I recently joined five Long Island high school students for a visit to the Joseph Lloyd Manor in Lloyd Harbor, the 18th-century site where many enslaved people of African descent lived. The visit yielded a fascinating discussion with significant implications for education on Long Island.
The five diverse students are part of ERASE Racism’s Student Task Force, a student-led initiative that advances racial and socioeconomic equity on issues that impact their everyday lives. The students came from four school districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The visit was part of a series of similar events happening across the country called Teach the Truth Day of Action.
What was initially so striking to me was that none of the students knew that slavery had existed on Long Island. They were surprised that they had not learned such a notable historical fact in school.
The extent to which the history of actions detrimental to people of color has been left out of history books was underscored by this year’s 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which destroyed 35 blocks of a renowned Black community and killed as many as 300 Black people. As the History Channel stated, “The riot reflected terribly on the city and subsequently wasn’t included in history books or newspapers for decades.” A survey conducted by The Oklahoman this year found that the vast majority of Oklahomans learned about the massacre outside of school.
There is a growing national debate about the extent to which school curricula should address the less-than-noble aspects of American history, especially as they relate to the experiences of people of color. On one side of the debate is New York state, whose Education Department has taken substantial steps to recognize diversity, equity and inclusion in curricula. In 2018, the state published a framework for culturally responsive curricula, on which I had been asked to comment while it was in draft form. The framework supports local districts in creating curricula that elevate historically marginalized voices, affirm diverse identities, perspectives and cultures, assure rigor and foster independent learning.
This past April, the State Education Department issued a second document, “The NYS Board of Regents Framework on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in New York’s Schools: A Call to Action.” In May, it approved a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Framework and Policy Statement, which requires all school districts to develop and implement diversity, equity and inclusion policies.
On the other side of the issue, eight states have passed legislation — and another 20 are considering it — that directs educators to avoid teaching about the role of racism and oppression in American history. Much of the passed and proposed legislation contains vague language that allows for a student — or a parent — to state that he or she experienced “discomfort” with the discussion of race and for a teacher to be deemed guilty without much recourse. How, after all, could the teacher prove that the student did not feel
New Hampshire’s House Bill 2 explicitly forbids a teacher to state that an individual might be “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously
.” This stands in opposition to the current consensus of scientific research on how racism operates.
These legislative efforts are focused on protecting students from the reality of American history, as if they could not handle the truth. But in my experience working with hundreds of Long Island high school students, they relish the opportunity to explore race and its implications for America’s past, present and future.
As a white student who was with me at Joseph Lloyd Manor wrote, “Our past consists of more than just heroes . . . Not allowing us to discuss and explore ‘sensitive topics’ avoids essential conversations. Developing a safe learning environment is impossible if accurate information is restricted.”
As this national debate unfolds, it is vital to hear from America’s students. Those whom I talk to aren’t looking to be protected from the truth, but rather are eager to explore it. They know that they will inherit a world in which race remains an inescapable reality. They are not looking for comfort. They are eager for a thorough understanding of diverse perspectives that will be essential to their success in the workplace. Why should education deprive them of that?
Elaine Gross is president of the civil rights organization ERASE Racism.