Across the U.S., there has been a wave of policies restricting what teachers can and cannot teach in the classroom. These policies emerged following moments of racial awakening, and are aimed at consolidating political power in the hands of a few, thereby limiting multiracial progress. These educational restrictions were created and exist to curtail movement towards an inclusive and equitable society where everyone is valued and has the opportunity to prosper.
Regardless of whether you have children in school, the debate around the accurate teaching of U.S. history and contemporary issues of gender, race and sex is one that impacts us all. No one can afford to ignore these issues and still expect to live in a free society. We will rise together or fail together.
That is why our organization, Race Forward, and a host of partners recently launched H.E.A.L. (Honest Education Action and Leadership) Together. The initiative is working to ensure strong schools and a multiracial democracy. It is meant to aid local and national organizers, parents and partners in the fight to create inclusive communities. With its partners at the New York University Metro Center, H.E.A.L. Together has recently released a school district organizing toolkit and is offering a free public training series for Strong Schools and a Multiracial Democracy. The program has begun working with local organizing groups to build statewide campaigns in a growing number of states including New Hampshire, North Carolina and Georgia.
We know that our work is vast, but so is our drive. We also know the people who oppose progress are cunning and relentless.
Rather than saying, “We oppose teaching children the good and bad parts of American history,” many conservatives have latched onto a college-level abstraction called critical race theory (CRT). They have disingenuously persuaded parents that CRT is being taught with abandon and that it inherently harms white children. The reality is CRT is an academic theory that explores U.S. history, society, government and legal systems through a race-based perspective. Moreover, it is not taught in K-12 schools. In fact, a December 2021 poll by Northeastern University found that 7 in 10 people cannot define CRT. That begs the question: How can people be so adamant about something they can’t even define?
This moment is bigger than “CRT.” Individuals raising alarm about it are also likely to be engaging in other suppression tactics such as banning books, bullying young people into silence around their gender or identity, and targeting and placing new restrictions on LGBTQ communities. Even workshops aimed at creating more inclusive workplace cultures are under attack, with states like Florida and California considering bans on diversity training.
What we’re currently seeing is a backlash to progress. It is a last-ditch effort to maintain power. What better way to get white conservatives and swing voters to turn out and vote for them than by telling them that teachers will make their children feel bad about themselves?
It is clear that some people benefit from making CRT the boogeyman. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia campaigned in 2021 on an anti-CRT platform. In less than two weeks of being sworn in, Youngkin banned CRT in Virginia schools, even though CRT isn’t taught in Virginia schools. He also launched an email tip line for parents to report “divisive” teaching. That sort of behavior is reminiscent of authoritarian regimes of the past in which citizens benefit from turning on one another.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has introduced several anti-CRT bills, including the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E) Act, which already passed the Florida House and then the Senate; and the Individual Freedom Act, which, if passed, would prohibit Florida’s public schools and private businesses from making people feel “discomfort” or “guilt” based on their race, sex or national origin, bringing the notion of fragility to a new level. While on first glance that might sound like it is protecting marginalized folks, what they are trying to do is make it illegal for students to be taught the legacy of slavery and the mass genocide committed against Native Americans, for example.
What we must remember is that this sort of thing never ends. First conservatives bemoaned invitations to learn and grow, saying they were being attacked by “woke mobs.” Now lawmakers are banning not only honest conversations about race but also books about U.S. and world history.
These actions are a direct outgrowth of the Trump administration’s inflamed attacks on the ability to speak honestly about the country’s history. Donald Trump’s executive order, which President Joe Biden rescinded on his first day in office, banned racial equity work and training in any federal agency and for any federal contractors or recipients of federal funds. The order followed protests across the country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death as more people than ever engaged in powerful conversations about race. According to data that Race Forward collected, mainstream media mentioned the term “systemic racism” more times in 2020 than it had in the last three decades.
It did not take long for conservative think tanks and politicians to realize those conversations had the potential and the power to unite people. These campaigns are a principal strategy for the extreme right to attempt to win back power in the 2022 elections. But nothing should interrupt the strides we have made to dismantle racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and sexism.
Those committed to building a more inclusive nation cannot be silent about attacks on education nor can they ignore efforts to rewrite U.S. history or target teachers and kids. We must not only resist these movements, but must also take action: run for school boards and other offices, attend local school board meetings, and advocate for and insist on honest education for children and fully funded public schools.
If we understand that public education is the foundation of our democracy, then we must organize to protect it against the attacks on teachers with these culture wars and privatization efforts. Just because they start these culture wars, doesn’t mean they have to win them. H.E.A.L. Together is committed to supporting students, parents, families and educators in building durable education justice coalitions our communities can stay actively engaged in and help people understand the importance of our public education system. We have an opportunity to not only educate our children but support them in understanding and accepting who they are, who they can be, and each other. Despite our differences, our fates are interconnected. If we work collaboratively, we all benefit.