Despite Right-Wing Backlash, Racial Justice Education Is Still on the Rise

Shortly after Alabama’s state board of education passed a resolution last August to ban public schools from teaching or purchasing materials that “impute fault, blame,” or cause students “to feel guilt or anguish” about the legacy of slavery or ongoing racial injustice, members of the Birmingham, Alabama, school board pushed back by passing a resolution of their own.

The sharply worded statement, “A Resolution to Advance Equity for All Students,” emphasized that city educators will continue to be proactive in “dismantling the pillars of unequal justice, bigotry and oppression” and affirmed that the city of Birmingham will provide resources and professional development to educators who “teach about, celebrate, uphold, and affirm the lives of all races and that support critical dialogue among students, staff and community members about the impact of bias and racism” both within and outside of school house doors.

Terri Michal, a member of Birmingham’s school board from 2017 to 2021, told Truthout that the resolution makes clear that “Birmingham will do what is right” to give all children what they need to excel. “We’re working to ensure that equity is not a dirty word,” she says.

Birmingham is not the only locale that is standing up to efforts to ban everything the right deems as critical race theory, as well as efforts to ban school-based diversity, equity and inclusion programs, which attempt to present to students an accurate history of the United States and contend with — and change — the many ways that racial and gender injustice have structured classrooms across the country.

A Growing Demand for Progressive Curricula

Deborah Menkart, codirector of the Zinn Education Project (ZEP), a national organization working to inject accurate accounts of U.S. and world history into classrooms across the country, says that demand for ZEP materials has continually increased since the project’s 2008 founding. “The right wing would not be going on the attack if there was nothing to attack,” she told Truthout.

Teachers download lessons from the ZEP website. These lessons, Menkart explains, go beyond what is found in traditional textbooks and examine all subjects — art, history, literature, math, music, science — with an eye toward omissions and distortions. Probing questions are asked: Who is included in the historical account? Who does the narrative benefit? Why are female mathematicians or scientists, or queer people or people of color so often left out of the accounts we read or hear discussed?

“Students are not just learning facts,” Menkart says. “They’re learning about the choices that are made in the telling of history. They also get a sense of the role they can play in shaping the future. In this way, we’re equipping youth with a sense of hope, giving them the tools to think strategically so that they can address the gravity of the situations we’re facing.”

Demand for lessons, she continues, comes from every corner of the country, not just urban centers, and she quickly ticks off curricula requests from teachers in Taylor, South Carolina; Holland, Michigan; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Columbia, Missouri. The most common requests, according to Menkart, are for materials covering the Reconstruction era, redlining, the environmental crisis and the color line that was imposed during the colonial period.

“When children begin to think critically, they begin to understand that it is not that their parents and neighbors have not worked hard enough to get ahead, but that something systemic has held people of color, women, the poor and the disabled back,” she says. “The right wing says that this makes white, able-bodied children feel guilty, but when students learn that some white people have challenged injustice, it complicates the narrative and prompts them to question their assumptions.”

Denisha Jones, coeditor of the book Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, and a member of the steering committee of the National Black Lives Matter at School coalition, notes the importance of educational efforts that recognize resistance to the status quo and that support inclusive historical accounts. “About 60 percent of the population will not go to college and they will probably never learn this information if it is not taught in middle and high school,” she told Truthout. “For many people, programs that promote diversity, equity and inclusion are their first encounter with material about race, class, gender, gender identity or ableism. This can spur them to a new place of understanding and inquiry.”

Jones acknowledges that many school-based diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are little more than window dressing, created to deflect criticism and give the visual appearance of racial, ethnic, gender and disability inclusivity. Still, she says, meaningful diversity, equity and inclusion programs are possible, especially if they are led by teachers and staff who are committed to helping children develop a positive racial identity.

“Children need a solid foundation on which to build ideas about race, gender and self,” Jones says. “Helping kids feel good about themselves will enable them to function in a global world. If kids encounter silence about race, religion, disability or gender differences, this silence gets internalized and their identity formation can be negatively impacted.”

One solution, Jones says, is for there to be mandatory Black and ethnic studies classes integrated into the curricula of every K-12 school. But this goes beyond curricula, she says. Other concrete changes in the ways schools operate are necessary to protect vulnerable students from feelings of inadequacy or ennui: ending zero-tolerance policies that suspend or expel students for misbehaving; increasing the number of available school counselors; and removing police officers from school buildings.

Jones also wants to address the racism at the heart of the attacks on school-based diversity, equity and inclusion programs and on anything deemed by the right to be “Critical Race Theory.” “The idea that the right wing is promoting, that we have to bring in ‘all sides’ of every issue, is funny to me,” she says. “What is the ‘other side’ of Black Lives Matter? Is it that Black lives don’t matter? We need to examine that.”

