Editor’s Note: Randi Weingarten is president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
With a new school year around the corner – when students will return needing more support than ever – what topic is trending on Twitter and animating the airwaves? Ensuring that schools are safe and welcoming? Nope. Helping students recover from the isolation and anxiety of Covid? Nope. How to accelerate learning? Nope. Instead, it’s a contrived uproar over something that is not even taught in elementary and secondary schools: critical race theory.
Despite this furor, most Americans have not been exposed to actual critical race theory nor do they understand what it is. Critical race theory is the examination, principally in law school but also elsewhere at the undergraduate and graduate level in college, of whether systemic racism exists and whether it affects law and public policy – it asks, for example, whether policies that prohibited Black Americans from owning homes have contributed to the stark disparities in wealth between Black and white Americans.
Culture warriors are suddenly labeling any discussion of race, racism, discrimination or struggle as critical race theory in an attempt to drive a wedge between Americans and prevent the full and accurate teaching of the American Experiment. They are seeking to ban critical race theory where it is not taught – in K-12 schools – and to discredit it where it is – in law schools and some colleges.
Critical race theory is largely misunderstood by the public, even by those who say they are familiar with it, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll. But when asked about teaching high school students about the history of slavery in the United States, 78% of adults supported it, including 7 in 10 Republicans. And 73% supported teaching about racism and its impact on the country.
The tumult over critical race theory was stirred up by a conservative activist, Christopher Rufo, who tweeted in March that his goal was to conflate issues related to race under the umbrella term of critical race theory to make it “toxic” and “drive up negative perceptions.” Fox News has fueled the fray with nearly 2,000 mentions of critical race theory in three months, according to Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group. Steve Bannon, once an adviser to former President Donald Trump, called critical race theory “the Tea Party to the 10th power,” alluding to its supposed political saliency.
In just a few months, legislators in at least 26 states have proposed bills to restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. The controversy has sparked a slew of school board recall efforts. Pundits have called for teachers to wear body cameras to “oversee” what they are teaching. In one Tennessee school district, there is an attempt to ban a children’s book about school integration called “Ruby Bridges Goes to School.” In 1960, Bridges, then 6 years old, was the first Black child to desegregate an all-White elementary school in Louisiana.
A new Texas law forbids teaching the concept that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States.” How, then, do teachers teach the Civil War, the Dred Scott decision, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, or Juneteenth? Another bill in Texas would strip mentions in the social studies curriculum of civil rights activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and writings by Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr, and remove a classroom requirement to teach that the KKK is “morally wrong.”
During my years teaching history and civics, I led my students in discussions and debates of America’s past and present. We covered both what we celebrate and what we abhor, exploring such topics as slavery and its effects, whether industrialists were robber barons or captains of industry, and whether the United States should have used atomic bombs to end World War II. I often used “To Kill a Mockingbird” as the introduction to my street law class.
The backers of these new laws are trying to gag and scare teachers to keep them from meeting their professional obligation to teach students honest history. They want to deprive students of a robust understanding of our common history. This will put students at a disadvantage in life by knocking a big hole in their understanding of our country and the world.
I recently viewed an exhibit of Ansel Adams’ photos documenting the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. In the current climate, I wondered whether this part of American history, or many of the topics I taught, would be prohibited in the name of banning critical race theory.
Many teachers have similar concerns.
My union, the American Federation of Teachers, will defend any member who gets in trouble for teaching honest history. We have a legal defense fund ready to go. And we are preparing for litigation as we speak. Teaching the truth is not radical or wrong. Distorting history and threatening educators for teaching the truth is what is truly radical and wrong. It crosses a dangerous line when legislators attempt to erase history. And it hurts our efforts to make schools safe and welcoming for all our children.
Teachers must have the freedom to teach in ways that reach every student and value their lived experiences. Because no matter our color, background, or ZIP code, we want to raise young people who can engage with and understand facts, examine diverse perspectives, and draw their own conclusions – in other words, who can think critically.
There is a saying: “When you know better, you do better.” As a country, we need to know the unvarnished truth about our history so we can do better. Those truths are not magically imbued – they must be taught and learned.
Teachers know that. We have a responsibility to teach accurate, truthful information. And to teach history, not hate.