It’s been more than a month since a Tennessee school board voted to dismiss a teacher accused of racism for assigning his contemporary issues students content some parents and administrators deemed inappropriate. But Matthew Hawn’s story, bolstered by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones who shared it in a tweet on Saturday, is now starting to attract wider interest on social media as part of a larger conversation about whether critical race theory should be taught in schools.
The framework suggests that the U.S. legal system and laws that govern this nation are rooted in race and racism. That obviously isn’t sitting well with Republicans using misunderstandings about critical race theory as a means to further whitewash history instruction in public schools. Teachers like Hawn are already starting to be treated as scapegoats as a result of a mainly political conversation.
Kevin McCarthy, minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, formed his mouth to say in an interview with BlazeTV host Dave Rubin: “Critical Race Theory goes against everything Martin Luther King has ever told us, don't judge us by the color of our skin, and now they're embracing it. Right, they're going backwards."
King’s actual words in an NBC interview in 1967: "And when white Americans tell the negro to lift himself by his own bootstraps, they don't look over the legacy of slavery and segregation." Dr. King called it a "cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps." I don’t presume to know what the great civil rights leader would have had to say about critical race theory, but he has very much so recognized the effects of slavery on the freed Black person’s experience in this country.
Rydell Harrison, a Connecticut superintendent, told NBC News he has had enough of the attacks. Harrison, a rare leader in the mostly white Easton, Redding, and Region 9 district, responded to demands to increase diversity efforts after George Floyd's murder by actually increasing diversity efforts. But following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January, sentiments about his work changed. Harrison, the district's first Black superintendent, was deemed an "activist," the other scarlet letter among conservatives.
The Nonpartisan Action for a Better Redding, a conservative nonprofit, questioned Harrison’s leadership in a mailer to community members that featured a Facebook post from the superintendent. "I thought I had no words ... but I found a few," Harrison said in the post. "Trump is not the only person who should take responsibility for today's events. Please search your soul and ask if your words, your silence, your actions or your inaction helped to pave the way for confederate flags to be waved in our nation's Capitol.
“If YOU retweeted his foolishness, shouted 'lock her up', jumped on board with his 'sleepy Joe' narrative, countered with all lives matter, ignored the normalization of racism and sexism, co-signed unfounded conspiracy theories, or chose to 'stand back and stand by, DO NOT ACT SURPRISED! You are a co-conspirator who has sided with domestic terrorism. Our young people need each one of us to do better. DECENCY must by the first step towards being GREAT."
I find Harrison’s words refreshing, but the conservative group wrote in its mailer in response:
“Unfortunately the bitter fruits of Critical Race Theory have come to Redding and Easton. But public schools are paid for by families on all degrees of the political spectrum, and no parent should fear that his or her child is being politically influenced or victimized by one-sided partisanship, as blatantly expressed in his Facebook post. A Superintendent should never make public such socially threatening language. All responsible school staff should guarantee such thinking will never infect the classroom, or school atmosphere and curriculum. If anyone in town feels that their family or child has been emotionally damaged by personally held political, and religious beliefs on the part of inadequately trained school employees, who should never express their personal philosophies, please contact NABR (firstname.lastname@example.org) for community support.”
Harrison announced he would resign the end of June. “People have asked me, ‘Was it one flyer too many?’ And it wasn’t just this one thing,” he said in a Facebook post. “It was the collection of all of these pieces and the emotional and personal toll to be a Black man doing this work and facing very blatant attacks left and right.”
Four administrators in Southlake, Texas, similarly left the Carroll Independent School District after facing criticism for implementing a plan to address racial discrimination. The only Black, female administrator in Eureka, Missouri's Rockwood School District also resigned her position as diversity coordinator facing threats of violence, NBC News reported. “This is going to cause an exodus among an already scarce recruiting field in education,” Kumar Rashad, a Kentucky math teacher and union leader, told the news network. “People aren't entering the field as much as they were, and now we have this to chase them away.”
Counted as his original sin: Hawn, who was tenured in the Sullivan County School District since 2008, assigned students to read Black author Ta-Nehisi Coates' “The First White President.” In the piece Coates writes: “It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them.” Hawn was issued a letter of reprimand and later targeted again for showing his students a spoken word poem by author Kyla Jenee Lacey entitled "White Privilege," WJHL reported.
District administrators reportedly didn't believe terms used in the video were appropriate for high school students, so the Sullivan County Board of Education voted 6-1 that charges of dismissal against the teacher were warranted. Some 50 people were expected to attend the school board meeting deciding Hawn's fate to advocate for the teacher.
During the meeting, Director of Schools David Cox tried to refute claims that he is a racist. “There has been a lot of talk online that accuses me of moving to dismiss Mr. Hawn because he taught anti-racism lessons,” Cox said. “Let me be perfectly clear. Sullivan County Schools, and I in no way condone racism of any county. We have encouraged all of our teachers, including Mr. Hawn, to promote an environment welcoming to all students of all races of all backgrounds.” He also claimed the charges weren't a result of the video being about white privilege.
“In the charges I just read aloud in fact, I read that appropriate discussions around concepts like white privilege remain perfectly appropriate for a high school class, like contemporary issues,” Cox said. “These charges of dismissal about Mr. Hawn refusing to provide his students with access to varying points of view, which is required under Tennessee law. And these charges are about Mr. Hawn, again, assigning inappropriate materials to his students.”
The board's approval of dismissal charges means Hawn has 30 days to request a hearing before an "impartial hearing officer," according to a letter correspondence dated May 10, 2021, that WJHL obtained. It was signed by Cox and addressed to Hawn. Cox said in the letter that Hawn had been suspended without pay and status and would remain suspended through the process. In the actual charges of dismissal, Hawn is accused of "insubordination" and "repeated unprofessional conduct."
“I am telling you all: We are in dangerous times,” Hannah-Jones, the author of “The 1619 Project” tweeted with a link to an article about Hawn. Hannah-Jones has been targeted with a concentrated effort to oppose her tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after being offered the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the university she attended. She opted to instead take a position with Howard University, a historically Black institution in Washington D.C., alongside Coates and bring some $20 million in promised grant funding with her.
“I had proven everything I felt I needed to prove,” Hannah-Jones told NC Policy Watch. “I got a lot of clarity. I decided I was going to go to a historically Black college, to a place that was built for us, for Black uplift.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a law in May allowing Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to hold funds from schools that teach specific aspects of "racism, sexism, bias, and other social issues," the education reporting site Chalkbeat Tennessee reported. Hannah-Jones and educators like her have been targeted in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the reckoning in policing protesters demanded throughout the nation. Republicans have attempted to demonize all aspects of the protest movement, which includes better education on the effects of slavery and racism in public schools.
“What has been reported is that there was a great deal of political interference by conservatives who don’t like the work that I’ve done, particularly ‘The 1619 Project,’ and also by the powerful donor who gave the largest donation in the 70-year history of the journalism school,” Hannah-Jones told journalist Gayle King on CBS This Morning. “So it’s pretty clear that my tenure was not taken up because of political opposition, because of discriminatory views against my viewpoint, and I believe my race and my gender.”
Hannah-Jones will instead become the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University. “It was embarrassing to be the first person to be denied tenure,” she said of her alma mater. “It was embarrassing, and I didn’t want this to become a public scandal.”
Educating our children on Black history never should be framed as a matter of scandal.
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