Laws affect debate on racism in America’s classrooms

New measures that restrict the way in which race can be discussed in classrooms are causing confusion and anxiety for many teachers in the United States, who have come to check out books and suspend lessons for fear of being punished.

Education system officials have ruled out a class on contemporary issues in a Tennessee district, removed an autobiography by abolitionist Frederick Douglass from the Oklahoma education system’s recommended reading list, and at one Texas school teachers were asked to submit positions. “Contrary” to the Jewish holocaust.

At least a dozen states this year passed measures that restrict the way schools talk about racism, sexism and other topics. While teachers wait to see how these provisions are enforced, the ambiguity of some of these measures, combined with severe penalties, including the possible loss of their licenses to teach, is affecting conversations about race in schools and, in some cases , having consequences that will surely exceed the objective sought with these actions.

Matt Hawn, a social studies teacher at a Tennessee high school, said teachers have expressed concern about how they will talk about controversial issues since he was fired in the spring, when the state legislature finished shaping new restrictions on teaching.

“They wonder, ‘What will happen to me if I teach this?’ Because the punishments are harsh,” Hawn said.

Hawn was fired for allegedly using offensive language and for failing to offer a conservative point of view when addressing the issue of white privilege in his contemporary issues class, which was later dropped.

There are growing classes on race and diversity, along with the recognition that racial injustices did not end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Those efforts generate strong backlash from Republican voters.

In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governorship this month promising to ban critical theory of race, an expression that is replacing concepts like systemic racism and implicit prejudice. His Democratic rival was criticized for saying that parents should not tell schools how to teach.

Some aspects of the new laws seem unobjectionable. The Tennessee law prohibits saying that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex. But other sections are more complex. For example, teaching classes that promote divisions or cause children to suffer psychological distress because of their race or sex are prohibited.

Those ambiguous bans make teachers feel that any class on difficult subjects, such as slavery or contemporary racism, can be viewed by parents as a violation of the law, according to Alice O’Brien, a counselor for the National Educational Association.

“These measures are problematic because it is not clear what they mean, it all depends on the eye with which you look at them,” O’Brien said. “You have to understand that every state has pretty broad guidelines about what K-12 (elementary and middle school) teachers should teach. And they are required to teach the entire history of the United States, not just the parts that make us feel good. “

In some parts, new laws are invoked to request the suppression of certain materials.

In Tennessee, Moms for Liberty, an organization of conservative mothers in a Nashville suburb, Williamson County, questioned the way the fight for civil rights is taught to second graders.

In a letter to the Department of Education, Robin Steenman complained that the textbooks and manual teachers use hint that “people of color continue to be oppressed by ‘an angry, aggressive, fearful, wicked, noisy, white population. violent ”. Among the books Steenman mentioned were “Ruby Bridges Goes to School” and “Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington.”

In Oklahoma, Edmond Public Schools teachers said books by black authors were removed from the list of basic texts, which English teachers use to prepare their classes. A lawsuit filed by teachers, students and parents said the district also removed texts by African-American authors from its programs, including the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, a famous speaker who fought slavery in the 1800s.

A spokeswoman for the education system, Susan Parks-Schlepp, said some readings were designated as optional as part of an annual review to make sure they fit within state parameters.

In Texas, a Republican lawmaker ordered a commission he chairs to seek information on the use of at least 850 books on topics ranging from racism to abortion.

State Representative Matt Krause, who is running for state attorney general, said five Texas school districts removed books that “were objected to by students, their parents and taxpayers.” Two of the districts confirmed that they had received copies of the letter and were looking into the matter, but did not comment further.

Clay Robinson, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, said the letter adds to the confusion teachers feel since the state mandated that “both sides” of each subject be taught.

“The teachers feel like Big Brother is watching them,” Robinson said.

The racial divisions surrounding these measures were made obvious at an August Alabama School Board meeting in which two black members voted against a resolution denouncing “instruction that seeks to indoctrinate students” with ideologies. promoting a particular race or sex, while the seven whites on the board voted in favor.

Board member Tonya Chestnut said the resolution “puts teachers in a position where they feel uncomfortable, even scared, if they teach the truth.”

Derek W. Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and author of “Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy,” said that these measures are unnecessary because federal civil rights laws prohibit discrimination in the classroom.

He does not deny that some teachers misbehave when teaching racism and sexism, or that parents may have legitimate complaints, but he opined that they should be considered “just like the other 1,001 legitimate complaints.”

“Why is this number one? Because of politics, ”he said.