You’ve got to be carefully taught

We were heartened last week when the Guilderland school superintendent, Marie Wiles, told us, “If we do not seize this moment to make real changes, shame on all of us.”

Wiles and other Guilderland school leaders had listened to the painful experiences of recent Black alumnae who had reached out, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, to say that Guilderland needs a comprehensive plan to address racism in its system. Guilderland is not alone.

Wiles and school board members sounded eager about pursuing changes in curriculum, policy, and staff training. We fervently hope they follow through.

They could serve as an example for other schools that need to embark on this difficult but essential journey.

Much of racism begins at home so schools need to be a place where young minds can learn larger truths, rather than having narrow racist views amplified.

To their credit, the Guilderland School Board members are now reading “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” a remix of Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped,” written by Jason Reynolds to appeal to young readers.

Kendi writes, “A racist idea is any idea that suggests something is wrong or right, superior or inferior, better or worse about a racial group. An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests that racial groups are equal.”

The book looks at three racial positions — segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists — to see how each has rationalized racial inequity. Kendi writes simply, “The antiracists say there is nothing wrong or right about Black people and everything wrong with racism. The antiracists say racism is the problem in need of changing, not Black people.”

The path ahead for the Guilderland school leaders will not be an easy one. We’ve written many times about Black students who felt that discrimination against them wasn’t recognized by school staff. Two of those Guilderland students went so far as to file lawsuits; in both cases, the white judges found the cases without merit.

Over the decades of covering Guilderland schools, we have written about the need for more staff members of color — how they can serve as role models for students who may feel marginalized. 

We realize it can be hard to recruit minority faculty, which is in short supply. But something Guilderland, or any school district, can do is carefully examine its curriculum to see that its teaching of Black history is fair and meaningful. A teacher of any race, if well informed, can teach Black history.

We’ve also written for years about the need to change curriculum.

In 2005, we hailed the state’s creation of the Amistad Commission. The legislation said that the commission, to be led by the state’s education commissioner, was so named “in honor of the group of enslaved Africans led by Joseph Cinque who, while being transported in eighteen-hundred-thirty-nine on a vessel named Amistad, gained their freedom after overthrowing the crew and eventually having their case successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court.”

It’s an apt name if the commission was meant to overthrow the decades of poor teaching of Black history. But the commission’s great mission was never fulfilled.

Without funds to finance the commission members and their efforts — including a website with resource materials that appear not to have been updated in ages — the research that led to the development of a rich curriculum is worthless.

Wiles told us last week that one of the Black alumna complained that, in taking Guilderland High School’s course on global studies, she was taught a lot about Europe, a little about Asia, and nothing about Africa.

“It’s true,” said Wiles, surmising that the state Regents exam on global studies does not have one question on Africa. “What gets tested, gets done,” said Wiles.

We asked if Guilderland will act on its own, apart from state guidelines, to teach more about Africa. Wiles said, “The State Education Department doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”

The State Education Department, like other government entities, is now dealing with potentially devastating cutbacks as the economy reels from the shutdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus. So we have little confidence funding will suddenly materialize to support the curriculum proposed by the Amistad Commission that has languished for so long.

In the past, Guilderland has bucked the trend to teach to the test, deciding it was more important to let faculty pursue teaching in more creative and individual ways, perhaps sacrificing the better scores that would result from strictly teaching for tested materials.

We hope, as Guilderland’s curriculum cabinets view what is being taught and what is lacking, they have the courage to forge a path that may differ from material on state tests. Such courage, especially if enough schools follow, may force state education leaders to follow.

A 2017 paper by LaGarrett J. King, published in the National Council for the Social Studies Social Education, “The Status of Black History in U.S. Schools and Society,” looks at how, through the first half of the 20th Century, social studies curriculum either largely ignored black history or misrepresented it, with textbooks typically classifying Black people “as docile, uncivilized, and lazy.”

This changed with the civil rights movement as, across the United States, Black students, teachers, and parents began to demand Black history be taught, writes King, an associate professor at the University of Missouri, noting, “Today, the legitimacy of K-12 Black history as an academic subject for schoolchildren is largely unquestioned.”

We are now in the midst of another racial reckoning, during which we can build on the curricula that emerged after the civil rights movement. There is much work to be done.

A 2015 study by the National Museum of African American History and Culture that found only 8 to 9 percent of total class time is devoted to Black history in United States history classrooms. While students are now aware of famous Black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman, the Southern Poverty Law Center gave the majority of states grades of D or F for their approach to teaching the civil rights movement, with five states neglecting the subject altogether.

King notes questionable class activities such as student participation in mock slave auctions and cites a recent McGraw-Hill textbook distributed in Texas that describes the Trans-Atlantic slave trade as the immigration of “millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”

To describe enslaved people, ripped from their homeland, transported in bondage and sold like chattel as immigrating workers is morally reprehensible and simply not the truth.

A 2016 report on the New York State Amistad Commission, which outlines the way African-American history and culture could be infused into each grade level, notes in one of five findings that instruction aligned to the state’s social studies framework is ultimately controlled by local school districts.

On this page, we previously encouraged our local school districts, all of them, to make Black history an integral part of social studies curricula as well as lessons taught in other subjects.

We are repeating that call with more urgency now.

Kendi wrote “Stamped” before George Floyd’s death on May 25, before a white Minneapolis policeman knelt on a prone, handcuffed Black man until the life was choked out of him. Before American streets — including right here in Altamont — were filled with protesters demanding racial justice.

But it’s as if Kendi knew what would happen because he’d seen it so many times before. “Racist ideas cause people to look at an innocent Black face and see a criminal,” he wrote.

Schools are a good place to teach antiracist ideas. We reiterate Kendi’s definition: “An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests that racial groups are equal.”

To have children learn about Black history primarily as slavery is dehumanizing not just for Black students but a disservice for any student. Black history should embrace the history of myriad African cultures as well as the rich contributions made to American culture.

King writes correctly, “We should ask how we can truly represent Black history in more humanizing ways … In many ways, we teach about Black history and not through it … Enslavement should not be the first contact school children have with Black history. Thousands of years of Black history existed before Western contact.”

History, King notes, is not just about where and what people have been but it provides a blueprint for where they will go and what they will be.

We wholeheartedly endorse King’s powerful conclusion and we hope our local educators heed his words: “As was the case in the early twentieth century and the 1960s, Black history is needed to allow society to comprehend Blackness through the record of Black agency and advancement in the context of systemic notions of White supremacy and racism. 

“Our teaching should be centered on how Black history improves our understanding of contemporary circumstances, and how it can stimulate us to improve our democracy.”



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