How should we teach Black history in school?

Julia Munslow
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

As the national reckoning on race brings fresh scrutiny to how Black history is taught in public schools, one Republican senator introduced a bill intended to stop the teaching of a New York Times project that reframes the history of slavery in the U.S.

Sen. Tom Cotton’s bill, the “Saving American History Act of 2020,” would withhold federal funding for teaching journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “The 1619 Project.” The project, for which Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize, is set to be included in the curriculum of schools in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City. The bill is not expected to pass, and Hannah-Jones responded by tweeting a link to the project’s curriculum.

American educators are grappling with how to address race in the wake of nationwide protests against the killings of Black Americans — an issue that also emerged following the civil rights movement.

There’s no national curriculum on race or Black history in public schools. (A bill introduced in May by Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, would provide funding for schools teaching about Black history and require that national history tests include questions about Black history.)

States are largely free to design their own lesson plans. Only a handful have laws that mandate Black history lessons. A CBS News investigation found that curriculum requirements for Black history vary widely among the 50 states. The investigation found that most states require students to learn about slavery and the civil rights movements, but that interpretations of those topics vary drastically. For instance, in 16 states, states’ rights, rather than slavery, are cited as the cause of the Civil War.

Why there’s debate

Educators and historians widely agree that Black history must be taught in schools, but there’s debate about how to teach it to students. Some argue that teaching Black history would prevent it from being repeated. If Americans learned more about race from a young age, the current racial justice movement might not need to exist, they say. It’s important to teach about the brutality of events like the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and to avoid sanitizing Black history, they argue.

Other educators believe that Black history is taught with too much focus on violence and oppression and should include lessons about the joy and triumphs of Black people. Black history must be humanized so that Black people aren’t seen as addendums to American history, they argue.

There are also concerns from a few educators that only one version of theories about race will be taught. When we teach the construction of Blackness, we must also teach the construction of whiteness, one educator argues. Another says that teachers should include several theories of race, even those that are considered controversial, to allow students to critically examine race and racism from multiple perspectives.

What’s next

Students and educators will return to classrooms in a few weeks, and schools are rethinking their curricula on American history as protests for racial justice continue. But as experts urge school districts toward new curriculum and teacher training, schools will have to balance those initiatives with deep budget cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic.


Teaching about race is a way to fight racism

“If we can teach today’s students to understand systemic racism and our individual roles in perpetuating it, then perhaps we’ll have fewer future adults saying things like, ‘It was just a rogue cop.’” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

Teach students more about the triumphs and contributions of Black Americans

"We are not taught enough about how Black men and women put their lives on the line to create what we know today as the multiracial vision of American democracy. Given the type of society we're striving towards, the type of society we'd like to be, let's let our kids know very early on what [African Americans'] particular contributions really are.” — Westenley Alcenat to CBS News

Don’t teach a sanitized version of Black history

“These folks are to be honored for their accomplishments — but we should not ignore lessons that explore the impact of racism in the Black experience. It’s imperative that teachers not reinforce a milquetoast version of Black history that is anti-Black because of its erasure of painful truths.” — Rann Miller, Edutopia

Teach Black history so its tragedies are not repeated

“Black people have been saying this for the past 400 years, this is not a new movement. Each generation has had their point in time where they’re trying to say through protest, through rebellion, ‘listen to us, listen to us.’ In many ways we wouldn’t have a Black Lives Matter movement if Black lives mattered in the classroom.” — LaGarrett King to NBC News

Students should learn different arguments about how race affects America

“Presenting a single story about race — and pretending it's a holy writ — won’t make students more aware or informed; it will instead make them into cynics who mouth the right incantations when we say the word. Our job is to teach them to ask questions of the universe, not to answer the questions ourselves. Let’s see if we can summon the courage to do it, even in our own very dangerous time.” — Jonathan Zimmerman, Inside Higher Ed

When you treat Black history as a secondary part of history, you reduce its importance

“As long as we continue to treat these as addendums to a larger American narrative, we’re failing these kids in large part because we’ve reduced these histories to second-class status.” — Julian Hayter to NBC News

We must retrain teachers to teach about race

“Until teacher education programs conduct an overhaul of their content to be more inclusive and accurate, what happens at the school level will always be negligent.” — Dionne Grayman to Washington Post

Parents have a responsibility to teach children about race from an early age

“We cannot lose sight of the responsibility parents have in challenging outdated assumptions about people of color, racism and bigoted language. Parents are a crucial part of the education system. They cannot be left out as schools proceed through this deeply important project of fostering racial justice in our children ... As parents, we are our children’s first teachers.” — Coda Rayo-Garza, San Antonio Express News

Teach the history of the construction of whiteness to fully understand race

“We need to know that the construction of whiteness has its own history. That history includes white people who think of themselves as individuals without a meaningful racial identity as well as white nationalists and Klansmen parading around in theirs.” — Nell Irvin Painter, NBC News

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images