AUSTIN, Texas - Juneteenth recently became a national holiday to observe the end of slavery. Yet some states, including Texas, are making moves to restrict how teachers can talk about race and current events in public schools. How can teachers explain Juneteenth without fear of violating critical race theory restrictions?
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas — two months after the Confederacy had surrendered. That was also about 2.5 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Southern states.
Juneteenth is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. It is a historical event that teachers will cover in history classes. Yet, how will teachers teach the importance behind the holiday if there are laws that limit how they talk about race and current events in public schools?
This is where the paradox with restricting critical race theory comes in.
Critical race theory, which according to Encyclopedia Britannica dates back to 1989, revolves around the idea that racism is a systemic issue and that institutions uphold racial disparities. Critics claim that critical race theory threatens to divide the country and shames White counterparts in an act of discrimination. However, the theory doesn’t focus on individuals but rather on how racial biases intersect with American systems.
Idaho Rep. Ron Nate (R) believes that under critical race theory explorers are viewed as "oppressors, colonists" instead of "people who were risking their lives going across the oceans with their dreams to find new lands."
Idaho was one of the few states that passed a bill prohibiting critical race theory from being taught in classrooms. Many students protested the bill at the state capitol building. "I really feel they are trying to silence a lot of history that puts the United States in a bad light," said Selina Sanchez, a college student who attended the protest. "I feel we need to learn all sides of history."
Texas is another state that has passed legislation that limits how teachers can talk about race and current events in public schools. It was also the last state to set slaves free, which birthed the holiday of Juneteenth.
On June 15, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 3979, which says teachers shouldn't discuss current events, and if they do, they must explore them without giving "deference to any one perspective."
"House Bill 3979 is a strong move to abolish critical race theory in Texas, but more must be done," Abbott said in a statement. "The issue will be added to a special session agenda."
While Abbott and many of the other critics of critical race theory see the philosophy as a divide, supporters recognize how discussing systematic racism is a hard, but necessary conversation.
"Our country needs to acknowledge its history of systemic racism and reckon with present-day impacts of racial discrimination — this includes being able to teach and talk about these concepts in our schools," the ACLU wrote.
Advocates say America’s history is intertwined with race and injustice and linked to present-day, current events. They argue that it is impossible for teachers and historians to teach this history without having that difficult dialogue with students.
"There is this misunderstanding that the past is walled off from the present by the bill’s authors," said Trinidad Gonzales, a history professor and assistant chair of the dual enrollment program at South Texas College. "It is the opposite: The present and past are interconnected. That is history. The bill’s authors are obviously not historians."
The history behind Juneteenth is important to Black communities and the implementation of legislation banning critical race theory puts that history in jeopardy if students can’t thoroughly learn about it.
While many supporters are delighted that Juneteenth is getting national recognition, they say it is imperative that people remember America still has a long way to go in addressing racial disparities. Underrepresented communities are having their voting rights restricted, experiencing systemic racism in health care, education, housing, and in many other areas of the American economy.