Teaching that none of us are free until all of us are free of oppression is critical.

by Rosemary Rivera, Co-Executive Director, Citizen Action of New York

As a Puerto Rican growing up in New York City, I knew very well that the existential conditions and educational outcomes for Puerto Ricans were shared with our Black brothers and sisters. We were, after all, experiencing structural racism much in the same way. Yet just as our Black brothers and sisters’ history is so often mistaught or completely left out of American education, Puerto Rican history is basically non-existent in New York public schools.

Like other individuals from disenfranchised and oppressed groups, I have had to learn about my history on my own. I’ve known about George Washington and Columbus since I was a little girl, but I had no idea about Puerto Ricans’ own rich history. I never learned about how the United States, after over a century of granting us citizenship, exploited, raped, pillaged, and destroyed our communities, leaving us with no power.

Today, we can die in war for the United States and we can travel to the United States, but we are overtaxed and our paradise home is owned predominantly by the white elite. And still, we are disenfranchised, unable to have a voice in the electoral college. To top it off, our ancestors, the Boricuas, were nearly all exterminated by the very people who they do teach us about. The erasure of our history is a deep insult to my people.

Now, as the United States’ demographics become more Black and brown, there is a new, well-funded movement attacking critical race theory. After a century of being citizens with little to show for it, we stand with our Black brothers and sisters to denounce this movement for what it is: A last ditch attempt to keep white supremacy in a position of power.

The elite and the GOP are scared. They know they are currently losing a culture war and, in order to swing the pendulum back in their favor, they need to maintain the false narrative that America is the land of equal opportunity for all. As new allies join marginalized groups to protect the necessity of teaching our history in public schools, the false stories spoonfed to us through the miseducation of Black and brown children begin to crumble.

In their attempt to stop the learning and analysis of what has truly taken place in American history, a well-financed group of people are coming together to stop critical race theory from being taught in our schools. A ‘moderate’ education writer, Frederick Hess, argues against critical race theory to a point that verges on the edge of supporting these attacks. He does so in the name of tolerance, claiming that our history is messy but empowering.

It’s hard to interpret our history as empowering when our history as Puerto Ricans is essentially non-existent in American history. Our history, and all history, must be taught equitably if we are ever going to turn the tide of the deep-rooted inequality in our country. Hess claims that “Tolerance can’t be a matter of creating safe spaces for those who hold certain views.” I beg to differ. Our views and desire for a better life have long been “tolerated” and yet the conditions of how we live have not improved.

Now, let me be clear, critical race theory differs from culturally responsive education. But they both have a place in our K-12 education system. Critical race theory teaches that structural racism exists and is perpetuated through legal policy and systems that oppress. Why would we not want our children to know the true history of America’s complex past?

The groups pushing against the teaching of racism and true American history in schools fear that white children will be hurt by it. But the ideals of the American constitution are about liberation and freedoms, and teaching that none of us are free until all of us are free of oppression is critical.

We should want our children to be aware of the world they live in. Exploitative and deeply-entrenched policies that eliminate the teaching of critical race theory and limit culturally-responsive education in our schools will continue to marginalize Black and brown communities. This is not only detrimental for the development of young students of color, but white students as well.

Protecting and expanding the teaching of critical race theory in our public schools will help to ensure that we do not have insular, nationalistic children without a worldly perspective.

Our public education should not work for some, it should work for all.

That means giving the opportunity to those that have been historically underrepresented to lift up their history and heritage, and show how the American dream worked for some, but not all. It means tackling the ideas behind existing policies and systems that give an unfair advantage to some while punishing others. The way our education system has been delivered has not worked for many, myself included. Why would anyone tolerate more of the same? Maybe those fighting against critical race theory should tolerate our desire for something better.

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