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 reflect