Racial Learning in Schools: Past, Present, and Future
More and more educators now recognize the importance of actively building a sense of belonging for all their students and incorporating the histories, perspectives, and lived realities of communities of color into their classrooms. Many are just beginning to embark on a journey toward antibias and antiracist practice. Yet, in the current political moment, they face incredible challenges from lobbying to legislation aiming to stifle their abilities to teach complete, unbiased history; to attend to children’s social and emotional development; and to engage in honest conversations about race, racism, and human difference with their students.
Andrew speaks to our guests about where we’ve been, where we are now, and how to get where we want to go. What did the landscape of racial learning in schools look like leading up to this moment? What foundational lessons about race are children are learning in school? What big drivers shape how and what children learn about race in school? How can we empower all children and adults by incorporating developmentally appropriate, healthy teaching and learning about race in our schools? We're joined by Dr. Adrienne Dixson and Jesse Hagopian for this conversation.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: I am one of the co-founders of Embrace Race. And normally a co-host of this webinar series Talking Race and Kids. For the first time since we've been doing this, over four years, more than 70 webinars, I'm not joined by my partner in life and partner in EmbraceRace, Melissa Giraud. Melissa, would you believe, broke her wrist this past weekend on Saturday, rollerblading and had surgery today. Hoped such as her love for her investment in the topic of tonight's webinar and her love for and respect for the guests we have, that she hoped to be able to make the session and participate even though she literally had surgery at two o'clock, had a metal plate put into her wrist. But in fact, as she says, she's feeling a bit loopy, not so great, not herself. So for the first time since we've been doing this, only one host today. But this host is very, very glad to be here with you. Very, very glad to be having this conversation.
I want to say that this conversation, Racial Learning in Schools: Past, Present, and Future is the first of a series of four webinars we're going to have on the topic of organizing in defense of racial learning. So the future ones will look at things like anti-bias education in early childhood. We'll look at parent and educator organizing in a deep way. We'll talk about what would our schools look like if they more consistently, more uniformly, did a great job preparing kids for multiracial democracy, or as we put it, to be thoughtful, informed, and brave about race. Today we're starting with two amazing guests who can give us a historical perspective on this issue of how race has been implicated in schooling and what all of our children historically have learned about race in the course of their long school careers, typically.
First guest, we go way back with Dr. Adrienne Dixson, who is now a Professor of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Adrienne's research primarily focuses on how race, class and gender intersect and impact educational equity in urban schooling contexts. She locates her research within two theoretical frameworks: Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Black Feminist Theories, so we know who to blame for all the hoopla going on around these issues.
Dr. Adrienne Dixson: That's right.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: Adrienne specifically is interested in school reform in post-Katrina New Orleans, how local actors in New Orleans make sense of and experience those reform policies, and how those policies become or are "racialized." And there's so much more to be said about Adrienne and the accolade she's earned for all her amazing work, books she's written, all sorts of things. It's great to have you here. Thanks for coming.
Dr. Adrienne Dixson: Thank you for having me. Happy to see you.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: And Jesse Hagopian, who is an award-winning educator and a leading voice on issues of educational equity, the school-to-prison-pipeline, standardized testing, and The Black Lives Matter at School movement. Jesse's an author, a public speaker and organizer, and an Ethnic Studies teacher at Seattle's Garfield High School, which I know, Jesse, is your alma mater. And I love the fact that Jesse says in his bio that his speaking and traveling are made possible by his wife who takes on the responsibility for their two children when he's away. Jesse, so much more to be said about you both. I've only scratched the surface of their bios, but look them up people and be amazed and impressed. Jesse, it's really great to have you here.
Jesse Hagopian: Thanks so much for having me.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: Tonight we're talking about the implications of race and racial learning in schools historically and then taking it to the current day. Invariably, our guests are personally invested, not just professionally invested, in these issues that we talk about.
I would love to start with you Adrienne. Can you tell us a little bit about your investment in racial learning? Why do you do the work that you do?
