While Statehouses Try to Legislate Against Teaching about Racism, Educators and Historians Fight to Protect Students from Censorship

Right now I am in the middle of reading and enjoying Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Night Watchman. What makes this book so fascinating for me is that it is about the Turtle Mountain Chippewa of North Dakota, people who are related to the Chippewa and Cree people who live on the Rocky Boys Indian Reservation just outside the Montana town where I grew up.

Erdrich’s novel explores the American Indian cultures along the Canadian border and the injustices of what has been called “the termination and relocation era” in the mid-twentieth century. In 1953, Congress considered a joint resolution to terminate the historic treaties negotiated by the federal government with the indigenous people across the nation. Politically, Congress promoted the termination resolution as though it would be a ticket to freedom for the residents of North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation and other native people, but the goal instead was to force them to disperse, relocate and assimilate. Erdrich depicts the grassroots battle mounted—successfully—by tribal leaders to protect their people’s rights, their culture, and the tribal property. In her book, Erdrich also examines the exploitation of Chippewa women who had relocated from the reservation to the Twin Cities without the protection of their traditional community.

Reading this book and exploring the truth of the injustices thrust on American Indian communities in the mid-twentieth century is not a shock to me because I have been aware of some of this history for a long time. A good friend from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota had already taught me about the construction of the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River, a dam that flooded many of the native communities and, in 1953 and 1954, displaced the low-lying towns in Fort Berthold—forcing them to relocate to higher ground.

Like a lot of students who went through high school in the 1960s in northern Montana, and I’m sure, North Dakota and Minnesota, I didn’t learn much of this history at school. I am, however, fascinated to read about it as an adult. The far-right politicians and promoters of laws to prevent the teaching of such history at school now allege that as a white teenager, I would have felt guilty or demeaned—with my self esteem damaged—if I had been encouraged to learn this history at school. But I don’t believe it. Erdrich’s book interests me particularly because the novel explains so much about what I observed and couldn’t possibly understand as I was growing up.

When teachers help students honestly explore the injustices in American history, far-right hate-mongers accuse teachers of teaching something they call “critical race theory.”  Despite the need for schools honestly to teach history, today far-right state legislators are introducing laws to ban such teaching as unpatriotic and threatening to the self esteem of young people who are part of the dominant culture. Parents are mounting campaigns to get teachers fired if they openly discuss “threatening” topics like racial injustice with their students.

Although critical race theory is an academic concept developed in colleges of law to uncover, name, and deconstruct structural and institutional racism, far right ideologues have intentionally distorted the meaning. The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey report that, for example, Christopher Rufo, a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker and media opportunist wrote on Twitter that his goal—talking with Tucker Carlson on Fox News, for example—has been to conflate any number of topics into what he called “a new bucket” called critical race theory.

Last week strong pushback emerged to defend teachers’ right to explore and honestly discuss our nation’s history with our children in public schools. For the Washington Post, Hannah Natanson reports: “Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, warned in a speech Tuesday that conservative lawmakers, pundits and news sites are waging a ‘culture campaign’ against critical race theory.  The theory is a decades-old academic framework that asserts racism is woven into the history and thus the present of the nation, helping shape how institutions and systems function…. Weingarten said that critical race theory is not taught in U.S. elementary, middle and high schools. The theory is taught only in law school and in college…. ‘But culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism or discrimination as critical race theory to try to make it toxic… They are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history.’… Weingarten said that the American Federation of Teachers, which has about 1.7 million members, has ‘a legal-defense fund’ ready to go.'”

Then on Friday, 135 prominent academic and educational organizations released a  Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History to confront a right-wing conservative attack on the accurate teaching of American history: “We, the undersigned associations and organizations, state our firm opposition to a spate of legislative proposals being introduced across the country that target academic lessons, presentations, and discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges and universities. These efforts have taken varied shape in at least 20 states, but often the legislation aims to prohibit or impede the teaching and education of students concerning what are termed ‘divisive concepts.’ These divisive concepts as defined in numerous bills are a litany of vague and indefinite buzzwords and phrases including, for example, ‘that any individual should feel or be made to feel discomfort… guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological or emotional distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.’ These legislative efforts are deeply troubling for numerous reasons.”

The statement continues: ” First, these bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students ‘discomfort’ because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public.  Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration.”

“Second, these legislative efforts seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements… Politicians in a democratic society should not manipulate public school curricula to advance partisan or ideological aims… Knowledge of the past exists to serve the needs of the living. In the current context this includes an honest reckoning with all aspects of that past. Americans of all ages deserve nothing less than a free and open exchange about history and the forces that shape our world today.”

This blog previously explored the attack on teaching about systemic racism here.