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Can We Legislate Anti-Racist Education? New Jersey Says We Can, Pittsburgh Says We Must

by ZoŽ Burkholder - October 29, 2018

Recent hate crimes in America highlight the vital importance of deliberately teaching students about race, racism, anti-Semitism, and how to speak out against bias. New Jersey provides a model for mandating Holocaust and genocide education in public schools.

On October 27, 2018, a man armed with an assault rifle and three handguns burst into a Pittsburgh synagogue and murdered at least 11 congregants and injured four police officers and two others.

Violent white supremacy, which many people assumed was an historical artifact of the Jim Crow era, is alive and flourishing in the United States in 2018. In the past week alone, we saw crude pipe bombs sent to liberal politicians, an attempted attack on a Black church in Kentucky that ended with two people being murdered, and one of the most heinous acts of anti-Semitic violence ever committed on American soil.

Clearly, the time to act is now, but many people feel bewildered and frustrated. Other than begging our representatives for more common-sense gun control, is there anything else we can do?

Yes, there is. We need to teach American citizens that white supremacy is a false and dangerous ideology that is cultivated through racist propaganda and manipulated by demagogues.

There are not two sides to this discussion, and the only objective lesson on racism is that it is inherently wrong and tremendously dangerous to American democracy.

Despising people because of racial or religious differences is not natural or inevitable, it is learned. In our current political climate, it is deliberately cultivated by unscrupulous politicians and amplified by irresponsible media outlets.

To counter this disturbing trend, we need to encourage anti-racist education in American K12 schools and universities. We need to acknowledge that teaching young citizens to recognize and reject racist propaganda is an essential component of preparing them to live and work in a diverse democracy.

Can we legislate anti-racism? Yes, we can, by requiring our public schools to teach it, and then providing support to teachers and school administrators to institute it.

In 1994, New Jersey passed a statute requiring anti-bias education in all public schools, including specific instruction on the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and anti-ethnic bias. It did so after an outbreak of what legislators called the most venomous and vile of ethnic hate speeches. State leaders acknowledged the inescapable link between violence and vandalism and ethnic and racial intolerance. They asked the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, located within the state Department of Education, to expand its curricular materials and support services.

The NJ Commission on Holocaust Education partnered with local colleges and universities, including the one where I teach, Montclair State University (MSU). Through these partnerships, the Commission has developed effective anti-racist workshops that reach not only teachers, counselors, and administrators in public and private K­12 schools across the state, but also college students eager to learn about human rights education. In the last year alone, the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education coordinated 459 programs that reached 69,941 students, 7,048 educators, 1,821 Holocaust survivors, and 67,128 community members in New Jersey.

States that do not have a state-funded Commission on Holocaust Education (virtually every other state) have no coordinated way to support anti-racist education in K12 schools. Teachers in most American public schools are not required to teach about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, so many simply do not. Thats something we can fix today.

As the Director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education Project at MSU, I run Holocaust education workshops for college students and local educators in K12 schools. We teach teachers what anti-Semitism is, how to recognize racist propaganda, how to teach about genocide and the Holocaust, and how to help adolescents develop a strong moral compass to recognize and speak out against racial and religious prejudice. Lessons on human diversity and the vital importance of respecting people of different backgrounds can be effectively taught to children as young as kindergarten.

Empowering teachers and students to understand the biological, historical, and social complexities of racial and religious intolerance is an essential strategy to combat hate. Sadly, most teachers are not taught explicitly how to do this. Many fear that lessons designed to combat white supremacy will be construed by parents or administrators as political indoctrination, so they deliberately avoid the topic.

Lets be clear. Teaching that racism is wrong is not political, but is instead a crucial part of protecting American democracy and an essential function of our public schools. It should be required in every public school in the nation, as it is in New Jersey.

If you live in New Jersey, today is a good day to write a letter to your local school district and ask how it plans to fulfill the state Holocaust education mandate this year.

If you dont live in New Jersey, ask your local schools to develop stronger and more explicit anti-bias education. Write to your state legislators and ask them to sponsor a bill like New Jerseys requiring Holocaust and genocide education in all public schools.

The Echoes and Reflections Holocaust education program of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the USC Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem, along with Facing History and Ourselves are two non-profit organizations that offer excellent, high quality anti-racist training for K-12 educators. 

Democracy requires an educated citizenry, and today we can take direct action to ensure that our public schools are teaching American children to combat hate.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 29, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22546, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:17:53 PM

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About the Author
  • ZoŽ Burkholder
    Montclair State University
    E-mail Author
    ZOň BURKHOLDER is Associate Professor of Educational Foundations and Director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education Project at Montclair State University. She is the author of Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Teach Race, 1900-1954 (Oxford University Press, 2011) and working on a new book, An African American Dilemma: The Problem of School Integration and Civil Rights in the North.
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