Tell Tennessee Officials Not to Whitewash Education

BIPOC students are aware that the real story is more complicated than, “there used to be racism, but the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act solved it.” Their education will now be required by law to ignore a key part of their experience.

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A cartoon showing a hand erasing the Confederate battle flag with a pencil eraser.

Erasing the Confederate Flag by Gary Varvel

The Tennessee Department of Education is considering a rule that could fine school districts as much as $5 million if teachers "knowingly" violate the rules by teaching a subject that's on their list of forbidden topics.

The fourteen forbidden topics include:

  • An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged [...]", where "privileged" is defined as "having a special advantage or right." Tennessee teachers may not teach that white people and men have any social advantages over other people. It's not a question of whether this is a factual description of the world—both lived experience and academic study back it up—the state Department of Education just doesn't want kids to hear it.
  • "The rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups." Teaching that everyone is not treated equally under the law and that power relationships and racism might have anything to do with that is not permitted. Again, it's not about whether this is true.
  • "This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist." "Irredeemable" is entirely a matter of opinion. "Fundamentally" suggests that schools can't teach that racism was a core part of American identity at the founding, which is hard to square with the existence and promotion of slavery and genocide of indigenous people in a land that proclaimed "all men are created equal." The TN legislature would probably argue, as others have, that the founders were simply failing to live up to their own ideas. That's one interpretation, but they want to punish people harshly for having and teaching a different one—not because there’s more evidence for their interpretation but because it’s the only one their worldview allows them to accept.

The forbidden topics are also overbroad. Can you teach about arguments for affirmative action, or would that fall under, "some races should have less protection under the rule of law?" What about teaching about the effects that slavery, Jim Crow, redlining that prevented Black people from buying houses in certain neighborhoods and charged them higher mortgage rates, exclusion from New Deal benefits, and other racist practices have had on the ability of Black families to accrue generational wealth? It's hard to be sure. Safest to steer clear of it.

What can be taught? Basically, anything that portrays racism as an aberration that occurred in the past and doesn't have an impact on the lives of African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color today—and only "impartial" instruction at that. How does the Department of Education decide what "impartial" instruction is? They don't say; again, teachers have no way of knowing whether they're in violation. The people promulgating these regulations probably think they're impartial. They're wrong.

This miseducation hurts Tennessee students. BIPOC students are aware that the real story is more complicated than “There used to be racism, but the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act solved it.” Their education will be required by law to ignore a key part of their experience. Meanwhile, white students will grow up ignorant of important forces that have shaped the world around them, leaving them unprepared for life in a multi-racial democracy.

One activist group called "Moms for Liberty" objected to children reading a book by Ruby Bridges discussing her experience as one of the first Black children to integrate an all-white school. One of the moms complained the description of an angry white crowd trying to keep the students out of the school was too harsh and that the book didn't offer "redemption" in the end. She also didn't want schools to teach words like "injustice," "unequal," "inequality," "protest," "marching" and "segregation" in grammar lessons. If these are the people the new rules are meant to cater to, there's no hope of any kind of honest reckoning with real American history, never mind present-day society.

The Tennessee Department of Education is currently accepting public comment on the new rules. The comment period ends on August 11, so send your thoughts to EDU.PublicComments@tn.gov today!

Thank you to Susan, Elena, and Chris E.

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