Teachers Organize to Defend antiracism Curriculum

Interview with Jesse Hagopian

Posted September 25, 2023

Jesse Hagopian teaches at Garfield High School in Seattle and is a scholar and writer. After publication of his book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, not coincidentally the students at Garfield High were the first of many high school students to boycott those tests. Today three-quarters of colleges are “test optional.” Jesse recently edited the book Teaching for Black Lives, contributing some chapters and adding curriculum notes for the entire book. It is not yet banned on the bookshelves of Florida schools and libraries, but it surely will be soon. Bill Resnick interviewed Jesse Hagopian on The Old Mole Variety Hour, which aired on KBOO Radio, 90.7fm, part 1 on March 6, and Part 2 on April 3, 2023.

Bill Resnick (BR): Jesse, let’s talk first about the rightwing attack on public school curricula in state houses around the country, and most virulently, in Florida. Then we’ll talk about how you and your colleagues at Rethinking Schools are fighting back.

Jesse Hagopian (JH): The assault on public education, on Black history, on trans students in Florida is truly breathtaking. The “stop woke act” outlaws truth in the classroom. It requires teachers to lie to students about structural racism and American history by outlawing any discussions about how racism goes beyond personal attitudes, and instead is built into the structures and systems of the country. And with the recent banning of books in Florida, it has really gotten to a whole other level that resembles the McCarthy era. You have a situation in Florida where it is now a third-degree felony to have the wrong books on your classroom bookshelf. It is truly astounding that a teacher could face five years in prison and a $5,000 fine for having a book about Hank Aaron, the record-breaking baseball player and Black civil rights activist, on their bookshelf. That was one of the books that was removed from the classroom.

BR: I read the law. It is extremely broad and unspecific. It just allows, indeed encourages, parents to make complaints and prosecutors to take action against individual teachers based on those complaints. I imagine the costs to teachers in time, in fear, and in money to defend themselves must be enormous.

JH: It’s such a waste of energy and time and money to be policing the curriculum of Florida public schools rather than empowering educators to teach to their passions. I work with the Zinn Education Project (that’s in memory of Howard Zinn and for dissemination of his work) and we’ve received many different notes from teachers in Florida who are worried about teaching about slavery or about assigning a book on Black history.

I talked to one teacher, Amy Donna Forio, who taught at a school named Robert E. Lee High School in Florida. She believed that in a school named after a confederate general who was willing to perpetrate genocide in order to maintain slavery, she needed to let her Black students know that they mattered. She put up a Black Lives Matter flag, so that her students would know that her classroom was a safe place for them. And for that she was fired. This is an award-winning teacher who started a program to help Black youth, labeling them “at hope” rather than “at risk” and helping them develop their speaking skills and leadership qualities. Her students provided training for politicians all over the area; she and her class were invited to the White House when Obama was in office. Despite these incredible contributions, she was summarily dismissed.

Antiracism curriculum is about critical thinking and action, not guilt and shame

BR: How does Governor DeSantis, justify these policies?

JH: DeSantis, and others who are pushing them, argue that talking about the incredible contributions of Black people to this country and their struggles against systemic racism, is about shaming white kids. Their mantra, repeated over and over, is that discussions of racism make white students uncomfortable and that the goal of teaching about racism is to cause white discomfort. This is a complete fabrication, because social justice teachers teaching about race and racism aren’t interested in shaming white students at all. In fact, they want to empower white students with the knowledge of important antiracist traditions that exist among white people.

I teach about the long tradition of antiracist white people. When we study the American Revolution, we read Thomas Payne’s book, Common Sense, which is one of the best-selling books of all time. Payne’s contribution to the American Revolution was tremendous generally; but he also argued, against the other so-called founding fathers, that you can’t have both slavery and democracy, so they were going to have to choose. And he chose democracy and ending slavery.

We look at the system of slavery through the eyes of the abolitionists, including people like John Brown, a white abolitionist who gave his life to fight against slavery. I want my students to know about the long tradition of antiracist white people joining struggles for racial justice. This information is important, and for white students especially, so they can decide whether they want to go along with the status quo or choose to join in this long tradition.

