The students in the 11th-grade humanities class at The Living School in New Orleans don’t know much about critical race theory. But they say they spend a lot of time talking about race issues in the classroom and understand full well the importance of learning about the nation’s history.
“Race shouldn’t just be taught at home with families. It should be taught in school because we come to school to learn and learning about yourself is a part of the school experience,” said one student, 16-year-old Kerry Santa Cruz. “It’s important for kids, especially Black kids, to learn about race so they can understand who they are. So they don’t end up hating themselves for being Black. Education is good.”
Louisiana leaders and education officials have repeatedly condemned a bill proposed by state Rep. Ray Garofalo, a Republican, to bar K-12 schools from teaching “certain concepts related to race.” The Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education opposed the bill, holding that it “would prevent the truth telling and honesty about our past required for writing a brighter future and history for all families here.”
But the state may not have heard the last of the legislation. Garofalo stalled the bill this year due to the widespread criticism, but could push the measure again at a later date. The Black students at the Living School, a public charter school, who spoke to NBC News said they wouldn’t want to see such a bill pass.
“To cut out half, almost all, of America’s history will put Black kids at a disadvantage,” Re’Kal Hooker, 17, said. “If we don’t know our history, how can we come up with our own point of view? How can we grow?”
“We are still discriminated against and I feel like young kids will think it’s just something that happens, like it’s natural, or something they can’t get away from.”
The battle over teaching children about racism in the nation’s public schools has taken center stage in recent months, with at least five states passing bills to ban educators from teaching about racial equity. The Republican-led efforts to prohibit such teaching came after a summer of passionate protests against racism and police brutality following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. In many cases, critics have erroneously called any effort to teach students about racism in the United States critical race theory, or CRT, a decades-old academic framework intended to recognize the systemic racism inherent in American life. The controversy has even invaded school boards, prompting heated exchanges at meetings across the country. Media coverage has included the views of concerned parents, school leaders and teachers. But Black students across the country, who will be particularly affected by these bans, have a lot to say about these policy changes, too.
“I don’t understand why we wouldn’t allow our students to learn about their identities, because for so long in the K-12 education system, students have been taught history from a white narrative,” said Ekene Okolo, a 17-year-old senior at Westview High School in San Diego. “The banning of CRT makes it seem like POC (people of color) identities aren’t worthy enough of being shared or talked about. It keeps the white narrative at the forefront of our education system.”
Ekene Okolo and her sister Nene, who graduated from Westview High School in 2019, created Black In PUSD in June 2020 amid the George Floyd protests to uplift the voices of Black students in the Poway Unified School District. They began by posting students’ stories of racism on the account, but said they weren’t sure whether the page would have any impact because the school district’s Black population is so small. They were shocked when the Instagram account amassed thousands of followers in a matter of days.
“I think what resonated with people the most was just seeing all these stories from people with different backgrounds who have all experienced hate and bigotry,” Ekene said. “In general, racism has not really been talked about in this school district. I think because people were a little bit ignorant to the idea of racism existing. Us creating this page was really a wake-up call for them and they got to see things that they hadn’t thought about before. That’s what made it so powerful.”
The Instagram account features informational posts about everything from microaggressions to Black hairstyles and fundraisers. From there, the sisters created the Culture Talk podcast and the Ethnucation website, filled with resources for students and educators interested in ethnic studies. As a result of their efforts, the school district sought their input when implementing a Racial Equity & Inclusion Plan and creating two high school ethnic studies courses, according to Christine Paik, the school district’s chief communications officer. The district has also hired 12 new Black staff members.
Parents and community members who opposed the ethnic studies courses protested outside the district’s headquarters during a board meeting over the summer, but school officials stood by its decision to add the classes. And the Okolo sisters said they haven’t received any criticism directly.
“I think introducing ethnic studies and critical race theory topics in high school, and even sooner than that, is the prime age for students to think critically about the history of this country and apply it to everyday life,” Nene said. “College is too late. We should definitely be pushing for high school students to have access to this education.”
While California is one of a cluster of states where lawmakers have not proposed major legislation to keep educators from teaching about race and equity, the battle has played out at the district level. The board of the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District recently voted to ban aspects of critical race theory from the classroom, calling it a “divisive ideology that assigns moral fault to individuals solely on the basis of an individual’s race and, therefore, is itself a racist ideology.” And the Ramona Unified School District passed a civic education policy that would forbid teaching about racial equity and white privilege.
In Florida, the state’s Board of Education banned critical race theory specifically, saying such teaching would “distort historical events.” Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, appeared in a video during the board’s meeting and said that the new measures would provide students with factual information rather than “trying to indoctrinate them with ideology.”
But Raymond Adderly, an 18-year-old student at Fort Lauderdale High School, holds that banning critical race theory is simply a ban on “teaching truth in history.” Adderly, who is Black, has taken on a leadership role at his school, serving as student adviser to the Broward County School Board and running for a seat on the board.
“What is happening right now is, Republicans are just looking for another boogeyman,” Adderly said. “Not teaching students the history of America, the true history — it comes at a great robbery and great sacrifice to students and their growth.”
He noted what experts have been highlighting since the start of the controversy: that critical race theory is not typically taught in K-12 public schools. And even though the issue has affected school districts across the country, Adderly said students in Broward County have more pressing matters to think about.
“I focus my time and efforts on things that are more important to our school district like getting our students mental health resources, paying our teachers more money, getting kids back to school safely, and getting our infrastructure back on track,” he said. “Those are the issues that are important in this school district and, quite frankly, our school district doesn’t need any other distractions.”
Battles over diversity and equity initiatives in public schools have resulted in administrators and teachers resigning or being fired. A growing number of educators have left their jobs after furious parents accused them of teaching critical race theory as lawmakers in at least 22 states worked to set limits on how teachers can frame American history. Many Republican lawmakers have acknowledged that public school curriculums don’t typically include critical race theory, but said the bans are “preventative.”
This decision-making doesn’t sit well with the Okolo sisters, though. They said they believe that Black students should have a say in any legislation that will affect them.
“I definitely think that politicians should be making it one of their top priorities to hear from Black students about their perspectives and to really center their voices,” Nene said. “A lot of times we’re seen as ignorant, or sometimes just unaware. But I think when we center the voices of the youth, it really gives us the power that we need to advance change, especially change that benefits us the most.”