Dr. Adrienne Dixson: I think my interest in race and education is in large part informed by my own autobiography as a person of color, a woman of color, who all of my education was in public schools. And I was a public school teacher. I've raised two African American men who went to school and who were educated in the public schools. And so, again, largely through personal experience as a student and teacher and a parent, I've been interested and was fortunate that, as I furthered my education in graduate school, learned that there actually was a kind of body of scholarly literature that wanted to make sense of disparities and inequalities that I had experienced and had observed, but didn't have a language for. And I wasn't aware that people actually thought about these things and tried to understand, again, disparities and inequities.
Disparities because we are underrepresented in certain areas of education, but also the experiences and that I grew up, like many people, learning that you just work harder and you put in the effort and then you will reap the benefits. And often I felt that my hard work and my efforts didn't yield particular benefits, that my particular work and effort weren't recognized as hard work and effort. And that my contributions weren't recognized, that my gifts weren't often recognized. That I had a different kind of education at home. My father actually was an attorney and was a history buff. And we had a large library that I didn't see in my school. So conversations that I had at home and experiences that my dad shared relative to kind of trying to represent. He would always say there are blue collar, white collar and no collar people. And his clients often were people who had no collars. And, and that there wasn't an apparatus that supported them. Often they were victims of a criminal justice system, just in large part because they were poor and Black.
And so that wasn't an official part of my curriculum. And so it was refreshing for me to find. I went to graduate school in Wisconsin and worked with Gloria Ladson-Billings and to study with a scholar who really helped to forge the field that I'm in, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Critical Race Theory, that there were folks who were thinking about this. Certainly she wasn't the first to think about race, but it was a language, it was a perspective that was refreshing and expansive for me. And that it was something that I could take on as a profession.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: So Critical Race Theory and education in particular and bringing to bear some forms of analysis that were true to what you were seeing in your experiences and to what you're trying to explain around you. So that makes a lot of sense. Thank you, Adrienne .
Jesse, what is your investment in this work?
Jesse Hagopian: Yeah. I think what you need to know about me to understand my work is first that I'm a descendant of African people who had proud traditions and cultures before they were separated from their families and kidnapped, chained to the bottom of boats, brought here to work without pay at the end of a lash. That experience, I think, shaped my family's history and who I am in profound ways. And I knew this for a long time, but this past summer, that reality became much more clear to me because my dad found out which plantation our family was enslaved on in Morgantown, Mississippi. And after years of genealogical research, he finally came across the documentation that revealed our family to be from the Lenoir Plantation, and he even sent a photo. He found a photo of that plantation that really just sent my head spinning and made me understand our family's past in a new way.
He also made the stunning discovery that our favorite blues artist, J.B. Lenoir's family was from the same plantation. And that's incredible for me because I'm releasing a blues album tomorrow, and I've been working on this album all summer. And to find out that the most political socially conscious blues artist probably in history, J.B. Lenoir, his family shares an origin with ours, it was just breathtaking for me. And it was made me really want to dig into the history of my family, learn more about my great, great grandmother, Laura Lenoir, who was born in 1844 and died the year my dad was born in 1948, and learn that history and what she went through. And it also just made me so much more determined, that no matter how much money or power these politicians have to misdirect people's understanding of the past, that I will never lie to my students about the history of structural racism in this country.
Jesse Hagopian: No matter the consequences they give us, the threats that they make about the losing your job or your teaching certificate, that it's not worth it to me to betray my ancestors now that I specifically know them, I feel like in a more intimate way. And to me, that history really is what shaped my perspective that I came to develop around needing to implement anti-racist pedagogy. And I began teaching in Washington, DC in 2001, and it was an incredible experience to drive by the White House on my way to work. And then just 10 minutes later, I'd crossed the Anacostia River and I'd be in one of the most impoverished and segregated neighborhoods in the country.
And I taught at an elementary school where there was a hole in the ceiling of my classroom. And I discovered this hole because after I had collected the first research project my students had ever done. It was a project where they created a poster around somebody from history that was a change maker and had helped to usher in social change. And we weren't able to have the presentation because when I came into school on Monday, all the posters were destroyed from the rain that had come into my classroom.
