We Need a Civic Education Evolution to Address Racial Injustice

July 31, 2020

My daughters and I are currently reading the works of James Baldwin. During our family read-aloud of “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation”, we discussed the work required of Americans – Black, white, and non-black of color. We discussed how systems of inequity serve to dehumanize Black and other marginalized people and how a blind eye to injustice strips all people of their humanity. We discussed that we must begin to acknowledge the contributions made by marginalized groups in the building of this mighty nation and acknowledge whose backs our foundation was built upon. This requires a societal reprogramming and an evolution of our collective ideals and values. But the most promising piece we took away from Baldwin’s essay was the reassurance that “we can make America what America must become.”

Over the past six months, there has been an increased awareness among white Americans that many people in our country experience inequities in the systems that were originally designed to build community and keep people well. As iCivics’ Director of Social Engagement, part of my job is to listen. Through many conversations, panels, and check-ins I've attended, I’ve recognized a range of sentiments coming from educators, students, parents, civic leaders, and stakeholders. I’ve heard both professionally and personally an incredible outcry of pain and anger. Simply, people no longer feel that they are protected and safe in this country. And in other conversations I’ve been asked, “How did we get here?”; “How did I not notice?”; and “What can we do to make this better?” Civic actors from all backgrounds and walks of life are searching for answers to how to make this better.

One thing is very evident to me: we can no longer turn a blind eye to the injustices our neighbors experience. Increasing civil unrest, the prevalence of false information, and the continued gridlock and partisanship in government continue to chip away at our democracy. We have guides to help us right now, but I’m not confident we have the skills to dig deep into the necessary anti-racist, equity-focused work now required of us. This isn’t restoration work. It isn’t rebuilding work. This is a process of evolution – the evolution of human relationships, the evolution of how we envision the role of government in the lives of people, the evolution of how we value Black, Indigenous, and non-black people of color. We have the tools enshrined in our founding documents and democratic systems. But the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are merely pieces of parchment, powerless unless people breathe life into them by challenging each other to make the words they comprise true for all people, everywhere, at all times moving forward.

I recently participated in a two-day online event hosted by CSIS, Civics as a National Security Imperative: Addressing Racial Injustice, with leading civics and racial justice experts. The first day of the event focused on the specific ways in which domestic issues of race and inequality also have a broader impact on our national security. On the second day, I joined Danielle Allen (Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard), Shawn Healy (Robert R. McCormick Foundation), and Andrew Wilkes (Generation Citizen) in a discussion on how civics and civic engagement can address racial injustice and build societal resilience. It was quite clear from the discussion that civic education is part of the solution to solving the injustices in our society; building the social fabric of our nation through cross-cultural and cross-racial coalitions; restoring trust in our democratic principles; and equipping individuals with the knowledge and skills necessary for justice-oriented civic work.

You can watch the panel here:

There’s a lot of work ahead for the field of civic education (content providers, programmers, funders, and other stakeholders). With civic education, we want to ensure that we empower disenfranchised students – Black and non-black students of color, students living in low-income communities, and students living in civic deserts. We also want to make sure that white students learn accurate histories and the skills needed to stand on the side of justice and accept the contributions and input of others who are not like them. We cannot lean on knowledge or empowerment-centered civic education alone to solve our social ills. Civics must teach the combination of knowledge, dispositions, and skills with an equity and justice lens. In fact, the work required of the civic education field is two-fold. As we ensure that students learn civics, we also engage in the necessary work through the CivXNow Coalition, the national Educating for American Democracy project, and in other civic spaces, to change the ecosystems so that as these newly empowered voices participate – so that they are welcomed into the political landscape as necessary for the functioning of a healthy democracy.
In our statement on racial justice, iCivics Executive Director, Louise Dubé states:

The power of civic education is that we educate young people about how we can make change and come together for the common good. We teach the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to solve civic issues by engaging across differences. With respect, empathy, and sensitivity, we can work together to find solutions.

We will not bring forth racial justice overnight. We’ve got a long road ahead, but it is clear that an evolved form of civics is a necessary tool for that work.

Written By Amber Coleman-Mortley
Amber Coleman-Mortley is the Director of Social Engagement at iCivics. She’s a former teacher and varsity coach and a parent blogger. She makes her own kombucha and makes her girls run a mile every morning. Follow her on Twitter at @momofallcapes.

Read our commitment to teaching about racism in civic education.