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Caroline Burke / Gavel Media

Opting out of Black History Month Lessons: Issues in American Education

Keeping with the culture war agenda of the modern American right, an Indiana public school counselor sent out a memo offering parents the opportunity to opt-out of Black History Month lessons being taught to their kids. Ironically, the memo stresses the importance of including these topics in the curriculum and the academic and social benefits that greater diversity offers students. Yet, after emphasizing these positive educational impacts, the counselor went on to give students’ parents complete freedom to take this meaningful opportunity away from their children. 

The most obvious problem with this policy is the blatant double-standard that it sets for white parents. If this is the precedent that we as a country want to set, isn’t it only fair that Black parents are given the option to opt their children out of lessons about America’s whitewashed version of history? Clearly, the majority of conservative parents would give a resounding “no” as an answer to that question. Why? Because they would argue that it’s our history as a people. But so is Black history. You can’t tell the real, unfiltered American story without exploring the accomplishments, contributions, and historical trauma of every American—Black, white, or other. It's unacceptable to treat Black history as a dispensable component of this story.

More importantly, compulsory Black history lessons are essential to creating an inclusive environment for Black students in public schools. Some Black Americans explain that learning Black History was the first time in their lives that they felt liberated from the confines of the standard American narrative. It’s a way of recognizing the accomplishments of Black Americans and the limitless potential of all people and centering the American story around the exceptional highs and lows of the very people who built this nation. While it may be difficult for some to grapple with this truth, it is the only way to show Black students that the work of their ancestors matters. To show them that their contributions to this country are many, and that their history in America is more than the brutality of enslavement and the hate of Jim Crow. 

Although the school’s policy is deeply flawed, it should not come as a surprise given the pushback against any inclusion of the topic of race in school curriculums. As many of us know, opposition to critical race theory (CRT) has been a rallying cry for conservative politicians and activists across the U.S. for the past year. They argue that CRT accuses all white people of being inherently racist, when in reality CRT actually focuses on the racism perpetuated by the American system. Despite this clear distinction, as of February 1st, 36 states are making efforts to restrict “education on racism, bias, the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history, or related topics”. Many claim that these teachings are anti-American propaganda, meant to radicalize students into hating this country. Former President Trump highlighted this notion in his promotion of the 1776 Commission, which depicts progressivism as a “challenge to American principles”. It also labels the teaching of race in classrooms as “left-wing indoctrination”.

It is ridiculous to see teaching the raw truth of this nation’s history as unpatriotic. In fact, I would argue that the most patriotic thing a person can do is recognize the flaws that exist in their country. Only by doing that can we actually begin to solve the problems that are keeping America from living up to its promise. A promise that guarantees all people an equal opportunity to succeed in this country. By sitting around and deriding a historically accurate account of America as unpatriotic, these conservatives are the ones who are actually holding America back from achieving its potential. Rather than focusing on substantive legislation that actually improves the lives of ordinary Americans, they instead further divide us by using education to wage their senseless culture war. They hold us back from making housing and education more affordable and accessible. They hold us back from pursuing criminal justice reform and paying people a living wage. Reaching these goals benefits everybody and hurts nobody. But we actually have to take a look into the past to uncover the system’s problems and form solutions. And that starts with education. Only with a transparent education system can we train our children to be informed citizens that recognize expansive problems that require immediate solutions.

We should not be letting culture war issues prevent our country’s children from receiving a meaningful education. They deserve to hear the true story of America, so that future generations can live in a country that is more just and equal than the one that we have been left with.