Feb 1, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Educators wrestle with new limits on teaching Black history

Illustration of a teacher's hand trying to write on a tiny chalkboard.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Schools and universities are marking the start of Black History Month today, as many educators across the nation wrestle with increasing limits on what they can teach about racism and history.

Why it matters: New laws in at least 14 states and various restrictions elsewhere — or the threat of them — are leading many teachers to simply mention important figures in Black history without getting into the racism they faced.

Zoom in: In all, lawmakers in 30 states have proposed new restrictions during the past year on what schools can teach about the nation's racial history, according to an Axios analysis of National Conference of State Legislatures data.

  • Under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida has been among the most aggressive states in limiting what educators can teach.
  • In 2022, DeSantis signed a bill that effectively prevents teaching certain concepts related to race, national origin or sex that could make students uncomfortable, calling that discriminatory.
  • The Florida State Board of Education also approved a rule change in 2021 prohibiting teachings that "distort historical events."
  • Florida's ban includes material such as The New York Times Magazine's "The 1619 Project," which drew criticism from many conservatives. They saw the project's focus on Jamestown as a starting point for the U.S. slave trade as a slap at America's origin story. Texas has a similar ban.

State of play: Such policies are why many teachers now approach Black History Month carefully, said Crystal Etienne, a middle school civics teacher in Miami-Dade County, Florida's largest school district.

  • "How do I teach the end of slavery, the 13th Amendment, and then not answer or acknowledge" the atrocities of slavery, Etienne said.
  • Miami-Dade schools offered teachers readings or lesson plans that district officials say are "aligned with state standards." But many teachers are unlikely too use them because they don't want to run afoul of the new laws.
  • "I try to tie in as much Black history to the material we're supposed to be using already, but a lot of teachers won't," Etienne said.
  • "No one wants to be fired."

Etienne acknowledged the approved lesson plans do recognize the contributions and influence African Americans have had on the arts — which she called a pleasant surprise.

Zoom out: In many communities across the nation, the limits on teaching racism and Black history began with activists targeting Critical Race Theory, or CRT.

  • CRT — which holds that racism was baked into the nation's formation and is ingrained in our legal, financial and education systems — is seldom taught in public schools, especially grade school.
  • Even so, school bans on teaching CRT have popped up across the country — and in many cases inspired lawmakers to put sweeping restrictions on educators.

Elementary school teachers, administrators and college professors, meanwhile, have been threatened with physical harm, fines, or being fired over accusations almost always false that they've taught CRT.

Between the lines: Those bans are creating a stark disparity across the country on how students learn about Black history, Sharif El-Mekki, founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, tells Axios.

  • Students in Philadelphia, for example, could have robust lessons about civil rights leaders, while those in Georgia may have teachers who can mention that Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record 50 years ago — but can't discuss the racism Aaron faced, El-Mekki said.
  • "That's what they're basically wanting teachers to do — lie to students," El-Mekki said. "Talk about Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson, but almost not identify that they're Black."
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