Before President Biden signed legislation recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday in 2021, most Americans would’ve had to Google it if you’d asked them to explain the holiday’s significance.
While some Black communities have celebrated the day marking the announcement of the end of slavery in Texas–especially there in the Lone Star state–understanding of the holiday varied widely, and many Americans had never even heard of it. Now, the holiday’s crossover into the mainstream, complete with time off for federal employees and merchandise on Amazon, is coinciding with a rash of state anti-critical race theory bills and laws. That’s made life difficult for teachers and schools, with many educators feeling wary–or avoiding the subject altogether for fear of violating new restrictions on teaching “divisive concepts.”
In 2021, Texas passed Senate Bill 3, which states that teachers “may not be compelled to discuss a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” According to the bill’s sponsor, GOP Sen. Bryan Hughes, SB3 is designed to ensure that students are “taught that we should be judged by the content of character and not the color of skin.”
But observers like Trinidad Gonzales, professor of history and Mexican American studies at South Texas College and co-founder of the Refusing to Forget project, told VICE News the way SB3 is being interpreted puts teachers and districts in a precarious position. For instance, the law bars educators from teaching slavery and racism as anything but “failures to live up to” the country’s “founding principles.” Under this law, a teacher could technically teach about Juneteenth. The problem, Gonzales said, is that not every teacher knows that, and as a result, teaching about Juneteenth will vary widely from school to school.
“The topic itself wouldn’t be in violation of the law,” Gonzales said. “That being said, districts and superintendents, and how they read the statute or understand it, may try to curtail the more robust teaching on that topic while other school districts will allow for a much more truthful telling of that history. So it’s gonna be broken down and fragmented by district and district.”
Further complicating matters, Gonzales noted, is that while an educator in Texas can’t be sued for violating SB3, school districts can come up with their own enforcement mechanisms, which could again mean that where a teacher works might determine how they can teach about Juneteenth. According to Gonzales, the Texas Education Agency initially provided very little guidance to educators, which compounds the “fragmented” understanding and enforcement of the law (SB3 mandates a civics training program for teachers, but it hasn’t gone into effect yet).
So, while advocates for and against the law continue fighting things out, teachers will likely follow the political climate of the district they work in.
“Frankly, it’s just a mess. But I think that was part of the intent anyway,” Gonzales said.
The vagueness combined with the “contradictory” messages with regard to “controversial topics,” Gonzales said, creates a situation where teachers err on the side of a white-washed version of history to avoid running afoul of new policies.
That’s a trend playing out across the country. Over 30 states have proposed or passed laws outright banning critical race theory or heavily restricting discussions of race and racism in the classroom. In New Hampshire, some teachers similarly feel stifled by legislation commonly referred to as the “divisive concepts” law.
Passed in 2021, the divisive concepts law bars educators from teaching that any group is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, either consciously or unconsciously. Teachers who are believed to have violated this law can be reported through a website and, if they’re found to have violated it, they can face termination or have their teaching licenses revoked. Their school district can also be sued.
A group of teachers and parents, supported by the National Education Association and the state’s ACLU chapter, have filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the law’s vague wording, combined with career-ending penalties, has chilled free speech and created a culture of fear that isn’t conducive to giving New Hampshire students the well-rounded education mandated by the state’s constitution.
Tina Kim Philibotte and Andres Mejia, two of the educators challenging the law, recall being told the bill would never pass. Now that it has, however, both Philibotte and Mejia feel it places teachers in an impossible position, where having honest conversations with their students might lose them their livelihoods.
“I became an educator to be the adult that I needed when I was a kid, the adult my daughter needed. And in order to do that work, I need to do this diversity, equity, and inclusion work,” said Philibotte, who is chief equity officer for the Manchester School District and a transracial adoptee.
“We need to talk about race. We need to talk about gender. We have to have a practice of having these courageous conversations. And I can’t be the educator that I need to be for these kids under this [law].”
New Hampshire’s Republican Gov. Chris Sununu insisted that the law’s language wouldn’t curtail the teaching of history, but “simply ensures that children will not be discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, sexual identity, or religion.” Still, the lawsuit points out the language of the law is so vague that the state attorney general and Human Rights Commission have already had to weigh in to provide clarity, releasing guidance stating that education related to sexism, racism, and other lessons related to “harmful practices” aren’t prohibited, nor are lessons that could potentially make students uncomfortable.
But since the law passed, New Hampshire schools have been playing it safe with holidays and subjects that have been taught and celebrated for years.
“Folks were sending home permission slips in schools across the state to be able to watch the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Philibotte told VICE News. “I’ve seen reports in other schools where they used to watch the film ‘Hidden Figures’ and then they were asked not to do that. So if these are the messages we’re getting from administrators as an educator, and now you want me to teach about Juneteenth, right? Like, if they were going to [teach it] before, then it definitely is going to put doubts in the minds of educators.”
Eddie R. Cole, an associate professor of higher education and history at UCLA, observed that even without the support of curricula or textbooks, schools in predominantly Black communities have long made it a point to teach their students about Juneteenth and the events that led up to it.
Cole noted that although the bans specifically targeting critical race theory are new, the reluctance to grapple with the uglier parts of American history is not. With teachers feeling uncertain at best and fearful at worst, knowledge about Juneteenth and Black history in general could continue to be the exception and not the rule–which means another generation of citizens who, in their ignorance, could continue perpetuating past harms.
“We are preparing future citizens who don’t have a full-fledged understanding of the nation,” Cole said. “And… you can’t sort of imagine a more equitable society if you haven’t reckoned with past inequities. And that’s what’s really at stake here.”