And it was also the same year as the 9/11 attacks, my first year teaching. And so we saw the smoke rise from the Pentagon and that was scary. But there was something even more terrifying that happened that year, which was seeing the speed with which our government could come together with an untold fortune to go bomb people in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq. They could mobilize armies and wealth to lay waste to countries, but they couldn't fix the hole in the ceiling of my classroom, just a few minutes away from the seat of power. And that experience really I think, more than anything else, has propelled me to want to not only be an advocate for Anti-Racist Social Justice Pedagogy in the classroom, but also to be an organizer and an activist to try to change the priorities of this country that would just abandon its youth like that.
No matter how much money or power these politicians have to misdirect people's understanding of the past, I will never lie to my students about the history of structural racism in this country... No matter the consequences they give us, the threats that they make about the losing your job or your teaching certificate, it's not worth it to me to betray my ancestors.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: Wow. There's a ton in what you both said. Jesse, when you talk about your father's discovery of the plantation where your ancestors labored and about the fact that you the most influential blues musician in your life also has roots at the same plantation, and congratulations in your album coming out tomorrow. That's phenomenal, because you're clearly not busy enough in all that you do.
The relationship between the past and the present is such a contested thing in our country, especially around race, right? There are lots of areas, of course, where Americans in general, love to trace their roots, and typically will trace only some of the roots, or the roots with a certain cast on them and not so much look to embrace other roots that we have, obviously the 1619 Project was central to that. Schools have been such a key ground for not only the education of children broadly, reading, writing, arithmetic, but so much more than that in terms of racial ideologies. Right now, that function of schools is maybe more explicitly recognized than it's been in some time.
Can you give us a sense of the role that public schools in particular play in educating children about race? How do you understand the function of schools in teaching children about race?
Dr. Adrienne Dixson: Yeah, well public education in the US, and I'll just limit it to public education, is rot, right? On one hand, it's a space where public schools in general, are spaces ideally, where people from different backgrounds can come together and learn how to kind of just be with each other, that's ideal, right? Kind of officially, public schools in the US have been places where people who are from different walks of life learn to become Americans, learn to become citizens in US society. And that is not a neutral process, right? And it's not an abstract goal.
So when we say that we need public schools to help people learn how to be members of American society, it's rot with, how have we defined what it means to be an American? That's always been contested, it's even more so now, right? Well, while where we sit with the January 6th commission and the very presidency was just contested and we've witnessed sedition, right? So this notion of who is a citizen and what it means to be a citizen, we haven't quite settled that. And so schools have always been in a process of trying to figure again out what is their role in this experiment of American democracy?
And so I say that it's unfinished because we just haven't agreed. We haven't agreed on what kids should learn. Who should be able to go to school? How do we pay for school? And we're constantly having those battles, which is why we're having this discussion. We thought it was settled that we agreed and celebrated that we lived in a multicultural society and that we would recognize and celebrate and affirm the identities and the histories of the multiple people that are here. And yet now, we're at a space where we can only talk about American history in a certain kind of arc and framing.
Texas for one, have said that when we talk about American slavery, we can't call people who are enslaved "enslaved." We can say that they were "involuntary workers," right? "They were visiting. They were brought here, not without violence and oppression, but they were just here to do work." I think it's both the beauty of American democracy and the tragedy of American democracy because we can't all agree on what the function of public schools should be and can be. We in many ways suffer for that, and our kids do as well. And it's challenging as an educator across the spectrum. So I sit at a university where we, in some places in Ohio, there's legislation that you can't actually, in higher ed, teach about Critical Race Theory.
At the University of Illinois, we've been somewhat shielded, but that's all kind of tenuous. If the leadership in our state changes, that could be on the auction block. And so I think that what our students learn is that education is very political, that it's unsettled, that it's tenuous. And I think we've all learned that has been a kind of consistent lesson all the way through. We haven't settled on an official multicultural curriculum. Even Howard Zinn's work ironically, some people see it as controversial that we can't talk about multiple histories and multiple perspectives that we need to have kind of one story and this story about American exceptionalism. And I think that is to the detriment of our public schooling systems across the US.