This is what Ron DeSantis fears. He knows we are not shaming white kids; we’re empowering them to join struggles for racial justice. Ironically, when you don’t teach white students about systemic racism, that can actually lead to shame. Because when white students see racism all around them — they know that they’re in segregated schools and segregated classrooms. They have friends and peers who are Black and people of color, and they know that these students are getting harassed by police, getting followed in stores and so forth.

And if there isn’t a systemic explanation for where racism comes from, then white students often come to blame themselves for the entire structures in society, rather than see how structural racism can influence institutions regardless of what the intentions of the people are in those institutions. When they understand how structural racism works, they see how they can be part of the struggle to undo it.

BR: Another white conservative political trope that DeSantis echoes is that Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement succeeded, demonstrating the glory of America. Black people have equal opportunity, we had a Black president. Now, Black people want special privileges and blame white people in order get them. How do you deal with that set of ideas?

JH: This is a truly absurd take on King’s statement that “we should judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” In that “I Have a Dream” speech, King also condemns police brutality against Black people. So, a teacher who taught the whole speech would risk being charged with a felony. The claim that we are in a post-racial period of history falls apart with just a very elementary look at the demographics of our society which demonstrate that structural racism continues.

You know, the average white family has 10 times the wealth of the average Black family. A Black woman is three times more likely than a white woman to die in childbirth or from childbearing complications. Hate crimes against Asian Americans have rocketed by 160% since Covid 19. Racism is all around us and talking about it is not about shaming white people, it’s about taking down structures that are creating barriers to democracy and to justice in our country, and our students are ready for these conversations.

In fact, it is young people who led the 2020 uprising in the streets that was the movement for Black lives. And when they came back to school, students demanded answers from their teachers. They were the ones that said, we want to know how is it that Breonna Taylor can be shot in her own home while she’s asleep and there’s no justice. They want to know how is it that a man can be thrown onto the street with a police officer’s knee on his neck and be killed for the world to see? They want to know why is it that we go to segregated schools and why have we not learned Black history? And they began asking their teachers these questions, and teachers began responding by having to learn more themselves and allowing for these discussions.

And that’s really what scared people like Governor Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump and the rest of the history deniers, because they know that if students are empowered with the understanding of how movements for social justice have been organized in the past, they’ll be more effective in organizing those very movements today.

In addition to halting the spread of antiracist ideas among students, the right sees this as an important wedge issue for winning elections. They hope to convince white parents that they should fear the indoctrination of their kids with these antiracist ideas and that that fear will drive them to the polls to elect Republicans.

They also want to privatize education. This has been a long-standing goal of both Democrats and Republicans, and Republicans seized on the opportunity to say that public schools are teaching white kids to hate themselves and their families in order to delegitimize public education. They encourage parents to pull out of the public schools and use vouchers and charter schools to go to a school that won’t teach your kids about race. This attack on the antiracist curriculum is part of the strategy to break public education, to break the unions that help protect teachers.

Attacks on antiracist education has long history

I think it is also worth noting that this current attack on antiracist education is rooted in a deeper history of white organizing against Black education — a history that goes back to 1740. In 1739, an enslaved man named Jimmy helped to lead an uprising in the South Carolina colony, in what became known as the Stono Rebellion. The rebels marched with a banner that said “Liberty” as they tried to fight for their freedom. In putting down that rebellion of enslaved people, the white establishment realized it was not enough to kill the rebels; they also had to kill the idea of freedom for Black people. And so, in 1740, South Carolina passed the first anti-literacy laws in order to kill the ability of Black people to ever write that word liberty again.

Today they aren’t so bold as to ban the writing of the word, but they do want to ban racial literacy, the ability to envision a multiracial democracy, and any kind of intellectual framework — Black studies, ethnic studies, critical race theory, etc. — that fosters understanding of how to eliminate racism in our society.

Writing queer and transgender people out of black history

BR: These laws are also criminalizing education about queer families, LGBTQAI people, and transgender rights.

