “renew a consensus of America as a nation under God, with unique interests worthy of defending that flow from its people, institutions and history.”
The annotated glossary — a total of 69 words and phrases — claims to “help concerned citizens comb through curricula, public records, communications, teacher training, etc … to establish more quickly whether or not any of these terms appear … to advance left-wing ideas.”
Here’s a sample of words that are included: woke, whiteness, white supremacy, white fragility, unconscious bias, systemic oppression, systemic racism, social and emotional learning, restorative justice, racial justice, privilege, patriarchy, multiculturalism, intersectionality, internalized racism, identity, inclusivity education, equity gap, culturally responsive teaching, cultural awareness, critical self-reflection, critical pedagogy, anti-racism, anti-Blackness and anti-bias training.
As you likely suspect, opposition to CRT, which is sometimes referred to as Marxist CRT, is front and center: “CRT claims that such things as merit, standards, testing, grading and objectivity are skewed to make white people and white culture the standard by which all others are judged,” the glossary rails. Equally appalling to CRA, these “apparently neutral concepts” have been twisted to seem as if they elevate whiteness.
While the CRA word roster is clearly intended to rile up the base, it’s important to recognize that the list’s release dovetails with legislative efforts to stop the teaching of accurate U.S. history; as of last count, 18 states had enacted laws to keep supposedly “divisive concepts” like race, racism and gender out of classrooms. Furthermore, these efforts are in tandem with book bans, the watering down of Advanced Placement African American History curricula by the College Board, renewed assaults on the rights of LGBTQIA+ students, and a general upsurge in attacks on public pre-K through college education, that began after Trump’s election in 2016.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that efforts to control what students learn is nothing new. Shortly after Reconstruction, for example, the United Daughters of the Confederacy began working to elevate textbook depictions of Confederate leaders and defend Southern secession. As The Hechinger Report notes, the contributions of Black people were ignored in virtually every U.S. school book throughout the first six decades of the 20th century.
Nearly a century later, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s fear-based campaign that textbooks might promote communism or “sexual immorality,” the term used to denote homosexuality, prompted wide-scale book censorship and led to the firing of teachers suspected of being either a communist or LGBTQIA “ menace.”
Then, in the 1980s, the right turned to the purported “evils” of secularism. According to Frederick Clarkson, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, a Massachusetts think tank that studies and monitors conservative movements, these efforts gained significant traction. “The current effort to control curricula and ban books would not be an issue if the Christian right did not have power,” Clarkson told Truthout. “The current fight over particular words or phrases is a symptom of a larger disease: the fact that the right has allies in elected office who are willing to move their agenda forward.”
Longtime teacher Jesse Hagopian, co-author of Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, agrees. “It is astounding to see attempts to narrow the curriculum to what right-wing zealots find acceptable,” he told Truthout. “School boards in Florida have banned the showing of a Disney film about Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to integrate a Southern elementary school. When Disney films are considered ‘too radical,’ we know we’ve reached a crisis point.”
Publishers, Hagopian says, are also running scared and are capitulating to the demands of the right. As The New York Times reported in March, Studies Weekly, a curriculum that is used in 45,000 schools across the country, created three different versions of a lesson about Rosa Parks to appease critics. “The most limited version completely leaves out her contributions to myriad struggles, and Jim Crow is thrown down the memory hole in an account that removes the dehumanizing role of racism in Parks’s life,” he said. “It presents her as being asked to move to a different seat and simply not doing so. It never mentions her race.”
And then there’s the College Board, which “had previously articulated support for multiculturalism in the classroom,” Hagopian said. “Nonetheless, after the right complained about the AP African American history curriculum that had just been introduced, the College Board complied with their demands and watered down the course material. We have seen very little forthright confrontation from mainstream Democrats on this.”
If they had the will, Hagopian continues, Democratic leaders could organize a mass uprising against censorship, book bans, anti-trans bigotry and legislative attacks on public education. “They could organize teach-ins and bring people together to speak out at state legislatures. Sadly, they seem uninterested in doing this.”
But that’s not to say that there has been no pushback.