We haven't agreed on what kids should learn. Who should be able to go to school? How do we pay for school?... I think it's both the beauty of American democracy and the tragedy of American democracy because we can't all agree on what the function of public schools should be and can be. We in many ways suffer for that, and our kids do as well.
Dr. Adrienne Dixson
Andrew, EmbraceRace: There's always been a lot of arguments both I think within the schools and certainly in the committee at large, about what public education should be teaching kids generally. Jesse, you went to Garfield High as a student and now do work there. I appreciate that this may be difficult, but I also know that you're very outspoken about these issues.
What was being taught about race at Garfield High when you were a student? What do you think is being taught now? Has there been a shift? What has public education taught children within public education systems about race in this country?
Adrienne you have studied schools in New Orleans. What can we share with folks about the possible different strands of teaching and learning in schools? Can we talk about public education in the South historically, and it having different kinds of impulses and strands than in other regions of the country?
Jesse Hagopian: Great questions. Definitely agree with Adrienne about the contradictions in public schooling. And they go all the way back to the origins of public schools in this country that were on the one hand, an initiative of people who demanded that their children get an education and be literate. But on the other hand, they were also the product of industrialists who wanted a mechanism for disciplining the next generation of workers, and especially with the Great Migrations, and also with the Industrial Revolution. So many people moving into cities, moving into factories, right? Industrialists saw a great opportunity to find a way to discipline workers. And so that's the way public schools are set up, right? You have an authority figure, who's in charge, that you do what they say. You have a bell structure, right? And the bell rings and you go onto the next class, just like the bell rang in the factory to signal your breaks.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: Seat and rows.
Jesse Hagopian: The assembly lines. And so the schools began to take on the image of the industrial powers. And your question about the South, absolutely, there's a separate history about southern public schools. And people need to know that it was Black people that built the public school system in the South. In the wake of the Civil War during the Reconstruction Era, there were no public schools in the South, right? Black people who knew there was no liberation without education. And they, with very few resources, began building the public schools. And when the Freedman's Bureau got there, they were amazed to see that already there was this incredible effort, the construction of public schools. Unfortunately, with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy, they began attacking those public schools, right? And white supremacists burned over 600 public schools in the South that serve Black people during the Reconstruction Era.
And then during the Great Migration, with the mass influx of Black labor needed by northern industry, it really started to create this fears amongst White people, especially White elites, about the takeover of northern cities by Black people. And central to their strategy was about controlling the influx of Black labor and implementing policies and practices aimed at disciplining Black youth. And so this is the primary objective of public schools in the 40's and 50's after World War II. And so you have neighborhood agencies that are working to control the influx of Black youth, and they called it a "control problem." And you can take the example of the Oakland Public Schools, where for the first time they hired for the position of Juvenile Control Coordinator, right? Just blatantly that is their goal.
And the White establishment of Oakland argued that educational desegregation shouldn't be implemented too hastily, right? Because they said that a lack of discipline among Black children would bring disorder to White schools. And this is the origin of police in schools, right? They really became entrenched in the public school system because of the Great Migration, and White fears about Black people moving into the city. And you can see the impact of funding police and not the public schools, and the way that they tried to make the public schools about discipline and authority over Black children in many of the memoirs of some of the great Black leaders, right? So you can read about Huey Newton and founding the Black Panther Party. And he wrote about his experience in the Oakland Public Schools in the 40's and 50's. And he recalled that during those years in the public schools, he said, "I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own experience." And Assata Shakur's autobiography has incredible descriptions of her experience moving from the South to New York City, and encountering mostly segregated public schools as well, and being shamed by White educators. And as much as she was upset about the segregated schools in the South, the fact that she had Black teachers that respected her as a human being was very different, right?