JH: Absolutely. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law makes it a crime to simply talk about human sexuality in school. And they have outlawed transgender students from being able to play sports in Florida as well as in other states across the country. But it is really important to say that when DeSantis claimed that AP African American Studies and critical race theory has nothing to do with Black history, he also wrote LGBTQAI people out of the Black Studies curriculum. We wouldn’t have King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that the right so selectively quotes, without the work of people like Bayard Rustin, a gay Black man who built the march on Washington. And we wouldn’t have pride parades in every city without Marsha P. Johnson, who was a trans Black woman who led the Stonewall Rebellion against the police in 1969.

We could go on and on with the immense contributions of Black queer people to our society. James Baldwin gave us some of the greatest novels in US history. Lorraine Hansberry, a Black lesbian, gave us some of the greatest plays. We can’t talk about Black history without also talking about the contributions of gay Black people.

Teaching for Black Lives reading groups

BR: Jesse, you’re part of Rethinking Schools and the Zinn Education Project. They’ve gotten many, many requests for information asking what to do and how to do it, and for Rethinking Schools curricula and books. Tell us about this growing resistance.

JH: It has been very encouraging to see a movement against these anti-history laws gaining strength. Yes, many people are joining with Rethinking Schools and the Zinn Education Project to help build this struggle. One of the initiatives that we started were study groups around the book Teaching for Black Lives that I co-edited with Diane Watson and Wayne Au. And that book has served as a text that has become a collective organizer.

We have over a hundred study groups of educators across the country, often in states where there are anti-history laws. They have come together around the book to learn what it means to teach for Black lives, how to teach kids about Black joy and Black contributions to our country, and also about how structural racism has tried to deny that Black joy. And in these study groups, the teachers find commonality with others and they get courage and strength to continue to teach the truth, often in places where they are required to lie, but they refuse to do so.

In addition to supporting study groups, the Zinn Education Project offers a free monthly online course about Black history, called Teach the Black Freedom Struggle. And every month, I or another host will interview a historian of Black history about different aspects of Black history that are often neglected, left out of the textbooks completely, or mistaught. These classes draw hundreds of teachers from around the country who are educating themselves to teach the truth about Black history to their students.

Teacher days of action and students protests

And we are hosting National Days of Action. On that day hundreds of educators from all around the country will engage in collective struggle: doing walking tours in their community to teach each other about Black history in their own neighborhoods, holding rallies at school boards or state capitals against these anti-truth laws.

And students are also increasingly getting organized. The Dream Defenders in Florida just yesterday held a day of action against the banning of Black history. And we’ve seen student walkouts in Georgia, in Arkansas, and elsewhere where they are demanding to be taught the truth about Black history and the histories that are all too often left out of the curriculum.

BR: Tell us about the work Rethinking Schools is doing and how to get in touch with them.

JH: It’s very dangerous to tell students not to look at a book, because students are very curious people. The Republican Party has miscalculated by telling them not to read Toni Morrison or W.E.B. Du Bois — these and other seminal texts that will transform their thinking. Banning books could lead students to wonder why these powerful people didn’t want them to read these books in the first place. And I think that is a path that could really transform the country.

Rethinking Schools and the Zinn Education Project will be there to support them in every way we can. Rethinking schools has a quarterly magazine, and the Zinn Education Project has hundreds of free downloadable lesson plans that are available for educators and students to check out.

Educators from around the country are signing up every day with the Zinn Education Project. We have 150,000 educators registered in states across the country who are getting our people’s history lessons. These are one of the best ways to challenge anti-truth laws and encourage everybody to find some way to join the movement.

Anyone interested in our curricula can download them. People can join us on our National Day of Action in order to make sure legislators in your state know that these laws don’t speak for you and that you refuse to return to the days of McCarthyism, when teachers could be labeled communists and then just fired.

Today, they’ve changed the label to a critical race theorist, but it is a very similar attack, and I’m so glad to be in the struggle with students, parents and teachers all over the country who believe in multiracial democracy and are refusing to allow that dream to be stolen by people like DeSantis.


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