Congressional Democrats didn’t mince words when they sent a message this week to their GOP colleagues, Republican state leaders and conservative school board members mounting efforts to sanitize U.S. history by stripping teachings and banning books on divisive topics like race, racism and gender.
“It is our moral imperative to tell the truth about our past to finally reconcile with this nation’s history of racism and white nationalism,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat and former teacher and principal, said in a statement announcing legislation aimed at protecting and promoting the teaching of African American history in K-12 schools.
“The moment we are in requires of us a clear-eyed vision to ensure that not just our children but people of all ages, have access to resources and education that accurately recount African American history,” he said. “As a Black man and an educator, I cannot make clear enough how important it is to the success of our democracy for us to come to a collective understanding and agreement that we must take our commitment to learn from our past seriously.”
The legislation itself has the modest goal of directing some $10 million a year over five years to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which would in turn use the funds to develop and make available high-quality teaching materials related to teaching African American history, provide professional development for early childhood, elementary and secondary teachers, establish a teacher fellowship program and engage with local and state leaders interested in incorporating the museum’s resources into their curriculum.
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But it comes amid a major backlash among conservatives to critical race theory – the academic assertion that racial inequity exists in all facets of American life, including education, health care, the criminal justice system and more.
As it stands, at least 36 states have introduced bills to restrict how educators can teach racism, sexism and other divisive topics – at least 14 of them have passed such measures. And school librarians across the country are being bullied into pulling books about Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, former first lady Michelle Obama and others that center on LGBTQ characters off the shelves of their libraries.
The efforts are almost entirely driven by white parents and supported by Republican lawmakers.
In some of the most dramatic examples, legislation proposed in GOP-controlled Florida would ban public schools from making people feel “discomfort” when being taught about racial discrimination in U.S. history, and in Virginia, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin established a tip line for parents to report instances when educators teach “divisive” subjects.
In total, 17.7 million public school students – more than a third of all students in the country – have had their learning restricted by such local and state policies, according to a new study from the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Let’s start with a basic fact: You cannot understand American history without knowing African American history,” Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement.
The AFT, along with the National Education Association and dozens of additional education and civil rights advocacy organizations, are backing the legislation.
“Some people are making this a wedge issue – even bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history,” Weingarten said. “This bill will make sure every student learns about the history and contributions of African Americans throughout the years. And every educator should have the training and tools they need to engage and teach African American history.”
Bowman’s legislation, which is co-sponsored in the Senate by New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, also comes amid a sudden and alarming increase in bomb threats being made against historically Black colleges and universities. On Jan. 31, six HBCUs received bomb threats, followed on Feb. 1 – the first day of National Black History Month – when an additional 12 HBCUs received bomb threats.
“The story of Black people in America is inextricably linked to the story of America,” Booker said in a statement. “This story must be reckoned with so that we can honestly reflect upon our nation’s past moral wrongs and the long and ongoing quest for justice that has been undertaken by Black Americans.”