Updated Feb 5, 2022 - Politics & Policy

New rules are limiting how teachers can teach Black History Month

Sixteen Black children accompanied by 4 mothers carry anti-segregation signs as they walk to Webster School in Hillsboro, Ohio, in 1956.
Sixteen Black children accompanied by four mothers carry anti-segregation signs in Hillsboro, Ohio, in 1956. Photo: Bettmann Collection/Getty Images

Schools and universities are marking Black History Month starting today, but this is the first time it will be celebrated under new restrictions on diversity education imposed by some states.

Why it matters: The constraints — under the guise of banning the teaching of critical race theory — limit what some state-supported institutions can discuss about the nation's racial past. Educators embracing Black history have received death threats.

Details: Since last year, 14 states have imposed such restrictions through legislation, executive actions, or commission votes, an Education Week analysis found.

  • In addition, 35 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict teaching critical race theory a concept that focuses on the legacy of systemic racism — or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.
  • Elementary school teachers, administrators and college professors have faced fines, physical threats, and fear of firing because of this organized push from the right to remove classroom discussions of systemic racism.

Between the lines: Broadly written laws and proposals allow state officials to punish schools and educators for discussing racism and the history of people of color, critics say.

  • Those limits would allow teachers to mention that Brooklyn Dodgers infielder Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color line but not allow them to discuss why Black players were banned before him, Sharif El-Mekki, founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, said.
  • Teachers may also introduce Malcolm X but not read his speeches, mention soul singer Marvin Gaye but not discuss his "What's Going On" lyrics, or point out Rosewood, Florida, or Tulsa, Oklahoma, on maps but not talk about the racial atrocities that occurred there.

In many cases, the toughest crackdowns could prevent students from learning about history that happened in their own backyards.

  • South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem recently introduced a bill to prohibit colleges and schools from teaching certain lessons on racial atrocities. The state is the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre of Lakota people by the U.S. Army.
  • State legislators in Alabama, where John Lewis was beaten by police during a 1965 voting rights march, are expected soon to take up a bill that would prevent colleges from teaching critical race theory.
  • Lawmakers in Mississippi and Florida are considering bills that would ban history lessons that make students feel uncomfortable about their race.

What they're saying: "These laws supposedly protecting white students from guilt say more about the authors of the law than the students," Manisha Sinha, a University of Connecticut historian and author of "The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition," told Axios.

  • "There's no reason why a white student can't identify with the abolitionist or the civil rights leader rather than a slaveholder."

Tracey Lynn Nance, a 4th-grade teacher in Decatur, Georgia, told Axi0s she estimates that half of the teachers she knows will continue Black History Month lessons as planned while the other half is distraught.

  • "I think that many are self-censoring right now. (Many) are feeling angry about thinking that someone is out to get them or they're going to twist their comments."
  • Nance, who has faced a backlash online for defending diversity and equity in education, says she plans to continue her lessons on Coretta Scott King and Black poets during Black History Month.

The other side: James Henderson, an Alabama conservative activist, dismissed complaints that anti-critical race theory laws that he supports would prevent students from learning Black history or Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • "The teaching of morality is a good thing in public education. And unfortunately, we've largely gotten away from it," Henderson said, referring to King's teachings about being a good moral citizen.

Zoom out: New teaching on race has been criticized by the right and even some on the left. David Bromwich, an English professor at Yale, wrote in The Nation: "The new methods are marked by a certain severity, a pressure to cleanse or catechize."

Yes, but: Even before Black History Month began, the attacks on critical race theory, driven disproportionately by white, suburban and rural parents, had led to book bans and school districts re-examining diversity lessons.

  • Moms for Liberty in Tennessee, for example, filed a complaint last year asking the state to review certain children's books about King and civil rights advocate Ruby Bridges. The state rejected it.
  • “Dear Martin,” a young adult novel about a Black high-schooler writing letters to King, was removed last month from a North Carolina high school following complaints from parents about the book's expletives.

Flashback: Historian Carter G. Woodson is credited for inspiring Black History Month after he organized the first Negro History Week in February 1926.

  • In 1976, on the 50th anniversary of the first Negro History Week, the Association for the Study of African American History officially made the shift to Black History Month.
  • President Gerald Ford issued a declaration that year celebrating the month — and every president since has followed.

The bottom line: El-Mekki said he's encouraging teachers to use primary sources in lessons like the racist speeches and essays of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis or Thomas Jefferson. "Teachers can they say...'I didn't say this. They said this.' That's history."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to add context on the criticisms of the teachings on race. It was originally published on Feb. 1.

Go deeper