We are a compilation of the stories that we tell about ourselves. But here in the United States, we have too often told ourselves a distorted, revisionist, and incomplete history of our nation. And this year, in school districts and statehouses across the country, efforts to tell the real story are being stifled.
Perhaps you have seen the photos: Protesters at school board meetings holding signs that say “Stop Teaching Critical Racist Theory To Our Kids” or “I Am Not An Oppressor.” At the heart of these protests is opposition to teaching children about the United States’ shameful racial history — a history that repeats itself in systems and structures today. Many of these protests appeal to white parents’ fears that reckoning with our nation’s past sins and injustices will make their kids feel ashamed or that — in some twisted logic — this reckoning is itself “racist.” I’ve watched this growing campaign with anguish; I believe that cultivating a greater commitment to anti-racism within the next generation will empower our kids, not instill shame. I especially want young white people in the U.S. to feel confident rejecting a false sense of superiority and embracing the increasingly multiracial and multicultural nation that we are becoming.
In their protests, the overwhelmingly white opponents of this type of learning have weaponized the term “critical race theory.” CRT is an academic and legal concept that argues that racism is not merely about individual acts of favoritism or prejudice, but rather is something embedded in legal systems, policies, and other structures in society. For many on the political Right, CRT has become a boogeyman responsible for trends and movements they oppose, including everything from Black Lives Matter protests and LGBTQ clubs in schools to diversity training in federal agencies and ongoing debates about free speech on college campuses. During a three-and-a-half-month period this spring and early summer, Fox News mentioned critical race theory more than 1,900 times. Conservative politicians have also taken notice: So far this year, 12 states have enacted bans that “restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.”
Unsurprisingly, a recent NBC News analysis found that this backlash over diversity and equity initiatives tend to occur in school districts that have significantly diversified in recent decades — i.e. districts that are becoming less white. Other reporting has shown that much of the backlash has been amplified by conservative funders and organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafts model bills for state legislatures to take up on Republican causes. A different NBC analysis identified at least 165 local and national groups “that aim to disrupt lessons on race and gender.” It's clear that Republicans are using CRT to trigger a sense of moral panic over deep-seated fears around demographic change and racial reckoning.
White backlash to increasing diversity or perceived loss of influence is nothing new: After the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War, we saw the dangerous rise of the South’s Lost Cause narrative and the KKK. In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, we saw white city dwellers flock to the suburbs when their neighborhoods began to diversify. And earlier this year, on Jan. 6, we saw almost exclusively white crowds attempt to seize power through a violent coup at the U.S. Capitol following Donald Trump’s presidential loss and his big lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
So, it is unsurprising to me that we’re now seeing backlash to the nationwide protests in 2020 against police violence that prompted corporate America, the NFL, NASCAR, and other institutions to denounce systemic racism and support efforts to combat it. Nor is it surprising that schools are a key battleground in this backlash. They have long been hot spots for our cultural wars, whether over the legality of school prayer or the eligibility of transgender athletes.
How we form and shape the minds and hearts of the future will determine the trajectory of our nation. That is why I believe the Freedom School movement is one of the most powerful antidotes to an ahistorical and fear-based rendering of our history. Freedom Schools, which are rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, were originally free summer schools whose goal was to train the next generation of Black children and teens “the art of resistance and the strategies of protest.” These schools emerged during the Freedom Summer of 1964, when civil rights organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the NAACP coordinated to bring more than 900 activists to Mississippi for the summer to register Black people to vote and educate Black children for social change.
At these temporary and free schools, Black children learned about the importance of political participation, how to become active citizens, and the tactics of social change. The goal of these schools was to counter the dominant narrative of white supremacy and equip students with the knowledge needed for liberation. Though many of these schools took place in the South during the mid-1960s, Mississippi’s Freedom Summer inspired educators around the country. Today schools bearing the name “Freedom School” can be found in St. Louis, Seattle, and Tucson, to name a few.
But Freedom Schools are not simply a relic of the civil rights era; in 1993, the Children’s Defense Fund began its own Freedom School program modeled on the Freedom Schools of 1964. In 2019, their K-12 program served more than 12,000 students and their families at 181 program sites across 28 states. The CDF Freedom Schools offer no-cost, high-quality academic support, and emphasize family involvement, community engagement, servant leadership, and both physical and mental health. The focus is both on preventing summer learning loss and raising socially conscious children, some of whom will go on to become a new generation of activists. The programs are hosted by community-based nonprofits, faith-based institutions, schools, colleges, and even juvenile detention centers. Activities might include anything from studying hip-hop as poetry; learning Spanish, Mandarin, French, or sign language; participating in community service; or other projects that foster the knowledge and skills to create social change. When Sojourners hosted a CDF Freedom School through its Neighborhood Center in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in the ’90s, it offered reading support, computer lessons, and conflict resolution training.
“Moral authority to define the future lies with those who will live it,” Rev. Starsky Wilson, CDF’s president recently told me at the CDF’s annual retreat at the Alex Haley Farm near Knoxville, Tenn. “These Black and brown children hold that authority, and in CDF Freedom Schools they are nurtured in their agency and power.” And as Kristal Moore Clemons, the national director of CDF Freedom Schools, pointed out, the recent attacks on critical race theory do just the opposite: “The attack on CRT is not an attack on the use of this theoretical framework,” she said at the same event. “It is an attack on Black and brown bodies, the counter-narratives we collect, and critical scholarship that challenges whiteness to achieve racial equity.”
Through models like Freedom Schools, Clemons hopes to see “families and communities engaged through this model that affirms their dignity and enhances the agency of students, families, and educators.” My prayer is that the Children’s Defense Fund can find more willing church and community partners as well as funders to scale up Freedom School movement.
As we resist the ongoing backlash against teaching and reckoning with systemic racism, I believe we must be bolder in making the positive case for why teaching our entire history and embracing age-appropriate anti-racism education is essential for the future of our nation and the church. As Christians, we can remind those who fear teaching the truth about our past, that Christ said that only “truth will set you free” and that “perfect love can cast out fear.” We can also point to examples from scripture, such as when the Israelites failed to remember their history and God’s commands and, as a result, faced prolonged years of wandering in the wilderness before they finally reached and entered the promised land (c.f. Jeremiah 25:1-14).
In A More Perfect Union, I write that our own promised land of a more perfect union will remain a distant mirage as long as we remain captive to amnesia, blindness, and denial about our nation’s history. I have long found it puzzling and hypocritical for Christians to be fearful of and reject the growing racial diversity in our schools, communities, and nation since this represents just a foretaste of what heaven will look like: people of all races and backgrounds experiencing the celestial joy of profound fellowship and oneness with God and each other. Now is the time to create more of that foretaste in our schools, churches, and communities. The health of our democracy depends on it.