Black History Month: Recent Attempts to Diminish Black History in American Schools
By Lindsay Turpin
Critical race theory has become a contested topic in recent years, but the name itself has become misconstrued. While critical race theory is an established area of academic study for professors and graduate students, what has gone under attack by some politicians is K-12 education on Black history more broadly - historical facts about racism in America and the writings of many advocates for equality. This is concerning, of course, if it has now become a political debate where some want to erase awareness of the ways that Black people have been oppressed since before the start of the United States and throughout its history.
The study of critical race theory has been in development since the 1980s and began at Harvard Law School with academics such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell protesting the blindness of the university to racist systems. At this moment, Derrick Bell was the only Black professor in the law school, and when he left, students recognized a lack of diversity within the faculty. Bell had brought a perspective that challenged views that racism was fully gone after civil rights laws, and he emphasized that discrimination still remained a constant of Black lives in America. Protesting students argued that a homogenous collection of faculty members brought a one-sided view of the world and of history.
Scholars carried the idea of systems perpetuating racist practices further over time, exploring how discrimination remains alive as people claimed to be colorblind. Critical race theory as a field of study expands awareness of the pervasiveness of racist systems and seeks solutions for a more equal future and a reckoning with the cruel past of the United States. CRT does not just pertain to Black people, and the field has expanded to cover Indigenous people, Latinos, Asian Americans, and many other communities that have experienced racism. The theory can be applied to infinite scenarios of inequity in societal systems, which has led to a wide variety of studies in the field.
The field has recently been under attack. In 2020, Donald Trump turned it into a political issue that would lead to copious amounts of legislation promoting ignorance of factual U.S. history and the country’s deeply flawed past. Again, while politicians have attacked “critical race theory” and subsequently limited school curriculum, it was never a discipline that was taught in K-12 schools to begin with. Thus this campaign began with ignorance and misunderstanding. It has appealed to conservative white Americans because it allows them to absolve themselves of the discomfort of knowing that our country’s past is cruel. Some parents say their kids are “too young” to know about racism - and yet Black children can never be shielded from that harsh reality of prejudice.
Caron LeNoir, 48, a mother of three with an eighth-grader in Charlottesville public schools, told the Washington Post, “I don’t remember a day of my life when I wasn’t taught about racism, or learning about it through just existing. Our children, meaning Black children, have had to be taught different ways to stay safe to maneuver through the world.”
The erasure of Black history in schools is a harmful tactic that could have disastrous effects on polarization in the United States and perpetuate discrimination. If some children are brought up without an awareness of the harsh realities that Black people face for their entire lives, the country could be stunted from reducing racial inequalities.
Specific efforts to limit knowledge of Black history include banning books such as 1619 project, How to Be an Antiracist, and other books by Black authors from school libraries. Even beyond Black history, some schools have made what they call “uncomfortable subjects” such as LGBTQ+ viewpoints and books about the Holocaust unavailable for students. Florida’s Senate Bill 148, called the “Stop WOKE Act'', targets the teaching of Black history and gender identity. 41 out of 50 states have attempted to minimize “critical race theory.” An organization was created called “Citizens for Renewing America'' that crafts legislation for states to use to outlaw “divisive concepts.” These developments are highly misguided.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis has taken more strides toward limiting education in recent days. The College Board is releasing an AP course on African American Studies, which DeSantis attacked. Conservative outrage resulted in a course that cuts out Black writers who have been tied to critical race theory, queer stories, and Black feminism, in addition to making the study of Black Lives Matter optional. It even added “Black conservatism” as a potential research project for AP students. The College Board claims these edits were made before DeSantis threatened to ban the course in Florida, however, it’s worrisome that political pressures could compel them to limit study of highly relevant concepts. DeSantis and other conservative anti-education stances are becoming more radical - he recently proposed a plan for higher education that makes western civilization courses mandatory and cuts out diversity and equity programs. In elementary school, children are not allowed to learn about gender identity until fourth grade and teaching about racism is strictly limited. Florida has even threatened to ban all A.P. classes. UCLA School of Law created a tracking page with an abundance of information on attempts to ban critical race theory and more information on the field of study. However, some hope: 17 states have been working on increasing education about racism and biases present in our society.
Throughout Black History Month and for the entire year, it’s the time to expand awareness of the Black experience and acknowledge the past and present systems that allow inequalities to endure. There are persisting issues in quality of life for Black Americans in areas such as healthcare, police violence, income inequality, education, environmental conditions, and others.
Black History Month was founded to ensure that African American stories were not diminished or hidden. Carter G. Woodson, the second Black man to earn a PhD from Harvard, and the only child of formerly enslaved Americans to earn a PhD, was the founder of “Negro History Week,” which he started in 1926. Through this period of education, he wanted to demonstrate the ways that Black Americans have been integral to U.S. history, and expand curricula that show how race and racism are entrenched in the country’s past. February was established as Black History Month in 1970, and the month was chosen because it contains both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays.
Journalist Jamil Smith wrote for Vox, “It’s evident that Woodson was pivotal in rescuing that history from the pyre of America’s racist revisionism.”
Not only are inequalities something that Black Americans have always had to fight against, they have also had to protect their stories and the experiences of their ancestors from being erased by white Americans. This is why Black History Month is so important, especially during a time where that willful ignorance has gained power again.
February is not a month to make us feel less racist, either. But as long as this story is told and awareness of the true facts of history is maintained, we are getting closer to reckoning with the past and identifying ways that a more egalitarian society can be created. This is the reality of living in the United States. There is a disturbing past to learn about, but that doesn’t mean children can’t handle it. Many kids don’t even have a choice whether or not they know about how cruel the U.S. has been to Black Americans.
Peniel E. Joseph, a professor at University of Texas, Austin, said that we must “understand the United States as a nation whose history holds both pride and shame.”