‘There’s no way to hide history’: Teachers react to Georgia law limiting discussion of race

A student raises their hand in a classroom at Tussahaw Elementary school on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in McDonough, Ga. Schools have begun reopening in the U.S. with most states leaving it up to local schools to decide whether to require masks. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

In Georgia, Black educators are disheartened. They are insulted. Most of all, they are mad.

A new law, signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, restricts teachers from teaching students about race and racism. According to the text of HB 1084, this includes any discussions that “the United States of America is fundamentally racist,” “any other form of race scapegoating or race stereotyping,” or “espousing personal political beliefs.” The law “prevents divisive concepts and ideologies from invading the classroom” and removes “obscene materials” from school libraries.

It does not address, however, how violations would be enforced or what the ramifications would be.

“School is a ground for growth for students, growth of the minds of kids,” said Michael Howard, a social studies teacher at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta. “This threatens that.”

Many Black educators said the new law could not only threaten their jobs, but that it also impacts their ability to teach and connect with students.

Howard and other Black teachers also called the law “short-sighted,” “disingenuous” and a “political ploy,” accusing Kemp of currying favor with conservative voters ahead of his bid for re-election this year.

“I don’t think he truly understands the importance and the impact of passing the law,” Howard said. “The majority of parents want their children to be critical thinkers, and for teachers to at least give students the opportunity to form their own opinions and ask tough questions. The majority of parents do not want a closed view of history.”

The law is part of a growing nationwide campaign to remove books and curricula about race, racism or the contributions of people of color from classrooms. Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Florida, New Hampshire and Tennessee are among the states that have passed similar bills, with more than a dozen others with bills or policies moving through state legislatures. As Phyllis Graham, a retired teacher in Augusta, put it, the laws are designed to “not have white kids feel bad about what their great-grandparents did.”

“They are thinking nothing of what Black children need to know about history — or even what’s happening now in America,” she said. “And with the racial divide in America now, they want teachers to be mum in the classroom? To say this bill is about helping is disingenuous.”

The governor’s office said in a statement to NBC News that Kemp “worked with parents and students, education leaders, members of the General Assembly, and state and local elected officials, to pass a legislative package that empowers students and parents when it comes to the education of their children, as well as Georgia’s hardworking teachers. HB 1084 is a measure that bans the teaching of divisive concepts while also protecting academic freedom and instruction.”

Chris Stewart, the CEO of Brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education influencers, said the Georgia bill indicates that the momentum for this kind of legislation is surging.

“We’re in real trouble if we continue to allow the restriction of educators … and turn a blind eye to it,” he said. “You will literally have educators who we entrust to teach kids every day … There are going to be things that they can’t teach. There are going to be books that they can’t use. There are going to be movies that they can’t show … They’re not just the laws that don’t have any real impact. They will have a literal impact on how educated our children — Black, white and brown — will become, from what their teachers can teach them in classrooms.”

Keene Walker, a veteran educator who teaches at South Atlanta High School, said that students depend on teachers to elevate conversations about current events.

“How would a student feel sitting in a classroom now, where last year the same instructor would enlighten, bring the class the truth and put it into historical context,” he said, “but now someone could possibly come in and threaten that teacher’s livelihood over teaching the truth?”