Juneteenth Must Be More Than a Symbol:
The African American Policy Forum’s Statement on
Anti-Racism Education in Schools and Colleges
June 19, 2021
Today, we commend President Biden and Congress for enacting the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. We hasten to add that our new national holiday cannot stand as a mere symbolic gesture or a cynical cover for those who are actively attempting to censor the very history that Juneteenth represents. We therefore applaud the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, which have condemned legislative bans on teaching “the true and complete history of the United States including Juneteenth and other historical perspectives on racism and oppression in this country.”
Under the guise of banning critical race theory—a field of legal study found almost exclusively in law schools—extremist politicians have manufactured a modern-day witch-hunt that undermines public education, freedom of speech, and an accurate understanding of our own history. These laws willfully distort the very reason that Juneteenth is now a national holiday. They must be rejected.
As the Supreme Court recognized in its landmark 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education, education is key to democratic participation and racial equality. Yet today teachers, schools, students and parents are the targets of coordinated efforts to censor precisely the explorations of history that this landmark recognition of our past requires. At least seven states have passed legislation or orders that would prohibit teachers from openly exploring the significance of the history that Juneteenth and other moments from our past represent. More than a dozen others are considering similar bills. Despite claims that this legislation is designed to achieve “balance,” these efforts to whitewash our past cannot be reconciled with any serious commitment to integrating the lessons of history with our hopes for the future.
Through sweeping prohibitions that turn on vague standards, subjective feelings, and selective viewpoints, the coordinated disinformation campaign that is ablaze throughout the country is weaponizing the classroom in a one-sided culture war calculated to stoke anxiety and to generate discord. Underneath a barrage of alarmist distortions, misdirections, and outright lies is an aggressive agenda that undermines our commitment to a robust multiracial democracy in which everyone is part of “we the people.”
The inevitable and intended results are to chill inquiry and discussion vital to understanding the relationship between the challenges we face today and historical events of the past. In Oklahoma, a history teacher cannot teach a lesson on the Tulsa race massacre if it would make “any individual” feel “discomfort, guilt [or] anguish.” In Tennessee, a school district faces a possible loss of funds if a teacher leads a discussion about the history of slavery in a way that “promotes division or resentment” or would make an individual feel “discomfort.” In Idaho, schools face the threat of defunding if they teach “critical race theory” or anything that might “exacerbate and inflame divisions” on the basis of race or sex. These laws throttle vital classroom conversations that are critical in preparing students to participate in the building of a more just society.
The horrific consequences of these censorship laws are not hypothetical. Already, teachers are bearing the brunt of politicians’ effort to impose a doctrinaire view of our nation, one in which critical reflection and debate about race and racism are silenced. In Tennessee, Matthew Hawn was terminated after assigning a spoken word poem by a gifted artist and an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most distinguished writers of our generation. This is a harbinger of what is to come if we do not build a powerful movement across America to insist that the #TruthBeTold.
Teachers must be able to explore our past and its contemporary legacy without fear of reprisals, including censure, fines, or even the loss of their jobs. School districts and institutions of higher education must be encouraged to examine the full expanse of American history without risking attacks on their budgets or professional expertise. The long arc of history may bend towards justice, but only if knowledge about the past, present, and future remains free from the constraints of those who seek to deny it.
Juneteenth itself is a powerful reminder of how the control over information can perpetuate the injustices of the past. It marks the date in 1865 that news of the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation finally reached formerly enslaved people in Texas. How ironic it is that in Texas, the very location of the events that Juneteenth commemorates, teachers now confront sanctions for exploring the state’s own history of enslavement if any student should “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish... on account of his or her race or sex.”
These dangerous attacks on public education put our students and our nation at risk. They are counterproductive to the goal of providing them with the knowledge and skills they need for our democracy to flourish. Contrary to the incendiary rhetoric promoted by those who have attacked our most enduring institutions—our elections, our representatives, and our educators—our schools are critically important in constructing our shared national identity. Trusting professional educators to teach all aspects of our history does not “divide” us. Instead it bridges divides across race, school districts, and zip codes and binds us together as a nation.
We must provide young people with the highest caliber education, one that prepares them to ask and answer society’s hardest questions, to become the future leaders of this country, and to assume their collective responsibility to solve our nation’s most challenging problems. The fight for honesty, truth, and integrity in our nation’s classrooms is a fight in which we all have a stake.
Juneteenth has been carved out as a time for truth-telling about critical dimensions of American history that have been obscured and repressed for far too long. In the face of this coordinated campaign from the right to attack anti-racist education, we must support our nation’s teachers in their pledge to never back down in the fight for truth-telling and racial justice. AAPF stands united with AFT and NEA to protect and defend teachers who fulfill their professional obligations to teach our students a more complete “Story of Us.”
Our children, our nation, and our democracy deserve no less.