And just to wrap up with my experience at Garfield. I mean, from the time that Black people entered the public schools in Reconstruction, all the way through until today, these the schools have largely been hostile spaces for Black children and BIPOC youth. And it was my experience at Garfield as well. I had one incredible Black teacher, Paulette Thompson, who taught me something about Black history for the first time, but I also had American government teacher, who I wrote an essay about Jay Edgar Hoover, and about his disruption of the Black Freedom Movement as the Director of the FBI. And it was one of the few papers that I actually applied myself to I have to admit while I was in high school, I was an athlete and I didn't really see much value in education because largely it wasn't directed for me, but this paper I applied myself to and I ended up with, after all this work and research I'd done with a C on this paper simply because she disagreed with the thesis, not because it wasn't well researched. And our youth face all kinds of denying their realities, and I'm proud to say that a lot of incredible work has been done at Garfield recently to begin integrating the courses. There's always been a lot of segregation at Garfield within the school, but now we're working to have honors for all classes that can have all students come together.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: Adrienne, as a mom who studies these issues, when your two sons were going through school, what were your concerns or your hopes for what they were learning about themselves specifically as young Black men, but about race? How were you thinking about that?
Dr. Adrienne Dixson: Yeah, one experience in particular stands out. So I went to graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin. Madison was a site of a lot of progressive organizing and people see it as a ultraliberal city. My my oldest son was in fifth grade and I had bought him a set of Black History books. So he had Carter G. Woodson and he had Oprah Winfrey. It's like a set of who's who of Black people. So he brought one of his books to school. I don't remember what it was but he brought a book to school. You would get a book every month. It was probably October or something. He brought this book to school and he said to his teacher, "Can we use this book in February when we celebrate Black History Month?" This was October. He was in fifth grade and he had this book. This was in probably 1998 or 1999 in Madison, Wisconsin. And she said, "What is Black History Month? I've never heard of that."
So on one hand, people are out done. "Oh my God, how could she not have heard about Black History Month?" What was stunning to me is that my son, and I was studying race, I had been a teacher, that my child had understood that there is a time and a place and it would be February that we could talk about Black people and that he was going to be patient enough to wait. It was October. He was going to give her enough time. He would bring the resource but that he had internalized that, yes, he had these rich materials at home but there was a time and a space at school and let me prep her and I'll bring it. But there was no expectation that the teacher would have materials that he would go to her and ask her to bring in and research. That he would take the responsibility.
And this, to me, was kind of the essence of what public education is like for kids of color, right? That they understand that their experiences aren't a part of official curriculum and that they can't ask or expect that their teachers will include it. That it would be their responsibility to find materials and to wait at the appropriate time to learn about themselves and it would only be during the month that it is sanctioned. So that was so profound for me. Most of my experiences and the inspiration for studying race was because I had been a teacher in New Orleans and just witnessed the kind of systemic inequities around funding and curriculum. But that my own child had internalized really this second class citizenship, that it was okay to wait. And that the teacher, there was no responsibility on her part to do this, but that he would ask for permission.
And he was kind of outraged: "Mom, how could she not know?" And I was just stunned that my son had accepted that, "I'll just wait, I'll wait until February and I'll bring her the materials." And what he did with his 11-year-old self was organize his friends. There were other Black boys and they were just as outraged and actually we had a parent who was very active, a community parent. He was active in the community and he agitated for and got a recognition of Black History Month and so that was a small victory, but it was still that, "Well, we'll just wait until February." In liberal Madison, Wisconsin in 1998. Not 1888, right? Not 1948. This is 1998 when we were supposedly fully in a moment of multicultural education! And I tell this story to my students all the time again.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: That is a powerful story and clearly you also had your influence on your son, that he would organize his friends to get something done. People think this is resolved that: "This is a multiracial society. We need to be more inclusive. We're not there yet, but clearly that's the direction we need to be going in." A lot of people are absolutely dismayed and shocked by what they're seeing with anti-CRT effort. You're both telling us is it's not as if it was all good before. This question of the marginalization of the experiences, histories, cultures, and so on. I mean, clearly, there was a whole freight load of issues that long preceded this anti-CRT moment.
