Iowa’s Backlash Against Teaching Truth

Photo illustration by Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

“History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.”
— Michel-Rolph Trouillot

In Iowa City before the Civil War, abolitionist John Brown and his band once had to flee in the predawn hours because of looming threats of a pro-slavery mob. Now, in Iowa and more than a dozen other states, lawmakers are threatening educators’ ability to name the white supremacy that motivated that angry mob and still lives today. White supremacy today rarely looks like an angry mob, but its effects are no less real and devastating. As Iowa Public Radio reported in December, “The racial disparities in Iowa’s prisons are more extreme than almost anywhere else in the country.” Michelle Alexander has documented how today’s prison industrial complex is but one of many institutions and systems that functionally serve to perpetuate white supremacy. Since the gains of the classic civil rights movement forced white Americans to reckon with and address the systemic nature of racism and oppression, there have been efforts to reduce racism to individual acts of overt bigotry. This legislation might be accurately cast as part of this backlash, orchestrated through national efforts which effectively flatten what racism and systemic oppression are, and limit our society’s ability to meaningfully advance equity.

These new laws have been condemned by a consortium of over 50 professional organizations, including the American Historical Association and the National Council of Social Studies. This consortium “deplores the intent of these bills to foment confusion and have a chilling effect on teachers.” They denounce the bills for their “thinly veiled attempts to place limits on a curriculum which fosters a comprehensive and critical look at our own history from a variety of perspectives.” In a similar statement, the ACLU acknowledged this legislation is a “disservice to all students and to society” in that it not only takes society backwards regarding necessary work on systemic issues but “rob[s] young people of an inclusive education.” Iowa’s chapter of the ACLU was equally pointed, noting that the state’s law “is designed to stop any conversation about the fact that racism exists at a systemic level” and “the incoherence and vagueness is certainly the point. Like the executive order that it is based on, this law aims to totally shut down discussions about racial and gender equity. It’s the worst kind of lawmaking, because it is written to confuse and scare, so that government employees and contractors will simply avoid the topics of racism and sexism altogether in order to avoid violating this law.”

Iowa’s House File 802 did just this even before it was signed into law. Faculty at Iowa State University had worked for nearly a year to draft more nuanced requirements to their required diversity coursework, so that it might reflect the most cutting edge and accurate scholarship. Fear that these new requirements might run afoul of HF 802’s ban on exploring the systemic nature of racism and oppression caused the university to indefinitely shelve the scholars’ recommendations. The 2021-22 school year hasn’t yet started and HF 802 is already functioning as intended.

As historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote decades ago, it is the ongoing systemic power relations, biases, and silences which we must address if we want history to serve as a pathway to critical thinking and towards the creation of a more just world. “To condemn slavery alone is the easy way out,” he wrote, adding that “what needs to be denounced here to restore authenticity is much less slavery than the racist present within which representations of slavery are produced.” HF 802 restricts educators’ ability to heed Trouillot’s call.

It is not just the incoherence of Iowa’s law but its counterfactual claims that concern educators. Despite evidence to the contrary, the law states systemic racism isn’t integral to our state and nation, that people’s socialized identities don’t leave them unconsciously sympathetic to ideologies like white supremacy, and that meritocracy is real and isn’t used to support racism and other oppressions. It also seeks to criminalize topics which make people feel uncomfortable and implicated in oppression, a sometimes necessary part of learning if we hope for students to become justice-oriented citizens.

Educators are mobilizing both through and despite professional organizations. The Iowa State Education Association, as limited as its powers are, has decried the law, acknowledging, “What a good teacher knows is that we cannot just avoid or lie our way through challenges.” The Iowa Council of Teachers of English is currently working with the national organization to develop supports for educators in navigating the law. Rank and file educators are also pledging to teach the truth to students, despite the law’s intent to stifle teaching hard history.

