Mon, Jul

We Need More, Not Less Education on Black History and Structural Racism

Students discuss differences between 17th century Africa and the United States during an Advanced Placement African American Studies, for the first time ever, at Baltimore Polytechnic on September 28, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images)


BLACK HISTORY - On the first day of Black History month, the College Board stripped down AP African American History, removing references to elements of Black history that some called “politicizing” or “woke indoctrination.” This is a part of a national wave to erase and rewrite Black history--which is, by the way, American history. Proposed state legislation in Missouri, as well as laws passed in Iowa and Florida, uses phrases like “parents’ rights” to justify the banning of books and erasing images, stories and history of Black life from the k-12 curriculum. But I would suggest that what we need is more, not less, education on structural racism and Black history.

I teach college students about the history of the American school. My students graduated from high school, performing strongly enough to gain admission to a highly ranked university. Yet they often have a limited understanding of racism and the systemic exclusion of specific groups of people in our history. Many of these students, mostly white and from relatively privileged backgrounds, say that they did not learn enough about Black history. They aren’t happy about it either. They are disappointed in us, disappointed that we are not preparing them for the world they are entering. 

Here in my own state, Missouri, lawmakers last week hotly debated new legislation introducing sweeping language on what parents can object to teaching and giving them the power to remove content from the curriculum: the law calls this “transparency.” Missouri is following in the wake of other states attempting to remove "divisive" subjects from public schools. In April, Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E. act restricted the way teachers could discuss Black (again, American) history. Meanwhile, Iowa is experiencing widespread book bans: Des Moines’s largest metro school district may ban six books, including Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer.

The wording of much of this legislation portrays a failure of education, because it distorts or misrepresents what is actually being taught. For instance, conservative lawmakers conflate the teaching of history with critical race theory. They argue that teaching about past racist policies like segregation somehow accuses white learners of themselves being racist. Statements like Missouri State Senator Andrew Koenig’s claim that “"CRT-type things are being done," betray a vagueness and absence of nuance that no self-respecting high school teacher would tolerate in an essay. Koenig has further claimed that teaching about the historic exclusion of different groups from the basic rights and provisions in America is “white-shaming.” But what I find shameful is that our legislators don’t understand American history enough to comprehend that racism is, in fact, endemic, and that their actions this week (at the start of Black History Month no less) attest to that. This legislation is in fact a continuation of structural racism that is as old as America itself. 

Perhaps if these lawmakers themselves had learned more about Black history, and indigenous history, and yes, even critical race theory, in middle and high school, they would have a more informed and nuanced view of the importance of history. 

These lawmakers might then understand the implications of their actions. Determined families will ensure their children receive this education regardless of support at the school, district, local, or state level. Yet we cannot ignore that legislative action to limit education and continue to force Black history to the margins, outside of the walls and light of the school building, feels a lot like a return to learning in secret, like the “pit schools” of the south--literal pits in the ground concealed in the woods where enslaved people were forced to hide so they could learn to read and write. In Iowa, we are already seeing a resurgence of supplementary education, as legislation has left students, teachers, and administrators with few tools to expand access to these curricula, and have thus resulted to teach-ins, Saturday and evening schools, and other unsanctioned methods to provide the education students are demanding.

To be sure, legislators argue that important aspects of Black history, such as slavery and civil rights, will continue to be covered in the standard US History curriculum. But the stories of slavery and the civil rights movement are not the sum of the Black experience. Depictions of Black people in those two components history are not the only images my kids should have. In fact, if our children learn that slavery and the fight for civil rights are the sum total of Black history, that could leave white students feeling more shamed than ever, ironically contradicting the legislation Koenig is working so hard to enact. 

American history is wrought with the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we provide access to comprehensive educational opportunities for all students, it instills resilience and empathy for the shared American experience. Comprehensive K-12 education needs to be more, not less inclusive. Comprehensive K-12 education needs to include an unbiased 360-degree rendition of historical facts in relevant cultural contexts. It needs to teach key elements of critical race theory, such as that racism is in fact endemic to American life, that our current social contexts are a reflection of the structural racism and inequity of the past and present. While the nature of education is teaching society's past, teaching the truth allows for greater acceptance when everyone shares the real experiences and real history of the people in society. If we teach more, not less, American history including the fullness of the Black experience, we will create better, emotionally intelligent leaders, more able to critically consider the complex realities of the American experience and better able to help us create a more equitable world. By knowing real history, future generations (and hopefully our legislators) will be more informed to not repeat mistakes of the past.


(Dr. Kelly Harris, an assistant professor at Washington University, holds a Ph.D. in education and is a Public Voices Fellow with AcademyHealth, in partnership with the OpEd Project. This article was first published in CommonDreams.org.)