Black History Month offers an opportunity to explore the full history of the Black experience in the United States and beyond. But even as the 2023 observation is underway, the teaching of Black history remains under attack in the U.S.
Since 2021, according to Education Week, 42 states have introduced legislation that would restrict the teaching of critical race theory — even though it is not taught in most schools — and certain aspects of Black history, or would limit how teachers discuss racism and sexism. To date, 18 states have imposed such bans.
One person studying the reasons for, and consequences of, those changes is Tyrone Howard, UCLA’s Pritzker Family Professor of Education. Howard is director of the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families, the founder of the Black Male Institute at UCLA and the faculty director of the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools.
In an interview, he discussed the importance of teaching Black history and the reasons behind some people’s efforts to restrict such teaching. Portions of the conversation have been edited for clarity and length.
In April, you’ll begin a year-long term as president of the American Educational Research Association. What issues are top of mind for you as you prepare for that role?
My term will extend into 2024, which will mark the 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. The potential of Brown’s promise was to establish equity and bring about the end of racial discrimination in schools as we know it. But 70 years have passed, and in too many ways, we have not reached the level of equality that we thought Brown would deliver.
What that says to me is that we as educational thinkers, practitioners, researchers and policymakers should be grappling with the larger national conversation about why racial inequity in education persists.
We need to ask, “How do we engage in a national conversation about why educational equality still is elusive for people of color in this country?” We need to be asking questions that help ensure that the gaps in equality have existed for so long are not in place over the next 70 years.
Even as we celebrate Black History Month in 2023, there are ongoing efforts to restrict teaching about race and the history of the Black experience. How concerned we should be?
We should be very concerned. We like to believe in this country in the idea of a meritocracy, that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will be rewarded. But that has not worked out for all people, especially Black people. And so, if we say racism is real, that means not everybody has the same opportunity to be successful in this country.
What we are seeing is an effort to control the narrative. To say, “Let’s not talk about race and racism. Let’s talk about meritocracy.” Let’s look at individual choices and personal decision making. I think that’s an attempt to minimize some of the ugliness that’s a part of this country, a fear among some of discussing privilege, white supremacy and the persistence of structural racism.
So I think we should be very concerned because it looks like an effort to engage in a process of erasure. Those engaged in this effort are, in effect, saying, “Let’s just ignore core parts of this country’s history — the aspects that deal with issues around race and racial discrimination.”
Why do you think this is happening now?
We cannot separate the movement to restrict teaching and learning about race and critical race theory from the significant racial and ethnic demographic shifts we’re experiencing in this country.
Over the next eight to 10 years, demographers believe, the majority of students in most schools in this country will be nonwhite. We’ve seen this in California for several decades, but it’s happening now in places like Iowa and Kansas and Nebraska and Tennessee, which we’ve never seen before.
As nonwhite people grow larger in numbers, I think some people fear that they are losing their grip on power, and that if they lose their grip on power, they will lose the way the narrative is told about this country. They are losing the ways in which they see America.
Taking a step back, why is it important to teach and explore Black history?
It’s important because historically so much of Black history, at least in this country, has been omitted, watered down or not told from the perspective of those who actually were part of it.
There are parts of our nation’s story involving Black Americans that are not very pretty — namely 240-plus years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow. As uncomfortable as it might be, as uneasy as it might feel, those stories need to be told as because they’re part of the American story.
But it’s also important because it is also a story about people who persevered, people who triumphed, people who fought, people who were resistant to oppression and discrimination. It’s a story about people who were really, really wanting to try to hold this country to being the more perfect union that it seeks to be.
Why is it particularly important for young people to learn about Black history?
Representation matters. It’s important for Black students to learn and understand about their contributions to this country. But it’s important for all students — regardless of their ethnic or racial backgrounds — to see themselves reflected in the larger narrative of the story the United States, to feel seen and heard and valued as full citizens.
You need to see yourself reflected in textbooks, teaching and curriculum. Seeing someone who looks like you who contributed to this country can bring about pride and increase self-esteem.
But while representation matters for Black students, it is also good for non-Black students. We can reduce stereotypes, eliminate prejudice and get rid of bias if kids who are not Black begin to hear affirming, positive stories about Black people, Black history and Black culture. So much misinformation exists, and that misinformation can lead to stereotyping, prejudice, racism or acts of discrimination.
For us to become more harmonious as a society, it’s vital for Black kids and non-Black students to learn about and understand their contributions to this country.