A Nashville Black Lives Matter rally, June 4, 2021. (Photo: Alex Kent)
As a West Tennessee public school teacher of 18 years, my life has taken on a rhythmic pattern – pedal to the floor, hair on fire for ten months and then two months of rest during the summer. The same process year in and year out. June and July have always afforded me a time to clear some headspace and mentally prepare for what amounts to a ten month sprint beginning in August. That rhythm was abruptly halted in March of 2020 with the arrival of COVID-19 and since then it seems that state legislators and Gov. Bill Lee can’t help but insert themselves ignorantly into the workings of the education system.
At the beginning of May, the term “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) seemed to materialize out of thin air. CRT became a hot-button talking point for everyone associated with conservative politics. Much like Antifa, CRT was another windmill dragon for right leaning Don Quixotes to conquer.
While no conservative lawmaker could explain exactly what CRT was or how exactly it was being taught in Tennessee classrooms (spoiler alert: it wasn’t being taught in Tennessee classrooms), the basis of CRT deals with the inherent racism of many of our social constructs such the criminal justice system and policies put into place by lawmakers who have been predominantly Caucasian males. To see the modern day effects of CRT at play, one needs to look no further than the recent voting laws enacted in many southern states.
By the time CRT had made it through the wash cycle of conservative media, the banning of teaching CRT was brought to the floor for a vote in Tennessee and other red states like Texas, Arkansas, and Florida even though no one seemed to be able to provide examples of how or where it was being taught. It passed in each state.
The problem with banning the teaching of CRT, however, is that CRT was never taught directly in classrooms to begin with. There are no Tennessee State Academic Standards requiring the teaching of CRT or standards pointing out inherent racism within societal structures in our state or country. Those ideas are illuminated naturally if a teacher is teaching students to think critically based on the facts that are provided. It doesn’t take a lot of searching to see that bias and racism are intertwined in most of our societal structures.
When asked for a reason for banning the teaching of CRT, Gov. Lee responded, “We need to make sure that our kids recognize that this country is moving toward a more perfect union, that we should teach the exceptionalism of our nation and how people can live together and work together to make a greater nation, and to not teach things that inherently divide or pit either Americans against Americans or people groups against people groups.”
But, Gov. Lee, are we “moving toward a more perfect union”? Our criminal justice system is still heavily slanted against African-Americans. We are only two generations removed from the Civil Rights movement. In my town of Jackson, Tennessee, there has essentially been legal resegregation of our local education system due to the inordinate amount of private schools and white flight to the county north of Jackson. These are precisely the examples of collateral damage from our systems of inherent racism that CRT highlights. Asking public educators to turn a blind eye to those truths is like asking a firefighter to drive past a burning building – we, as educators, must address the inequities of our societal structure to keep them from continuing to occur. We don’t have time to cradle your white fragility.
In the last week, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, doubled down on Lee’s fight against CRT in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) when she wrote “(we) are committed to enforcing the CRT law as the legislature designed it.” Enforcing the law simply means taking away funding from districts in a state that ranks 45th out of 50 in education funding.
Earlier this summer, I took my daughter to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. From the beginning of the museum when we looked at the transatlantic slave map to the end where we stared at the room Martin Luther King, Jr. was in moments before he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the evidence for some of the truths taught in CRT is overwhelming. To state otherwise would be simply ignorant or abohorently racist.
As a middle school Language Arts teacher in a predominantly African-American school district, I will continue to ask my students to think critically. When we read about the sugar plantations in Louisiana, we’ll continue to connect the dots of the beginnings of slavery and modern day capitalism. When we read Langston Hughes’s words in “Mother to Son”, we will have honest conversations in my classroom about the uneven playing field our national history has wrought. I will continue to be unflinchingly honest despite what a few white men in suits in Nashville have decided to be appropriate to teach or not teach in a classroom.
And I’m not the only teacher who will continue to teach truth to our students. Good luck with your enforcement, Gov. Lee.
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