For too long, Black History has been an afterthought in mainstream education, granted only a glimmer of sunlight during February, Black History Month. That is because white America collectively is comfortable only with the fraction of history where it can claim some level of partnership, such as the nonviolent, multiracial struggle for civil rights.
Not in the national narrative is the unbroken chain of systemic racism in slavery, legally enforced segregation and today’s disparities. Not in the narrative are the centuries of white violence used to maintain white privilege. For instance, most Americans remain unaware of white mob attacks that helped end Reconstruction, the 1919 Red Summer of whites killing Black people from Chicago to Arkansas, the 1921 massacre of Black people in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and white attacks on African Americans and Latinos in the 1940s.
It’s time to change that with the George Floyd Education Act, which David Cavell intends to introduce on his first day in the U.S. House if elected from the Massachusetts Fourth District this fall.
Following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, we must educate all Americans about 400 years of brutalization, systemic racism and marginalization of Black lives. With the protests, we are witnessing major progress on reimagining policing in our communities. We must make sure that this progress continues. In this moment of pain and possibility, we must make another commitment: Every single student in America should learn about Black history and the legacy of racism in the United States, and about why our country has arrived at this moment.
We believe Congress in its next session should passthe George Floyd Education Act, which will begin the process for implementing comprehensive Black history education into our public K-12 curricula. Our goal must be to educate students about Black history and racism, and to build a common foundation of understanding and empathy so we can finally come together as a country.
This process begins by understanding the institution of slavery and forced slave labor valued today to have been worth over $5.7 trillion dollars. It involves learning about the Black experience of legally sanctioned white violence, mass incarceration and discrimination in housing, employment, voting and education. This ongoing American legacy still impacts African-American families and communities. But we must also educate students about the resiliency of African Americans and their contributions to this country in art, business, culture, literature, law, music, politics and science.
Implementing this curriculum in 100,000 public schools will not be easy; the federal government cannot mandate reform single handedly, and some school districts will resist teaching this material. But with students around the country participating in peaceful protests, we owe it to them to teach this history. They and future generations have a right to know the full story and origins of this unrest.
The George Floyd Education Act will create a national commission to develop a curriculum and recommend how to implement it. We will bring together leading educators, historians, students, teacher organizations, and leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement, NAACP, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Obama Foundation and others.
Ultimately, every student in American public education will engage with writers spanning decades who provide windows into the lives of Black Americans: Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Students might be required to watch movies and documentaries that do the same. Schools should be encouraged to use a wide variety of assessments for this material, from a more traditional written exam to performance art. The important thing is to create a national expectation that students will engage critically with Black history and racism.
This moment calls for bold, ambitious action. We must put our resources where our values are and commit to teaching Black history.
#BlackHistoryMatters. We cannot wait any longer to teach it.
E. Macey Russell is a litigator and partner at a major Boston law firm, former chair of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s Judicial Nominating Commission, and a nationally recognized authority and lecturer on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.
David Cavell is a candidate for the Democratic nomination in the Massachusetts Fourth Congressional District, a former presidential speechwriter in the Obama White House, and a former fourth-grade public school teacher.