Our Commitment to Teaching about Racism in Civic Education

JUNE 03, 2020

To grasp the true weight of the image of a White police officer’s knee crushing the life out of a Black man handcuffed on the Minneapolis pavement – and then the intensity and scale of the protests that have erupted on streets across our country – one must fully grasp this nation’s racial history. 

George Floyd's murder has moved people of every race, creed, and political ideology. To better understand why, we can dig deeper into the context of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia only a few months before George Floyd was killed. Glynn County, where Arbery was killed, has a painful legacy of violence against Black men. Perhaps most spectacular was the massacre of eight prisoners at Anguilla Prison Camp in 1947, a crime for which no public official was ever punished.

It’s part of our country’s truth, that such violence has occurred throughout our history, beginning with the earliest days of slavery. George Floyd is just the latest victim. 

Our institutions have not only failed to protect Black and Brown people, but have too often made them targets by some of the very people whom we have entrusted to protect our lives. The anger, chaos, and pain we’re seeing on display in every corner of our country should be no surprise. We let our institutions fail by not rooting out the implicit bias that lay within them. 

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.

As we teach students about the institutions that make our constitutional democracy run, iCivics is committed to unveiling the larger context around institutional racism. We do not have all of the answers, but we know that we must take more time and skill in telling the stories that all too often are kept out of classrooms. We know that this is a critical component of creating a better, more effective civic education in K-12 schools. We know that civic education must be transparent and explicit about racism if we want young people to engage civically as partners going forward.

We at iCivics believe in our democratic systems and institutions. We believe that lasting progress can only be made with and through our institutions. We believe in the promise of our unique experiment in self governance. Yet we also recognize that our institutions will corrode when we do not hold them accountable. When that happens, we need to speak the truth, to demand that the values of justice be restored to the core of their work, whether that be with the police, the criminal justice system or any other civic establishment. We cannot allow them to ignore the people they represent.

In July 2019, the iCivics team traveled to Montgomery, Alabama for a three-day retreat to develop our internal and external diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. There, we visited the Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, informally known as the National Lynching Memorial. We engaged in honest reflection and confronted our country's history at these powerful memorials. And we returned home with a sense of urgency and dedication to this work of providing better context to the lessons about democracy and the history that we teach. 

The events of the past days show just how urgent this work is. 

All of us need to take personal and institutional action about this untenable injustice. My hope is that we will all join together to show solidarity, and demonstrate a commitment to racial justice and equity.

We must strive to find ways to organize and forge concrete paths to restore justice for only then will we heal. Clearly, we are a long way from that today. As an educational organization, this underscores the importance of our work. Our country cannot move forward until all members of society understand our complicated history, and we cannot truly pursue change until we all understand the values which our institutions were created to uphold – so that we can transform the anger we feel into productive action. 

Our institutions, including our educational system, can rise to the challenge if we demand it. And that we must do. We must commit to a more perfect teaching today if we are to realize the more perfect union of tomorrow.  

Written by Louise Dubé, Executive Director, iCivics