Research backs up this assertion.

According to child psychologist Jacob Ham, “It is hard for kids to learn when they feel unsafe or threatened,” or feel as if they don’t matter or fit in. But if they feel supported and connected, they enter into what Ham calls “learning brain,” a state in which they are open to new ideas and new information, are able to handle ambiguity, and feel confident enough to share concerns or ask for clarifications.

A Stanford University study confirms Ham’s conclusions and underscores the importance of diverse representation in curricular materials. According to the researchers who carried out the study, both students of color and white students benefited from taking even one ethnic studies course, finding that the class enhanced their sense of belonging, upped graduation rates and made them more likely to enroll in college.

The Importance of Asking Questions

Emily Ladau, author of Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to be an Ally, agrees that kids need to see themselves in course materials. In addition, she says that they need to be encouraged to ask questions — respectfully — about people who are different from them, including those with genetic and acquired disabilities. “Disability is not a niche issue,” she told Truthout. “There are more than 1 billion disabled people in the world. That means that schools have disabled students, disabled faculty and disabled staff and almost everyone has disabled family member. But you should not have to have a personal connection to disability to recognize that an inclusive environment benefits everyone.”

Furthermore, Ladau argues, since disability cuts across all other identities, it should be incorporated into all aspects of learning, from pre-K classes to teacher training programs.

Many people, however, don’t want this. Indeed, as the past year has shown, backlash against curricula that deal with diversity, inclusivity or equity is on the rise. “There is pushback against any conversation about how we can be more inclusive because this requires us to admit that we have not been doing everything possible to be equitable and incorporate everyone, regardless of their gender, race, sexuality or disability,” Ladau says. “If we can’t admit this, there can’t be progress.”

Jennifer Lima, a school board member in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, since 2020 and the founder of Toward an Anti-Racist Kingstown, has seen this phenomenon up close. Lima has been pushing the North Kingstown school board to approve an educational audit of the nine schools in the district. “Basically, we need to know what we are doing well and what we are doing poorly when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion,” she told Truthout. “How are we doing when it comes to retaining teachers and students of color? Is dress code enforcement done equally for all students? How about access to advanced placement classes? Which holidays are acknowledged? Do disabled, queer and trans students and staff face discrimination?”

Lima believes that an honest reckoning will require outside auditors, with focus groups for everyone connected to public education in North Kingstown. “We’ve received two estimates from outside reviewers and know that a thorough investigation will take about six months. The local right wing sees this as unnecessary. They also argue that it can be done in-house, and they are really, really loud about this,” she says. “I disagree with them, and feel strongly that a neutral third party needs to come in. The administration can’t interview people and expect truthful answers. Our goal as a school system should be to serve every student equitably and we can’t formulate a strategy to improve what we do until we know exactly where we are.”

The school board is expected to vote on hiring an outside auditor sometime this spring.

But even if the audit gets approved, educators in North Kingstown — and in every other part of the U.S. — will likely still face pushback from some parents and astroturf groups (organizations that are funded by deep-pocketed donors whose money enables the groups to maintain a visible presence despite having few actual grassroots supporters). Some prominent astroturf groups in this arena include Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education and Parents Defending Education, which oppose school-based diversity, equity and inclusion programs. And while many educators will continue to reach out to the Zinn Education Project and other progressive educators, and will continue to teach materials that are culturally and historically accurate, their work will be made more difficult by people who oppose anti-racism initiatives and broader equity efforts.

This is where progressive can play a role.

Cassie Schwerner, executive director of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, a New York City organization that promotes school-based social and emotional learning, told Truthout that teachers and progressive educational groups need vocal supporters. “We live in a global economy and a world that gets more and more interconnected every day,” Schwerner says. “We need to learn about each other. No one should grow up without a deep sense of curiosity or the ability to think critically, whether it is about Jim Crow, slavery, disability, or trans access to bathrooms or gym classes. As progressives, we have to defend the teaching of critical thinking and the promotion of classroom equity.”

Schwerner then pivots and asks an important question: What do we want schools to be and who do we want them to serve? “None of us know exactly how to fight the right wing, but we know that we need to stop pretending that racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism don’t exist. We know we need to create a culture where we can have hard, even uncomfortable, conversations.”

Furthermore, Schwerner says, we need to challenge the zero-sum mentality that says that if some kids have a positive racial identity, other kids will have a negative racial identity. “I know this sounds Pollyanna-ish, but schools need to help students feel cherished because, in truth, we all benefit when children grow up feeling safe, secure and valued.”