When 10 Black shoppers were killed at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket, allegedly by a white 18-year-old with a history of racist writings, history teacher Mary McIntosh didn’t know how to talk about it with her high schoolers in Memphis, Tenn.
Tennessee is among the 19 states which have passed laws that regulate racism in classrooms. McIntosh said that the Buffalo shooting was an example of a major news story she had to deal with, even though she taught to predominantly Black students.
While she usually teaches civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir All Mercy is Possible she shelved it this past school year because she was afraid the parts about the historical legacy of racism in the criminal justice system would run afoul of the “prohibited concepts” outlined in the law. And while in the past she’s used the site Facing History and Ourselves, which offers historian-approved curriculum resources, this year she hesitated to draw from some of its lessons tying contemporary issues to the past.
“The Tennessee law does indeed have a big impact on how I can plan to teach with honesty and integrity,” she says.
The law, passed in May 2021, says it permits “impartial” discussions of the “controversial aspects of history” and “the historical oppression of a particular group of people.” But, teachers may not teach “resentment” of “a class of people” or that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.” Students, parents, or employees of a school can file complaints about teachers who violate the law. Schools that are found in violation of the law can be fined 2% or $1 million depending on how much they have been affected.
McIntosh feels that McIntosh’s fear and hesitation in teaching about race are not the purpose of the law. “All someone has to do to win is to just chill people,” she says.
At the Fourth Of July, 2021, the controversy surrounding how schools teach diversity and race reached boiling point. Many conservative activists paid attention to critical race theory (CRT), an academic framework of decades that scholars used to question how society’s legal systems perpetuate and exclude racism. And at least 19 states have so-called “anti-critical race theory” laws or regulations—despite the fact that CRT is rarely taught below the graduate university level. In an attempt to limit how teachers speak to students about diversity and race, more schools boards have changed or enacted new curricula.
Learn more ‘Critical Race Theory Is Simply the Latest Bogeyman.’ Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America’s History
After seeing how the laws were implemented in different states, teachers across the nation felt that their teaching of lessons on race and racism has suffered and they have difficulty providing historical context to current events. TIME spoke with more than twelve teachers in order to create this article. Some said that while they were willing to share the hard facts about America’s racism legacy, some worried that their livelihoods could be at risk if they speak out on controversial topics. The effect of these laws was even felt in school districts and in states that don’t have anti-CRT laws; educators say they are acutely conscious of school assignments or discussions that could rile up parents or conservative activists.
The ‘anti-critical race theory’ backlash
Many Republicans believe the problem boils down to teachers’ overreaching and liberal biases influencing how students are taught. As Tennessee state Rep. John Ragan, a co-sponsor of his state’s bill, says via email, “In Critical Race Theory there is no acknowledgment that all men are created equal or have divinely bestowed individual rights. We aren’t going to teach hate in Tennessee. We aren’t going to teach our children to demonize each other.” (Critical Race Theory scholars don’t see the theory this way; they believe it offers a method for thinking about the impact of hate and moving beyond it.)
Many conservative politicians hope the issue—a variety of parental concerns about education, which often get lumped under the umbrella of Critical Race Theory—will drive people to the polls in the November midterm elections. They got some encouragement last fall when Glenn Youngkin made education a core part of his winning platform to become Virginia’s governor. A poll by the Associated Press and NOC Center for Public Affairs Research in April 2022 showed Americans divided on how involved parents should be in curriculum decision-making. About half of Americans say parents have “too little influence on curriculum.” Twenty percent said they have “too much” and 27% said “it’s about right.”
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In states from Colorado to Iowa, some bills required teachers to post their syllabi and all of their class readings online—opening them to challenges from parents, or activists who might agree with their decisions. One Florida bill even proposed installing video cameras in classrooms.
How these anti-CRT laws and rules are enforced is still playing out, but so far it’s been “very haphazard,” says Jeremy Young, who has been tracking these laws at PEN America, a free-speech advocacy group. “What we’re seeing is censorship from school districts, lectures being canceled, classes being scrutinized in ways that they weren’t before, an epidemic of self-censorship among teachers, and teachers not being able to answer students’ questions,” he says. A UCLA study found school districts that are quickly diversifying tend to get more queries from parents about how they’re teaching race and sexuality than school districts that have seen minimal change in the white student population.