Andrew: What's at stake in dealing with race education in schools, and does it implicate all these huge trans-historical questions of race and schooling that you both describe, or does more need to be done? If we were to "beat back" the legislative push and so on, what else remains to be done?
Jesse Hagopian: Obviously the attack on Black history started way before this legislative push. And it symbolized for me in the fact that a couple of weeks before George Floyd was brutally murdered, there was a packet sent home with my kid. It was a packet of different jobs and this was a first grade classroom, and it said, "Fill out what kind of jobs you might want to do in the future."
One of the jobs that it had a description for was police officer and the headline of the article was Police Protect Us and it went through and explained how, if you're in trouble, police are there to help you and just ended by saying, "The next time you see a police officer, thank them for protecting all of us." And then it had some questions on the back that it expected my kid to answer. "What jobs do police officers do? What role do they play?" And my son wrote, "Police pepper spray us like when they sprayed my dad at the Martin Luther King rally." And then, just the following week, George Floyd was killed and the whole world was in a debate about how we understand race in this country.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: Jesse, did your son in fact share that answer? How was that received? What was the follow-on from that?
Jesse Hagopian: Yeah, he did share that answer. He wrote it down, and I was very impressed with the educator at his school actually. She did not see that that role was in this big packet of many different jobs, and she wished that she hadn't included that one. She actually took it upon herself to get in touch with the publishers of the material and let them know that they needed to change this, that police don't protect all people all the time and that they needed to stop trying to influence children in that way. So she pledged to do better and make sure that she looked at the materials and I appreciated that from her.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: A lot of people are saying, look, this is a real crisis moment for democracy. And other people are saying this is another moment we'll move through.
What are the strands of hope perhaps in what people are doing, whether parents, teachers, students themselves? What's the local, the near term end game that feels plausible to you that would make you feel that this multiracial democracy remains a viable experiment?
Jesse Hagopian: Thank you for that. I think so much is at stake in this. I mean the immediate stakes are around the social and emotional well-being of our youth who have Black History and LGBTQ history removed from the classrooms. But then the next level out is the stakes of the election. The Republican party has made attacking true history, attacking any kind of anti-racist discussion in the classroom as the centerpiece of their re-election strategy, right? So they want to retake Congress and the White House by rallying their base, by saying that White kids are being shamed by their teachers, and then they want to enact voter suppression tactics in order to stop BIPOC people from voting.
But I think that the stakes are even higher than just the upcoming elections, because I think the larger goals and what's at stake in the long run is really, I think, epistemicide, the destruction of systems of knowledge. They want to erase Critical Race Theory, erase Ethnic Studies, erase Black Studies as ways of understanding the world and analyzing power and figuring out how to get free. And if they can uproot it from the public schools root and branch, then they hope to annihilate any way of thinking that could help us get free.
What's at stake in the long run is really, I think, epistemicide, the destruction of systems of knowledge. They want to erase Critical Race Theory, erase Ethnic Studies, erase Black Studies as ways of understanding the world and analyzing power and figuring out how to get free. And if they can uproot it from the public schools root and branch, then they hope to annihilate any way of thinking that could help us get free.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: Adrienne, what are you seeing? How are you understanding the stakes? Do you see some rays of hope and ways forward here?
Dr. Adrienne Dixson: I echo. I think that we are entering into an era of fascism and I think that we should all be terrified that we have state legislators that are legislating what we can think, what we can know, what we can say, how certain segments of people can feel or not feel. And again, I would hope that animates people to become more clear about the relationship between politics and education. As someone who works with teachers and school leaders and studies school, we talk about education as political. And I think this moment makes it even more crystallized for folks than it had before.
