Teaching Black History is Not Indoctrinating Students, It’s Education

The White parental pushback is racist and misguided

By Allison Wiltz

TEACHING BLACK HISTORY is not indoctrination. Photo courtesy of CommonSense.org

The White parental outrage over teaching students Black history is severely misguided. They assume a student’s mind is like an empty, porcelain cookie jar that teachers fill with knowledge. Unlike religious doctrine, which requires belief, secular education is designed to encourage critical thinking. In other words, whether the teacher brings sugar cookies or chocolate chips, the students will never be required to favor one over the other, but they will be asked to identify and consider the differences and to express their opinions. This, beloved, is not indoctrination—it’s education.

Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz, a historian of educational reform, suggested that “too many White parents don’t understand the true purpose of public schools.” Indeed, “while laws banning this teaching might shield children from potential unease, they also will help to dismantle American democracy,” she warned. Giving into the white comfort argument will undoubtedly deprive students of the information they need to become informed citizens. If conservatives have their way, we will soon have an entire generation of Americans who know very little about Black Americans’ enslavement, persecution under Jim Crow, and struggle to secure civil rights, which will negatively impact racial relations. Conservatives are whitewashing history yet accusing Black scholars of indoctrinating the youth.

A dangerous accusation.

Conservatives’ worst nightmare, these days, seems to be a teacher who discusses racism or gender in the classroom. Nevertheless, the academic community fact-checked the “idea that liberal academics indoctrinate their students” and determined the claim couldn’t hold water. One study found that “students do not passively accept disparate political messages” and “tend to push back against faculty members they perceive as presenting a hostile point of view.” According to Amy J. Binder, “The idea that colleges and universities are indoctrination mills is an old one,” tracing its lineage back to William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. Young people are shifting away from right-wing politics in a way that concerns conservatives, and they want someone to blame, so they’ve targeted the academic community, even though research shows such accusations are unfounded.

“Education means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free.”– Frederick Douglass, Blessings of Liberty and Education. Speech. 1894

Accusing teachers of indoctrination when they’re teaching Black history is a racist strategy that aims to (1) delegitimize and stigmatize Black history lessons, (2) frighten parents, and (3) gain political support for exclusionary laws and policies. So far, they’ve been successful in diminishing support for Black history lessons, cementing their racially exclusionary worldview into law in states like Florida and Arizona, and scaring parents, all under the premise that Black history lessons are a form of indoctrination. We’re in so deep it may take federal legislation to right the ship. This lie that teachers are indoctrinating the youth is anything but harmless — it has teeth.

We saw this blueprint before in the late 1960s and ‘70s when the Federal Bureau of Investigation labeled The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense “an enemy of the United States government” because the organization openly discussed racism Black people experienced in American society and demanded a policy shift. Agents went door-to-door, lying to parents, claiming they were indoctrinating the youth. In reality, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense created numerous survival programs, including their infamous Free Breakfast for School Children Program. The organization attempted to uplift Black people and those who lived in low-income communities out of disparate conditions and accused the government of neglecting Black communities. Sadly, they were villanized in the eyes of the American public. We’re seeing the same dynamic play out today in classrooms where teachers are forbidden from discussing racism, even though it impacts students’ quality and access to education, healthcare, and opportunities in the job market.

Our responsibility to push back against false narratives

Teaching Black history is not indoctrination for a simple reason. Providing students with information about Black Americans’ unique experiences, contributions, and challenges doesn’t force them to endorse certain beliefs. After students learn something new, like Rosa Parks, a Black woman, refusing to give up her seat for a White person on a segregated bus, for instance, they are free to form their own opinions about the events that transpired — this is not indoctrination, it’s education. Claiming that what Parks experienced had nothing to do with race is a pernicious lie that whitewashes the way Jim Crow laws negatively impacted Black people and obscures the motivations behind the civil rights movement.

White conservatives, the same group accusing teachers of indoctrination for discussing Black history, are indeed guilty of the crime. Their vast censorship campaign exposes them as the pot calling the kettle black. Americans need to push back against the false narratives while we still can. Remember, Black history is not indoctrination, but excluding it is.

Published in The Antagonist Magazine August 2023. Reprinted with permission.