In Texas, which has an anti-CRT law, educators report being confused about what is and isn’t off-limit, says Morgan Craven, an education policy advocate at IDRA, a group that’s been advocating against classroom censorship bills. “I’ve heard of teachers saying things like ‘Well I guess this means we can’t celebrate Black History Month anymore,’” Craven says.
Learn more Black Lives Are Important: Students are learning more about Black History Month
Since Florida passed the Stop WOKE Act, which aims to regulate how schools talk about race, in April, Matthew Bunch, who teaches advanced placement U.S. government in Miami Dade County, says he’s “dreading” teaching Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” next year because it addresses citizens’ right to challenge the government if they feel like their rights are being violated. “I don’t know how, without trampling on one of those landmines, we can actually talk about the document and what it means and what it influences.”
Even in states that don’t have laws regulating the teaching of the history of racism, school districts are on the lookout for anything that could be seen as controversial and that parents might complain about. Akron, Ohio, teacher Hannah Couch says that during Black History Month, fellow staffers thought hallway posters that she helped students design of Black gay and trans couples and the Black Lives Matter flag were “too political.”
Teachers in states with solidly Democratic legislatures are not immune from the pressures from “anti-critical race theory” parents and school board members. In Elmhurst, Ill., parents formed the website Elmhurst Parents for Integrity in Curriculum, singling out local history teacher Lindsey DiTomasso for conducting a role play from the Zinn Education Project (the educational arm of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States A site that offers lessons on history and an online course) which reimagines and interprets the Constitutional Convention, including groups exempted from its original meeting like Black Americans and women. The site claimed that she “encouraged students to gang up on and bully property owners and bankers,” and the hyperlocal news outlet Patch ran articles quoting residents who accused her of bias.
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DiTomasso claims she has never been criticised for her lesson in the 13 years that she’s taught it. “We’ve been doing this activity for years and years, but this year, it was considered questionable,” says DiTomasso. The pushback has made her think twice at times while lesson planning, but ultimately, she hasn’t made major changes to her curriculum. “I would be lying if I told you every day I leave school, I don’t walk out to my car and wonder if someone’s going to be out there,” she says.
It is no surprise that the debate has reached students at school. In Memphis, McIntosh has had to field questions about Tennessee’s anti-critical race theory law from her students. “There was a discussion [about it] in one of my classes, and people kind of rolled their eyes, and one young man said, ‘Oh, people just don’t want to feel bad, talking about white people.”
We must resist the backlash
Loudoun County School Board Headquarters, Ashburn, Virginia June 22nd, 2021 – Opponents to critical race theory
Some victories have been recorded in the fight against anti-CRT. In Indiana, a coalition of organizations mobilized to defeat two anti-critical race theory bills after a Republican state senator urged teachers to be impartial on “isms,” and a history teacher went viral for saying he refuses to be impartial when teaching Nazism. Granite State Progress in New Hampshire claimed to have won all 34 races for school boards where it supported candidates that refused to limit the teaching history of race.
Even so, the opposition movement has been more vocal than those who support CRT. Justin Hansford, a law professor at Howard University overseeing a hotline counseling teachers who want to know their legal rights in curriculum challenges over the last year, says: “I was looking for something similar to what happened after George Floyd was killed. However, it has not been at this level. Of course, there have been some attempts. [protest], but it hasn’t been as widespread as I hoped.” Instead of waiting for teachers to call, the hotline has started reaching out to teachers directly because “a lot of them are very scared,” he says. “We have learned the fear is so great, many teachers are self censoring without putting up a fight, are afraid to speak out, or will only do so anonymously.”
Despite the fear-based climate, there have been some educators who find teaching moments within this CRT debate.
Daniel Warner from Memphis, another high school teacher of history, claims that the law is making educators second-guess their own abilities. “A lot of the trainings for U.S. history teachers in my district devolved into fears about, ‘Will I lose my job if I teach Jim Crow? Will I lose my job if I teach some of the basics of American history?’”
But Warner has gotten creative: He used Tennessee’s anti-CRT law to teach his students about the limits of freedom of expression during the Red Scare, the efforts to round up communists during the Cold War in the aftermath of World War II. The Smith Act of 1940 also contains a provision that prohibits teachers from encouraging the overthrow of America’s government. This was the law used to bring communists to trial. Teaching such a lesson, he says, is “definitely flipping the purpose of the law. But they didn’t say you couldn’t teach the law.”
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