What's hopeful for me, I think, are the small pockets where people are organizing and organizing locally. I work with groups on the ground in certain spaces where they're trying to organize parents and kids and communities. Then there are kind of bigger movements. Kim Crenshaw has her Critical Race Theory Summer School that is open for folks to learn about what Critical Race Theory is, but what does it mean to do kind of Anti-Racist Teaching, Anti-Racist Education. And I think those are important ways that folks are trying to resist, because I think all of us thought, "Oh, this can't happen. This is nonsensical." And we're seeing that it can happen. It is happening. So I think this was a huge wake-up call for folks who, many of us, who just thought we can't go to that extreme again, we're past that. And I think we see that we're not past it.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: It's always struck me that one of the characteristics of people in this country (let's call them Americans for a moment) of Americans is really this faith which often feels a sort of uncritical faith in what we call progress, right? "Yes, there may be along the timeline some local slippage but isn't the trend clear around sort of enlightenment around race or gender or sexual orientation or whatever those things might be?" And, of course, lots of people, including Critical Race Theorists have said, "No, we need to keep fighting the fight. And victory's progress is hard won, and there's always danger of retrenchment." I think about 2016 and the aftermath of 2016 being in a number of living rooms with middle-aged people, including White people, who said, "You know what? I have never been an activist. I think I need to be an activist now."
Jesse, what are you seeing? Is there something about the lessons of history where we started that can make you think this moment in time is an opportunity? Do you feel there are far more people who consider themselves sort of "good progressives" now?
Jesse Hagopian: Yeah, over this past weekend, June 11th and 12th, we had a national weekend of action to Teach Truth against these bills that try to mandate that we lie to children about structural racism and sexism and homophobia. And it was incredible to see photos of rallies from Anchorage, Alaska down to Florida and dozens of cities across this country with parents and students and teachers linking arms and mobilizing behind the call from the Zinn Education Project, the African American Policy Forum and Black Lives Matter at School, that have joined together to organize several rallies. And those give me great hope, and I know that this struggle is what it's going to take. They have never wanted us to be able to understand the past so that we can change the future. My ancestors weren't allowed to read and write. Black people were barred from being literate in this country.
That is the legacy of American education. It was illegal, punishable by maiming or death, if you were caught reading a book. And yet they resisted, under conditions harsher than what we have. They did what was called stealing the meeting, and they snuck off plantations and taught each other to read and write, regardless of the law. And today educators are saying, "We don't care what the law says. 8,000 educators have signed the Zinn Education Project Pledge to teach the truth saying. We refuse to lie to children about structural racism in this country. You can do whatever you want, pass any kind of laws you want, and we're going to link arms and continue this work." And that gives me great hope.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: Our membership, at EmbraceRace are disproportionately drawn from Chicago, New York, the Bay Area, some of the big urban centers. Typically, but not always, certainly in blue states. And it may well be that they are well aware of the national environment and how things have shifted, but insofar as they are educators or parents of school age children, they may not be seeing so much that's different because those areas tend to be staying the course with whatever they were doing before.
In light of the patchwork of legislation and pushback and resistance and all of that, can you give us a sense of what public school history teachers are feeling? Broadly speaking, have things really shifted even in the midst of COVID related pressures and traumas? Are a lot of people feeling the pressure and the strain?
Dr. Adrienne Dixson: Yeah, I would say just, so I've been fortunate to work with actually school boards, local boards of education and school leader associations who are really concerned about protecting teachers, protecting the integrity of their curriculum and understanding that before this kind of pushback against Critical Race Theory, that they were challenged to make a space for all students, and particularly students of color. School districts struggled around areas of equity and full inclusion and here you are, you have pushback. And so as they're trying to make sure that they are making school a place for students of color to be seen, to thrive, to be affirmed. Now, they're hearing from state legislators, that there are things that you can't teach. They're afraid of not doing the right thing for kids and then making teachers vulnerable.
I've been helping them think through beyond just the strict interpretation of the law, but thinking about what does this all mean for them and their work. I've been encouraged that these governing bodies, school districts, boards of education, school leaders are actually still committed and willing to participate and have the discussion. Many did not know they were like, "I don't even know what Critical Race Theory is and I want to make sure that I'm not doing something illegal, while I'm also trying to make sure that I'm making school a place where kids of color feel affirmed, feel safe, can thrive, feel seen."
