While the vast majority of the nation’s educators are embracing culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy- and seeing excellent results- we are also living in an era in which a book like Hidden Figures can be labeled as “divisive content” and put under review by the local school board. When white parents say things like, “I don’t want my daughter to grow up feeling guilty for being white,” it not only offers a prime example of the blinding effects of white privilege, it prevents these young people from engaging in the sort of intercultural opportunities that can temper such intolerant and misguided attitudes. Protecting someone against facts of history is not protecting them, it is doing harm. Adopting an ahistorical perspective prevents us from learning from lessons of the past.
In a panel discussion entitled “Educators Ungagged: Teaching Truth in the Era of Racial Backlash,” Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, law professor and leading scholar of critical race theory, called this moment in our nation “a calculated backlash against the moment of racial reckoning that brought millions of us out on the streets.” Many of our fellow Americans claim that public schools are becoming liberal bastions where their children are force-fed critical race theory. Outwardly, they reason that a critical perspective on history denigrates American values and threatens their freedom, but inwardly they are cowering with fear.
The scapegoating of critical race theory in K-12 curricula is the new guise of the same old effort to protect “traditional American” modes of education. Although the layperson cannot usually pin down what critical race theory is, a recent national survey says that 58 percent had a negative opinion of it (See Politico article below). Professor Crenshaw unveils this phenomenon for what it is: “Nothing but an effort to stop this reckoning in its tracks while deploying colorblindness to mandate an official condition of amnesia about our past.” Having lived in Tucson, Arizona when controversy over the Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District blew up in the national press, this overreaction seems to follow suit. By 2008, Arizona lawmakers were setting their sights on banning TUSD’s Mexican American Studies program altogether with a bill to prohibit classes from teaching beliefs that “denigrate American values.”
Russell Pearce, a Republican who sponsored the first attempt to outlaw TUSD’s Mexican American Studies classes stated at a hearing, “Organizations that spew anti-American or race-based rhetoric have no place. We ought to be celebrating unity as Americans and not allowing, with taxpayer dollars, these organizations.” Arizona’s K-12 students eventually won the battle. Even though the former governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, signed the bill into law in 2010, a federal court later ruled that the ban violated students’ constitutional rights, and the MAS program has grown larger than ever. Unfortunately, similar consortiums have been busy hatching new plans across the country. For instance, Oklahoma’s HB1775, Oklahoma’s classroom censorship bill, was recently signed into law and now severely restricts learning about race and gender. Librarians are hesitant to purchase new books out of fear that they will be accused of violating the new law. Lilly Amechi, a representative of Oklahoma University’s Black Emergency Response Team (BERT) declared that the law “is a direct attack on the education experience of the Black community specifically, and marginalized communities at large on campus,” and that the law “erases the legacy of discrimination.”
The type of rhetoric that indulges people in the old-timey myth that being colorblind is the pathway forward is not only ludicrous, but it is also leading us away from achieving an equitable society. “Non-compliant educators are the prime targets in this war and the casualties are piling up,” warned Professor Crenshaw.
Case in point? My story.
My colleague and I, who had long records of supporting students seeking a culturally responsive learning environment, were similarly accused of sowing political division before we were terminated. Although I will acknowledge that we were employed by a private institution in a right-to-work state, we were impacted by the same forces that are bringing some conservative parents to storm their local school board meetings and accuse them of tyranny. We failed to keep up the apolitical guise favored by our private university’s administration. There was a precipitating event that began to unravel the dance department at Grand Canyon University and it’s no coincidence that it was a meeting on race and reconciliation that sealed my fate. The president and CEO of the university, Brian E Mueller, became personally involved once two angry letters floated up to his desk. The effectiveness of my leadership suddenly became an open question. Ultimately, we were indicted for exposing students to antiracist concepts, and we had a price to pay.
Toward the end of the AAFP’s “Educators Ungagged” panel session, Stacey Davis Gates, the Vice President of the Chicago Teacher’s Union said: “We have to call a thing a thing. We actually get to say white supremacy. In fact, you better say it because they’re saying critical race theory, but that’s not what they’re saying. They’re saying that white supremacy must remain intact in this country.”
“This work is never going to give us the love, respect, and deference we deserve and it is also the right thing to do. We are the protectors of the public good. We have to call a thing a thing and then we have to have a good counterbalance. The way that the right has taken Critical Race Theory and bastardized it is they don’t see a counterbalance that will fight tooth and nail against them. We have to erect the counterbalance that goes against all those who keep white supremacy in control.”
As I write this, I am marking one year since I received the call from my dean describing the rage of Mr. Mueller when he received the letters. Today, I am ungagged and ready to continue the good fight.
To read more of my story, please read my blog post, When the Culture Wars Come For Your Job, Part 1.
Joseph Flaherty. Long Division: 65 Years After Segregation, Phoenix Schools Are Separate and Unequal. April 8, 2018. New Times Phoenix.
“Educators Ungagged: Teaching Truth in the Era of Racial Backlash” with introduction by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw from The African American Policy Forum’s Under the Blacklight series, also available on the Intersectionality Matters podcast
Story from Arizona’s 2010 ban on the MAS program from Politico: “What Arizona’s 2010 Ban on Ethnic Studies Could Mean for the Fight Over Critical Race Theory”
2008 bill in Arizona legislature: https://www.azleg.gov/legtext/48leg/2R/adopted/H.1108-SE-APPROP.pdf
“Activist Groups File Lawsuit Against HB 1775” (Oklahoma): https://www.ocpathink.org/post/activist-groups-file-lawsuit-against-hb-1775
‘It’s really hard’: GCU dance students reckon with firings, shuffling in department by Brieanna Frank: https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/phoenix/2021/01/13/its-really-hard-gcu-dance-students-reckon-firings-shuffling-department/6595518002/