Opinion: How to avoid fireworks when teaching U.S. history in Georgia

New divisive concepts law makes it harder to discuss worst moments in country’s past

The fireworks marking the birth of American independence this week provide an apt metaphor for what could await teachers who attempt to teach the full breadth of American history in Georgia.

Georgia teachers return to K-12 classrooms next month restrained by a new state law that mandates avoidance of divisive concepts that cause students “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of his or her race.”

Never mind that there are many chapters of U.S. history that should cause anguish — the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre where Colorado cavalrymen slaughtered Native American women and children, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson decision that legalized “separate but equal,” the 1906 Atlanta race riot where 5,000 rampaging white men and boys murdered at least 25 Black Atlantans going about their daily lives and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, and the forced relocation and incarceration of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II.

Under the new divisive concepts law, a Georgia parent could complain that a teacher’s comments during a discussion of the Atlanta race riot crossed into what the bill defines as “‘race scapegoating, assigning fault or blame to a race.” Such a complaint could land the school system in front of the state Board of Education facing sanctions.

Opponents of the divisive concepts ban contend it will airbrush the worst moments in U.S. history. “This bill will affect crucial conversations in classrooms about our current history and current events,” said state Rep. Becky Evans, D-Atlanta, during a hearing in the Legislature.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia wants to prevent that from happening. Last week, the organization held training on what it calls “Georgia’s new classroom censorship law” and its restrictions. Among the speakers advising how to talk about race in the South was Drew Westen, an Emory psychology professor and author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.”

In an interview beforehand, Westen said the solution is not to fight political fires with gasoline, but with facts and clarity. His research shows oft-cited academic terms like “systemic racism” or “implicit bias” leave listeners feeling “accused and confused.” If you simply say prejudice and give people factual examples they can understand, they will be much more receptive, said Westen.

For example, Westen says teachers can illustrate systemic racism with the concrete example of all the U.S. cities chose to build interstates through Black neighborhoods rather than white communities.

“Then, they can talk about what those highways did to housing on both sides of the highway and get students thinking about living there with the car fumes coming off it. And that is why Black kids have asthma at much higher rates,” he said.

Another tack: When presenting America’s history of race and racism, highlight how far the nation has come.

“If you look at the arc of what has been done in Georgia, this state, like other states, had people buying and selling other people; yet now Georgia has a Black senator and a Black woman running for governor,” said Westen. “We would like to believe Thomas Jefferson didn’t own slaves but it isn’t true. Yet his great-great-great-great-grandchildren would never dream of owning another human being — that is a wonderful aspect of our history that you cannot understand without understanding how that happened, what went right and what went wrong.”

Parents want their children to learn the truth, said Andrea Young, executive director of the 22,000-member ACLU of Georgia. She cited recent school board runoffs in several Georgia counties, including Cherokee, Coweta and Gwinnett, where voters rejected candidates who ran on allegations that schools were casting white kids as oppressors and teaching critical race theory. Critical race theory, or CRT, is an academic concept that posits that racism extends beyond individuals to how the legal system and policies treat people of color.

Teachers can present facts without characterizing them, allowing students to discuss and debate where those facts lead, said Young. Even when teachers rely on facts to illuminate America’s history of race and racism, Young warned they will still come up against those who deny the truth.

“Some parents will complain about Black History Month or if children are reading the Ruby Bridges story,” she said. “People have a right to be heard in school board meetings, but they don’t have a right to a decision in their favor.”