On June 11-12, 2022, educators, parents, students, and community organizers are set to hold rallies in dozens of cities and towns throughout the country — from Alaska to Florida — with one clear demand: Teach the truth.
As Nelva Williamson, a high school social studies teacher in Houston put it, “I will continue to teach truth to power because my students deserve to see themselves in history, to know that their ancestors were overcomers, and that they MATTER!”
Ms. Williamson said that because representatives in 42 states, including Texas where she lives, have introduced legislation — or pursued other measures — that requires educators to lie to students about the role of racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, and other forms of oppression throughout U.S. history.
Altogether, more than 17.7 million public school students could have their learning restricted by local action and the recent slate of laws and policies aimed to ban teaching concepts related to race, racism, and gender, and often deemed “critical race theory.”
Already, laws and restrictions to ban discussions of race have been imposed in at least 17 states. At least 15 states are considering homophobic and transphobic bills in the 2021-22 legislative session that would impact what can be taught about sexuality and gender.
Increasingly books by Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and LGBTQ+ writers are being banned, with more than 1,500 book bans enacted in U.S. school districts in the last nine months. Educators in Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Missouri, and beyond have been fired for teaching what Republicans have erroneously labeled critical race theory (CRT).
But you don’t have to have ever taken a graduate-level law course on race, or even know anything about it, to be found guilty of corrupting youth with antiracist ideas — or having exposed them to parts of U.S. history that reflect poorly on the nation.
The wording is slightly different in the various anti-history laws around the country, but the intent is the same. Some of the states — such as Texas and Florida — ban any teaching that would make white students feel “discomfort” about the history of racism.
Other states — such as Iowa and West Virginia — ban any teaching that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist.”
According to Merriam-Webster, “fundamental” means “serving as an original or generating source.” Given that the original source of our country was the genocide of Native American people and the enslavement of African people, it isn’t possible to teach the truth about the founding of the country without talking about systemic racism. And the dramatic irony here is that these efforts to ban critical race theory confirm some of its core tenets:
- Racism can be embedded in laws, even when they appear to use race-neutral language.
- Any progress in racial justice will be met with a white supremacist backlash.
There can be no doubt the sudden proliferation of these bills to ban critical race theory are a response to the 2020 uprising that occurred in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and others.
These protests for Black lives were described by the Washington Post as the “broadest in U.S. history,” involving more people, in more cities and towns, in every state in the country, than any protest before.
Fearing the gains in racial consciousness from the 2020 uprising, Republican politicians responded with an all-out attack on antiracist education. These legislators claim to be passing anti-CRT laws to protect youth, but at the same time, they stymie any effort to address gun violence.
In the aftermath of the horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson blamed the shooting on antiracist teaching:
“We’ve stopped teaching values in so many of our schools. Now we’re teaching wokeness. We’re indoctrinating our children with things like [critical race theory], telling some children they’re not equal to others and they’re the cause of other peoples’ problems.”
This desperate attempt to shield the weapons manufacturers and gun lobby from any culpability while attempting to blame the massacre on antiracist education is a particularly vile kind of sophistry given that gun violence is now the leading cause of death for young people. But truth was of little consequence to Senator Johnson, who felt so dutybound to the GOP talking points that in the midst of this tragedy, he was ready to declare the real danger to America is educators who are teaching white students to hate themselves.
Yet revealing the truth that the U.S. is structurally racist is not about shaming white students. In fact, it is those who deny structural racism who end up leading white children to suspect that they are personally responsible for the racial disparities they see all around them, rather than understanding the way systems can work to perpetuate inequities — sometimes regardless of the intentions of the individuals who work in these systems.
Teaching truthfully helps white students learn about white people throughout history who have joined movements for racial justice. They also learn that while there are privileges white people receive from being in a society with racist institutions, there would be more benefits to living in a society that dismantles the system of white supremacy and treats everyone equitably.
While the mainstream media often portrays the attack on antiracist teaching as a grassroots effort of white parents attempting to reclaim their children’s education, in reality it is a campaign financed by billionaires, coordinated by Republican Party operatives, and supported by right-wing think tanks.
Consider that The Daily Beast identified “eight recently created anti-CRT groups which operate at local levels across the country but bear ties to ideological right-wing aristocrats and political operatives. Their backers include former officials in Donald Trump’s administration, an executive at a notorious D.C. lobbying firm, as well as Koch entities and The Federalist Society.”
In addition, the group Unkoch My Campus examined the publications of 28 right-wing think tanks and conservative political organizations with ties to the Koch network from June 2020 to June 2021 and found “they had collectively published 79 articles, podcasts, reports or videos about Critical Race Theory.”
Obstructing the path of these billionaires is a formidable coalition of educators, students, parents, and community organizers who don’t have the deep bespoke suit pockets of the opposition — but they do have the power of solidarity and the truth on their side.
That power was on display when Pennsylvania’s Central York school board banned a list of more than 300 anti-racist books and resources in 2020. But at its September 20 school board meeting, honest educators and brave students built a protest that couldn’t be denied.
By a unanimous vote, the Board voted to reverse its earlier book ban.
“It took five high schoolers organizing a peaceful walk-in protest for each day … to help make sure that our district heard that they, and many others, did not feel represented. They are heroes and should be celebrated as bastions of American freedom and democracy. I want to be clear: These kids did this,” said Ben Hodge, a Central York High School theater teacher and co-facilitator for the student Panther Anti-Racist Union (PARU).
Confirming Hodge’s words, Edha Gupta, a 17-year-old Central York High School senior, who helped lead the movement, wrote in a local op-ed, “WE REVERSED THIS BAN. WE DID. THAT!” Gupta went on to say, “Our voices are powerful enough to demand immediate action, and that is EXACTLY what took place tonight.”
This is the kind of grassroots action that is inspiring hundreds of people in the teach truth movement who are currently making plans to gather at historic sites in their communities from June 11-12 — sites, like the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., and Stone Mountain Park in Georgia that reveal something about the struggle against structural racism and oppression, and symbolize the history that teachers would be required to lie about or omit if these bills become law.
As the call to action for the rallies puts it, “By coming together, we can rewrite the rules to ensure safe, affirming, and welcoming schools and the freedom to learn for our children — across race, place, and gender identities — no exceptions.”
Jesse Hagopian is a high school teacher in Seattle, and a “Teaching for Black Lives” campaign organizer for the Zinn Education Project. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Teach Truth: The Attack on Critical Race Theory and the Struggle for Antiracist Education and co-editor of the books, Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, Teaching for Black Lives, Teacher Unions and Social Justice. You can connect with him on Twitter: @jessedhagopian.