Partisan war over history teaching and racism fuel tensions in American schools

Angry parents and community members protest after a Loudoun County School Board meeting was interrupted by the school board because crowds refused to calm down, in Ashburn, Virginia, USA, on June 22, 2021. REUTERS / Evelyn Hockstein

ASHBURN, Va., June 23 (Reuters) – The wealthy Loudoun County School Board in Virginia had planned to hold a routine meeting to end the school year. Instead, it was a pandemonium.

Most of the hundreds of parents who flooded the suburban Washington, DC auditorium on Tuesday night were there to accuse schools of teaching their children that racism in America is structural and systemic – which the council denies . Some signs read: “Education, not indoctrination” and “You don’t end racism by teaching it”.

The evening became so lively that the council walked out of the room, leaving the sheriff’s deputies to disperse the crowd.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Wayde Byard, spokesperson for Loudoun County Public Schools for more than two decades, after MPs pulled two participants from the room in handcuffs.

Loudoun was troubled for months by accusations he had adopted Critical Race Theory, a school of thought that maintains that racism is ingrained in American law and institutions and that the legacy of slavery and of segregation has created an uneven playing field for black Americans.

The school system says it is simply training teachers, the majority of whom are white, to be “culturally sensitive” to serve the county’s increasingly diverse student body.

Tensions in Loudoun echo a larger battle unfolding across the country. As Americans grapple with racial and social injustice following the police murder of George Floyd last year, several Republican-led states, including Florida, Georgia and Texas, have adopted de new rules to limit teaching about the role of racism in the United States.

The idea that a once obscure academic doctrine is seeping into public schools has become a rallying cry for conservatives. From school boards to activist parents to governors and lawmakers, they say the principles of the theory – commonly referred to as CRT – are used to brainwash kids that America is a racist country. Fueled by right-wing media, the conflict has evolved into a national debate over how and which version of US history is taught in schools.

Critics argue that there is no evidence that CRT is taught in most public schools, if any. Instead, they say, it has become a practical red flag to wave any effort to promote racial fairness and better outcomes for non-white students.

Several teachers and education experts fear that rules banning CRT or placing limits on how racism is spoken in general could have a chilling effect on efforts to teach black history, including the legacy of black history. slavery and race relations.

Vanessa Skipper, an English teacher and vice president of the Florida Brevard County Teachers Union, said the state ban “sets a dangerous precedent for teachers.”

“It’s our job to present the factual parts of the story, which are messy and dark, and allow students to draw their own conclusions and think critically,” Skipper said.

‘ANTI-WHITE’

For an example of what some states are doing, look at Georgia, where the state’s Board of Education passed a non-binding resolution earlier this month banning the teaching of concepts “that the country is racist, that the country is racist. one race or gender is inherently superior to another. race or sex “or that” an individual, by reason of race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive “.

Cobb County, a predominantly white affluent suburb northeast of Atlanta, quickly followed with its own resolution banning the teaching of CRT.

In Loudoun, which has seen a massive influx of immigrants over the past decade to what was once a white-dominated rural area of ​​northern Virginia, parent groups are trying to recall six of the nine school board members for supporting diversity and equity efforts in public and on social media. media.

These efforts include training materials for teachers and staff “related to addressing the gaps in opportunity and achievement, systemic oppression and implicit bias.”

“It’s anti-white,” said Scott Mineo, a parent who started an advocacy group, Parents Against Critical Theory. “He takes a negative stance against the United States. “

Beth Barts, a board member who voted in favor of equity efforts, championed the initiatives needed to serve the student body, which is 43% white, 25% Asian, 18% Hispanic and 7% black.

Large questions remain as to how the new measures will be applied, given that in some cases they are vague and the CRT itself has been subject to varying interpretations.

When the Florida Board of Education, whose seven members were appointed by Republican governors, announced this month its ban from teaching CRT, it said the theory “distorts” historical events like the civil war.

When asked by Reuters, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office pointed to what he called examples of “racial essentialism” taught in school districts across the country, even though it cannot be called “critical race theory.” He did not define either term.

“We don’t want this divisive ideology in Florida classrooms,” spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said.

SUBURBAN WOMEN

Republican Party officials and strategists say they increasingly see controversy as central to their efforts to portray the Democratic Party as having been taken over by its left wing.

Focusing on the issue could help Republicans win back college-educated suburban voters in next year’s election that will decide control of the U.S. Congress, especially the women they lost to Democrats over the years. of recent cycles, said Ford O’Connell, a Republican agent from southwest Florida. .

“This is the problem that will attract commuters with you,” O’Connell said. He cited an Economist / YouGov poll conducted last week which showed that 76% of independent voters have an unfavorable opinion of the CRT.

Democrats say Republicans are looking to stir up cultural strife because they lack an affirmative political agenda in Washington after losing the White House and both houses of Congress in 2020.

“The Republican Party is determined to invent false problems to divide our country,” said Daniel Wessel, spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee.

On Monday, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative rights advocacy group, released an online toolkit it said would help activists use public information requests to help determine whether CRT is being taught in their schools. .

Meanwhile, public school teachers, as state employees, have relatively little leeway over what they can say in class and lack comprehensive protections for free speech, said Suzanne Eckes, professor of education at Indiana University.

In Cobb County, Georgia, a school board member who abstained from voting on the CRT resolution Jaha Howard said he feared teachers “will have to operate under the sign of fear” and would hesitate to talk about race issues or dark parts of US history.

“What supports white supremacy more than making rules that you can’t talk about racism or white supremacy?” ” he said.

Reporting by Gabriella Borter and James Oliphant, editing by Soyoung Kim and Sonya Hepinstall

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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