Ailen Arreaza, executive director of ParentsTogether, a digital organization with more than 3 million members, says the group is sending pro-public education and anti-censorship messages to lawmakers. “A loud minority of parents are inflaming the debate, but our members are working to shift the narrative, lift up children’s voices, and campaign in support of inclusive education. They’re also making clear that they support trans kids,” she told Truthout. “Our parents are focused on the diverse coursework that most school children want and need.”
Although it appears that no one has to date organized to demand that textbook publishers stand up to conservatives and seek out and print accurate and inclusive social studies and history books, several localities and states have passed legislation to require the teaching of Black history.
Scott Abbott, director of social studies for D.C. public schools from 2012 to 2022, told Truthout that many school districts throughout the country have moved away from textbooks in favor of more diverse and nuanced materials. In D.C., he said, elementary school educators now utilize primary sources that focus on the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs. “We want to provide students with windows and mirrors. We want to reflect their cultures back at them. We also want to open windows into cultures that are different from their own,” he said.
Abbott is now at the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware and adds that thanks to a new law, every public school in Delaware — including charters — now has to teach Black history in grades K-12. Similar mandates exist in Arkansas, California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington State, although who controls the content of instruction is often contentious.
These efforts got a boost following the release of a survey, conducted in Fall 2022 by the Campaign for Our Shared Future, which supports the claim that both parents and kids favor education that gives students access to truthful accounts of history. In fact, the study found that 87 percent of parents expressed support for lessons about civil and human rights movements; a clear majority also expressed support for curricula that covers slavery, the ongoing impact of racism and systemic racism.
Progressive publishers are also responding to the right, and are defying censorship efforts and book bans.
Beacon Press, Haymarket Books and Seven Stories Press, among others, have donated books to community organizations, libraries, after-school programs, and individual instructors in places where it’s become difficult to access books about gender, gender identity, sexuality or race.
They’ve also opposed bans and reaffirmed their commitment to publishing an array of titles and authors.
“We do not change content to accommodate the right,” Ruth Weiner of Seven Stories Press reports. “We’re more likely to double down. We’re not really doing our job if we don’t ruffle some feathers.”
Similarly, Beacon Press Director Gayatri Patnaik told Truthout by email that “the right’s anti-woke hysteria has only strengthened our resolve and commitment.” Beacon has also worked with the Zinn Education Project to build lesson plans around Jeanne Theoharis’s book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, and has distributed copies in almost every state.
For its part, Haymarket has made several free book downloads available and has mailed more than 850 books to Florida readers whose right to read has been limited.
Throughout the rest of the country, resistance has also ramped up and includes the formation of Banned Book Clubs, public celebrations of Banned Book Week, free book distributions, lobbying statehouses, and marching, protesting, petitioning and speaking out against legislative attacks on students, teachers, unions and progressive pedagogy.
Not surprisingly, Florida, and presidential aspirant Gov. Ron DeSantis, have been frequent targets of progressive students and educators. “The playbook is being written in Florida,” Fedrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) told Truthout, “but this is a national effort to whitewash history and defund public education.” In response, the AFT is reaching out to Black and Brown students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to encourage them to pursue teaching as a career. The AFT has also launched a free book distribution effort, Reading Opens the World; to date, more than 1 million books have been distributed.
Educator Gregory Tewksbury, an adjunct professor of educational leadership at Brooklyn College, lauds these efforts. At the same time, he cautions that it is essential for progressives to understand why the right is so threatened by curricula that include progressive Black and Brown theorists like Paolo Freire. “Freire is one of the right’s targets in his home country of Brazil as well as here in the U.S. His work lifts up the possibility that the life we are born into is not the only life that is possible,” he said. Literacy, Tewksbury continues, can be liberatory. “For Freire, literacy provides the tools to understand the forces that shape consciousness. We’re not just exploited laborers. We can be critical thinkers. Freire taught us that good teachers nurture questions and help students make moral judgments. This runs up against Christian nationalists who believe they know what’s best for everyone.”
Truthout reached out to both Judicial Watch and the Center for Reclaiming America about their anti-woke campaigns. Neither responded.
[Eleanor J. Bader is an award-winning journalist who writes about domestic social issues, movements for social change, books and art. In addition to Truthout, she writes for The Progressive, Lilith Magazine and blog, the LA Review of Books, Fiction Writers Review and other online and print publications.]
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