Police Violence, Covid-19 and History: It Matters Now More Than Ever
We teach students about their oppression, but we don’t teach them how their ancestors resisted. ~Dr. Bettina Love
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered in the midst of a global pandemic that continues to disproportionately impact Blacks, Latinos, and other communities of color. For days, Black students across America were bombarded with media images of what equated to a modern-day lynching. Three months later, Kenosha, Wisconsin has now erupted into days of protests following the shooting of Jacob Blake multiple times in the back by police officers. To exacerbate this moment, many of our nation’s students have grown up with hashtags such as #justicefortamirrice and #justiceforbreonna that reflect the harsh reality of Black men, women, and children who have lost their lives at the hands of police. Many of these students remain isolated from everyday routines school provides. These students will be returning to school searching for answers and safe spaces to process a world where safety can be compromised for them and those who look like them.
How do we best meet the social-emotional needs of particularly Black students disproportionately impacted by police violence in the midst of Covid-19? While there has been a much-needed focus on students’ social-emotional health, social-emotional learning taught in the absence of a larger sociopolitical context can actually harm students of color by amplifying feelings of helplessness and victimhood.
As an educator, my role includes assisting students in understanding current events by providing a space for reflection, analysis, and critical thinking. I firmly believe this is best accomplished by examining curriculum and texts that provide a lens for understanding our world. We should absolutely attend to the social-emotional needs of our students but SEL initiatives in the absence of ongoing, embedded learning about the history behind race relations in America run the risk of creating more harm by upholding damaging narratives around Black students as victims of trauma and ongoing violence. “Students need spaces to name, interrogate, resist, agitate, and work toward social change.” How should this be addressed?
Schools and teachers should reevaluate how history is being taught in their classrooms. The Southern Poverty Law Center graded the 50 states on how well public schools taught civil rights and found that twenty states received a failing grade, with five states having no mention of civil rights in state standards. In the context of current, ongoing protests for racial justice, it is critical that schools present an accurate picture of history to help all students better understand their classmates’ experiences and contributions while simultaneously working to mitigate the effects of widespread ignorance and racism embedded in our culture.
How schools across the nation deal with teaching history varies from state to state since there are no national standards. For example, Nevada’s Standards state that students should be able to analyze the way in which Native, European, and African cultures were impacted by conflict and compromise in our nation’s early history. The inclusion of race, power, and identity can be found throughout the state standards, which is a notable starting point.
However, how schools actually implement history in our classrooms is an entirely different story. We have the responsibility to present an accurate, holistic portrayal of American History, which includes tackling difficult concepts such as violence and outright genocide against America’s own citizens. There are numerous free resources available to schools that will help in teaching these complex and often uncomfortable conversations thoughtfully such as Teaching Tolerance, Facing History, Smithsonian History’s Explorer, and Zinn Education Project.
Teaching history accurately can help students understand and analyze current events and the world around them. I can teach students how police forces began as slave patrols and help students understand how this continues to impact interactions between Black Americans and police. I can teach the history of student activism during the Civil Right Era, where students as young as 12 years old were integral in the fight for issues such as voting and desegregation. This knowledge can help to combat the feelings of helplessness that students may be experiencing and instead empower them by embracing the power of students’ voice, activism, and resistance. It can also help boost student achievement by tapping into the cultural assets of students of color. Perhaps most important, true historic literacy avoids the danger of teaching a single story and continually feeding into harmful stereotypes that continually promote racist narratives.
Students across our nation already dealing with the aftermath of nationwide school closures are now struggling to process complex concepts such as race and police brutality in the midst of ongoing protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. The absence of an accurate historical lens in which to process current events is a mistake we can no longer afford to make. Classrooms should be a place to foster crucial conversations that help students confront complex topics such as inequity, anger, and injustice. Teaching true history is critical in helping to spark student agency, civic involvement, and ultimately, social change. Failing to teach history, especially in the midst of ongoing civil unrest, would be a disservice to our students and ourselves as a nation, as we grapple with topics that will impact every single one of us for years to come.
Dr. Tracy Edwards teaches grade 5 in Las Vegas, NV. She is also a curriculum consultant and 2019–20 TeachPlus Educational Policy Fellow.