But last weekend in Buffalo, racism was not a policy to be debated. Authorities allege this was the stated motivation of a gunman who went to a supermarket looking for black people to kill because he believed, according to the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory, that White Americans are overrun by people of color. For Howard-Johnson and many other black educators and students, teaching about race has never seemed more important.
“They have to take seasoned teachers, activists and hire these people and have us come in and teach this every day,” said Howard-Johnson, who is on sick leave from her job as an early childhood educator. “I wonder if the school he went to had cultural sensitivities, where he learned about different ethnic backgrounds and the contributions people have made to America.”
Following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer two years ago, another death that sparked a conversation about the racism faced by black Americans, many school districts have adopted racial equity programs and curricula. aimed at addressing systemic biases.
A backlash followed, with conservatives accusing schools of indoctrinating children and trying to turn them into ‘social justice warriors’. More than a dozen states have passed laws restricting how schools can talk and teach about race, affecting how educators nationwide approach these topics.
New Critical Race Theory Laws Scare, Confuse and Self-Censor Teachers
Conservative activist Christopher Rufo regularly obtains internal documents from trainings and programs regarding “critical race theory,” a decades-old intellectual movement that has become a catch-all term Republicans use to describe teachings about race and racism. In 2021, his targets included Buffalo Public Schools. He sued the district for adopting “culturally appropriate teaching” and “equity-based teaching strategies,” among other things.
He quoted a district official as saying the United States is “built on racism,” and he cited details of a program that included Black Lives Matter principles. His criticism was repeated on Fox News, online and on the popular Tucker Carlson show. Carlson has also used his show to repeatedly promote versions of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that authorities say the alleged Buffalo shooter embraced in a 180-page document released two days before Saturday’s shooting.
A Buffalo Schools spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Fatima Morrell, the district’s associate superintendent for culturally and language-appropriate initiatives, told WTGZ, a local television station, last year that the district wanted to address systemic racism and implicit bias in the district.
“We all have the power … to create opportunities for honest conversations and to create a landscape of fairness if we want to,” Morrell said.
In the aftermath of the mass shooting, some black students and teachers in Buffalo and elsewhere are making connections between the views of the alleged shooter and school restrictions across the country. They say the failure to confront systemic racism — in schools and elsewhere — fuels horrific events like last weekend’s shooting and shows why it’s important to teach these subjects.
“It just proves that this is a current issue, not just something of the past,” said Zion Alexander, a high school student from Missouri City, Texas. “I think a lot of people see talking about race as, say, something that doesn’t necessarily paint America in a positive light, and they’d rather live in ignorance than admit what the problem is.
He said his history teacher made it clear that there were hot topics he was not supposed to address, including those dealing with race. If he raises something, Alexander said, the teacher must give both sides, even if – as in Buffalo – “there are evils that just need to be called out for what they are.”
Just before the Buffalo shooting, 15 users logged into the suspect’s chat room, according to a person familiar with the review
Daphne McNab, a Buffalo teacher who works with English language learners, was deeply shaken by the attack. Her best friend was at the supermarket, hiding in one of the freezers. “Seeing her so shaken upsets my soul because she was always the strongest,” she said.
In the days since, McNab has pondered how to dismantle the systems that breed racism and is acutely aware of criticism of Buffalo schools for including culturally appropriate teaching and lessons about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It was very difficult to integrate these lessons into the classroom,” she said. “A lot of parents called the school angry because they didn’t want their kids learning those lessons.” Furthermore, she said, “many Caucasian teachers don’t feel ‘comfortable’ teaching these lessons. However, these lessons are of great importance.
In the wake of the murders, she said, there is an urgent need to put this unease aside. “People of color have been uncomfortable for hundreds of years. But now we must come together, comfortable, uncomfortable or not, to dismantle and deconstruct these structures that hold us all together.”
These connections are also made by some national figures.
“Critical Race Theory literally explains why the Great Replacement Theory exists, but now just days after a massacre of white supremacists, the same people who created a whole hysteria banning books around CRT are justifying and promoting GRT”, writer Nikole Hannah-Jones said on Twitter. “Absolutely shameless. Absolutely shameful.
Conservative media know of Buffalo suspect’s alleged ‘theory’
Jerquila Slaughter, a high school teacher in Dallas, said her first thoughts after the Buffalo tragedy were that it could have happened in any neighborhood.
“It could have been me. It could have been one of my students. It’s a big thing that we have to put up with as black people, not being able to feel free in your own country where you were born [in]said Slaughter, who teaches history at Kathlyn Joy Gilliam Collegiate Academy.
His thoughts also went to the restrictions that Texas and other states have placed on discussions of race.
“As a history teacher, it’s even more difficult for me because I feel like I’m very limited in the truth about history, and so you always have to have this, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get in trouble, ‘you know. “Oh, I better not say that, I have to say it this way. But I’m trying to teach him exactly how it happened. But we are always limited. That’s how we feel as African Americans. We always feel limited,” she said.
One of his students, Kiara Green, 17, added that teaching about race in schools could have prevented the attacker’s actions in Buffalo:
“If more people are educated about it and more people are educated about how wrong it is or how it affects people and how it affects families and they are taught that it doesn’t matter what color you are , you’re human, I feel like if he was taught that and he grew up in that, then he would have been less susceptible or he probably wouldn’t have done it at all.
Desiree Breckenridge, a veteran Buffalo Public Schools teacher, said students and other members of the black community need to heal first. She thinks about the importance of culturally relevant lessons that meet children where they are, but points out that schools do not teach critical race theory, as some conservatives claim. They teach diversity.
“This tragedy has put more emphasis on the need to teach about diversity,” she said. “It just shows you how much there is still to learn.”