And that has been encouraging, and I have no shortage of opportunities to engage these folks and when we think about your earlier question about hope, that gives me hope that folks are still committed and seeking resources and guidance and not to walk the line of the law, but to be focused on kids. Because from the feedback that I've received is, "That's crazy, we want to do our work, but we also don't want to be shut down. But we want to make sure that we're doing what we need to do for kids."
Andrew, EmbraceRace: How do we do this work in the classroom, say at the school level? How can we navigate this new landscape and know how we continue to do this work without winding ourselves in trouble if we live in one of these places where we're under attack?
Jesse Hagopian: Yeah, first I want to say that, I think that we need to forthrightly defend our right to teach Critical Race Theory. I think many people are saying, well, "The Republicans have just invented this idea that Critical Race Theory is happening in schools." And it's true that a lot of educators didn't know about Critical Race Theory until the Republicans introduced us to it. But it's also true that a lot of Anti-Racist Educators share common goals with Critical Race Theory and would learn a lot and deepen their practice by studying it. And I think that Critical Race Theory is actually confirmed by the attacks against it. Because some of the central claims of Critical Race Theory are that any advancement in racial justice will be met with a white supremacist's backlash right? Well, that couldn't be more clear than what we're seeing right now with the uprising of 2020, bringing so much racial consciousness to the fore and then the backlash against it.
And then, also I think understanding that Critical Race Theory helps us understand that race is a social construction and instead of a biological reality. And, unless we want to go back to the days of eugenicists who believed in the biological inferiority of people of color, I think we need to really analyze how we can use Critical Race Theory in the classroom. We can also draw on lots of other traditions though, like Ethnic Studies and Black Studies. And I would point people to Blacklivesmatteratschool.com that has all kinds of resources and an opportunity to join the Week of Action during the first week of February. Also the Zinnedproject.org has hundreds of free downloadable lessons from a people's history perspective on the Black freedom struggle and so much more.
Critical Race Theory is actually confirmed by the attacks against it. Because some of the central claims of Critical Race Theory are that any advancement in racial justice will be met with a white supremacist's backlash right? Well, that couldn't be more clear than what we're seeing right now.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: Adrienne, what would you lift up? What do you want done?
Dr. Adrienne Dixson: Yep. I would encourage teachers to find a formation. To find places where folks are educating and organizing themselves. So we're always learning. We're always engaged in political education, what are the issues in our community? Sometimes we think they're just Democrat, Republican and often they're not. It's livable wages, it's affordable healthcare, it's affordable housing. Those are all Critical Race Theory topics and as Jesse pointed out, we're living them, people are living them every day.
So, I would encourage teachers to again, find those places in their communities where folks are trying to organize for a better life for their students. And it helps to educate yourself. So before you design your anti-racist lesson or even go find a set of lessons that are anti-racist, understand what's happening in your community. I always encourage teachers to understand the history of race and racism and opportunity in their own school districts, in their own communities and start local. Local is always really, really important. But to be a part of a broader movement in your community.
Andrew, EmbraceRace: It's such a huge point, Adrienne. Of course, we pay lots of attention to what's happening locally for understandable reasons, but typically the place we can really have our voices heard and make an impact is local. If you are on this webinar, you know that EmbraceRace is about supporting parents, educators, and others to raise kids who are thoughtful, informed, and brave about race. The Color-Brave Community (CBC) is particularly for young children of color and their caregivers, with an emphasis on parents and educators. So if you have a young child of color in your life, this is a place that is a community where we're having these conversations on an ongoing basis.
Thank you again so much for this conversation and for the work that you do. We are so appreciative of both of you for spending this time with us. Again, regrets from Melissa, who would've loved to be here, but thank you so much.
Jesse Hagopian: Really appreciate it.
Dr. Adrienne Dixson: Thanks. Yes, love to Melissa.