Jul 10, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Teachers prepare for court fights on race education

President of American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten speaks at an event in Washington, D.C. with the image of the Statue of Liberty in the background.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaking in Washington, D.C. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Teachers and civil rights activists are organizing and preparing to go to court to stop conservatives' efforts to block curriculum about institutional racism.

Why it matters: "It is the modern-day Scopes trial," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tells Axios, recalling the 1925 case over teaching evolution.

  • Legislators in nearly half of U.S. states in recent months have passed or introduced proposals to constrain lessons about how racism has shaped the nation's history and political and economic systems.
  • Conservative groups also are driving recall campaigns against school board members around the U.S.

Driving the news: Weingarten said her union will defend teachers' right to teach American history — and will aggressively protect any educator accused of violating such new laws and restrictions.

  • "We're looking at court actions because these laws conflict with standards and our licensure requirements and our professional obligations," she said.
  • Union delegates with the National Education Association earlier this month voted to expand the teaching of anti-racism and diversity in American classrooms, despite the growing backlash.
  • The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 79 other civil rights and education groups recently released a statement calling anti-racism classroom lessons a student right needing to be defended.

The big picture: This backlash against critical race theory comes as school systems grow more diverse and many parents welcome more diverse curriculums.

  • The popularity of The New York Times' 1619 Project, by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which examined the history of slavery and its lasting impact in the U.S., also sparked conservative anger.

The other side: Citizens for Renewing America, a group led by a White House budget director under former President Trump, offers activists model legislation to craft bans on critical race theory in their states. Teachers also are facing threats of firing for introducing anti-racism lessons.

  • At least 51 local recall efforts involving K-12 school boards have been initiated this year in reaction to critical race theory and COVID-19 closures.
  • Critics of critical race theory are suggesting long-time popular children's books and novels regularly listed high school reading are dangerous now.
  • Idaho state lawmaker Heather Scott cited the 1960 novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee as evidence that critical race theory was "creeping through our schools."
  • A group of white parents in Tennessee claimed "Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story,” by Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana, was anti-American (and) anti-white.”

Reality check: Critical race theory — which holds that racism is baked into the formation of the nation and ingrained in our legal, financial, and education systems — was developed in law schools in the 1970s and isn't really taught in grade school.

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