In May, I emailed the current political advocacy director of the Iowa Council of Social Studies asking what educators could do and what statements or guidance the ICSS planned to provide. He initially defined any advocacy around the bill as a partisan issue. Echoing the politicians who drafted it, he wrote: “In short, the goal of the bill is stop [sic] the teaching or promotion of certain racial or gender agendas. Today [May 16], I was told that the DOE will be providing guidance instructions. From what I have discovered so far, as long as you are teaching good history providing a non-biased approach that does not promote or ‘blame’ one group, you will not be impacted whatsoever.” After the National Council of Social Studies and other non-partisan education advocacy groups began condemning laws like HF 802, the ICSS political advocacy director responded to an email seeking clarification, noting he was initially passing along information from politicians, that there would be more forthcoming from the ICSS, and that his response was “not reflective of my or the ICSS views, just the information available at the time.”

As an educator, I worry that teaching chattel slavery without centering blame on white supremacy (an ideology and process primarily advanced by white people) is detrimental to student understanding. Similarly, it is not clear what is meant by “racial or gender agendas.” History, as taught in K-12 US schools, typically privileges the perspectives of dominant groups. In this age of color-blind racism, teaching broader, more accurate history that challenges mythologized narratives and brings to light inequitable power relations is often dismissed as teaching a particular racial or gender agenda. This is reminiscent of the so-called “gay agenda” — the frame used to claim advocacy for nondiscrimination is somehow promoting a “gay agenda.”

The ICSS on Tuesday released a 2021 Legislative Review that does not mention HF 802 but does stress that the organization promotes “civic engagement and views on all sides.” The organization also emailed to members a “Response to Recent Legislation” that highlights the nonpartisan nature of the organization. It encouraged waiting for guidance from the Iowa Department of Education, and in the meantime noted it would “monitor the situation, communicate the effects of current legislation to decision-makers, and provide updates” to its members. Its final note, encouraging “educators and individuals to communicate with their state legislators,” suggests the organization sees itself as currently unable to otherwise address this bill or others, and unable to provide more specific supports for educators at this time.

The critiques of the law are varied, but the best ones are often from nonpartisan organizations and recognize that laws like this stifle education around systemic oppression and civic responsibility. The founder of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, for example, recently released excerpts of textbooks approved by similar legislation in Louisiana. Reading them we see a clear ahistorical revival of the Lost Cause myth with Confederates referred to as patriots, and sympathy implied more for slavers than the enslaved. These, like all texts, curriculum, and pedagogy, have inherent bias. Echoing Trouillot, who wrote that history itself is a bundle of silences, and that these silences can speak to the particular biases of a given historical narrative, education scholar Bettina Love recently tweeted, “If you say nothing about racism in your classroom, you are still teaching about racism.”

What can Iowa expect moving forward? In Virginia, similar astroturf legislation has emboldened what James Baldwin called the criminal innocence of whiteness to disrupt school boards and educators’ ability to teach for democracy and justice. As I write this, Iowa’s governor was asked, when speaking near Black Hawk Lake, whether the narratives about Black Hawk could be taught in Iowa public schools. Black Hawk, whose dilapidated grave is a few miles from my school here in southeast Iowa, was a Sauk leader now most famous for his autobiography and for leading the Black Hawk War. He resisted colonization despite broken treaties, land theft, and centuries of wanton violence against his community. As the Carroll Times Herald reported, “The governor says teachers should offer ‘both sides’ of the destruction of Native American life in Iowa, a genocide by the hands of European settlers.”

To say “both sides” regarding the multisided, complex, and tragic historical record of colonization is more than a logical fallacy known as false equivalence. In the context of US genocide, it is fairly horrific to hold colonization, motivated by a white supremacist Manifest Destiny, as an equal counterpart to Indigenous resistance to colonization. If this is what HF 802 is meant to do, it absolves an existent white supremacy and disables children from understanding themselves or their potential to create a better world.

Teachers of conscience recognize that we owe it to our students and ourselves to “excavate” our actual history. To do this is challenging and, especially in Iowa, requires a nuanced approach sensitive to our students’ identity and needs. It requires an understanding of history’s shaping of the present, of power, of bias, of identity, of institutions and systems, and of social roles. When it comes to the mountains of systemic oppression that exist today, “You have to see the shape of the mountain before you begin to climb over it.”