Feb 28, 2024 - News

Teaching Black history a year after Arkansas' "indoctrination" ban

Illustration of an apple core with faces silhouetted on each side.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

A year after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' executive order prohibited "indoctrination and critical race theory" in public schools, at least a share of Arkansas teachers feel they've been politicized.

  • Lawmakers are "barking about education and they don't know the first thing about what's going on in the classroom," a social studies teacher told us.

What we did: Axios surveyed 12 Arkansas school districts during Black History Month in 2023 and 2024 about their curriculum, and asked most of those for an interview with a history teacher.

Interview requests were either denied or left unanswered.

  • Two teachers provided comments on the condition of anonymity.

What we're hearing: "Yes, it has had a chilling effect," a language arts teacher told us about the executive order.

  • "It's impossible to teach literature without looking at it from a modern lens, which must address systemic racism," they said. Teachers have been told that talking about systemic racism is "modeling CRT," the person said.

State of play: Current social studies standards — revised last in 2022 — for grades 9-12 include a rubric to "analyze social events and issues in Arkansas surrounding discrimination and marginalization." Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, the 1919 Elaine Race Massacre and school segregation are used as examples.

What we found: None of the 12 schools teach critical race theory or The New York Times Magazine's "The 1619 Project," and none require teachers or staff to attend diversity, equity and inclusion training.

  • The districts said there was no conversation about including any such coursework prior to Sanders' executive order last year.
  • All said they use Arkansas' academic standards for history courses.

Reality check: Critical race theory — a college-level framework 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 late 1970s and early 1980s.

  • Diversity, equity and inclusion training, which is used by many corporations, and "The 1619 Project" are often conflated with CRT.

Only North Little Rock and Jonesboro offer Advanced Placement for African American Studies, which is still a pilot course.

  • Credit is not given to students who take the APAA course because state officials aren't sure it complies with the law, they told Axios last August.

The big picture: New laws limiting what can be taught about racism and history in at least 14 states and various restrictions elsewhere are leading many teachers to simply mention important figures in Black history without getting into the racism they faced, Axios' Russell Contreras and Sommer Brugal report.

Zoom in: "Systemic racism is a part of American history … it's a factual thing," the Arkansas social studies teacher said.

  • "It can't be denied."
  • But it's also important to teach about the Civil Rights Movement and the 13th and 14th Amendments to show actions have been taken to create change, they said.

The bottom line: "My goal is to tell [students] the truth about what has happened in America and impart to them that there's no such thing as a perfect country," the social studies teacher told Axios.

  • "America has done a lot of good things. But America has also done some questionable things because … it's run by people, and people mess up."

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