Warning Signs: How the Fight for Our Schools is the Fight for Our Lives

Our guest author is Kristin Penner, a Senior Research Analyst at the African American Policy Forum (AAPF).

Public education has always been a driver of democracy and anti-racism — that’s why segregationists fought so hard against Brown v. Board of Education and integration in the Civil Rights Era and why the "war on woke" is pursuing a segregation of ideas through bans of books, ideas, and anti-racist instruction. Attacks on democracy and the attacks on racially inclusive and LGBTQ-inclusive teaching, books, and scholarship unfolding across the country today are fruits of the same poisonous tree. The “war on woke” seeks to silence what can be said, what stories we are allowed to know, and whose histories we may share. The so-called “war on woke” is using the power of law and regulations to bully thoughtful educators away from honest teaching of accurate curricula. It aims to erase the very possibility of an inclusive story of our country. It has been highly successful. And we are all at risk. The threat to our ability to teach a fuller history is a threat to our democracy itself. This is not a drill. Our freedom to live in a fully realized multiracial democracy depends on our freedom to learn the full story of who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.

Educators, parents, and students are grappling with a growing and powerful movement to restrict, and in many cases censor, what is being taught in schools across the United States. This faction fuels hate-filled rhetoric and violence that deprives children of safe and inclusive public education. What we are seeing today – in communities, legislatures, and the media – reflects what we witnessed in Europe in the years leading up to World War II. Considering the implications of events in the last several years, democracy yielding to fascism yet again is a dangerously real possibility on U.S. soil.

Warning signs such as scapegoating, dangerous speech, past group violence, preparation, and armed conflict reflect phenomena we have witnessed in the United States, but today with exceptional fervor. Identified initially from historical patterns leading to mass atrocity, these warning signs may also apply to efforts designed to undermine democracy by impinging on a child’s human right to an education. To ignore, dismiss, or deflect such signs poses a clear and present threat to the stewardship of a responsibly educated citizenry and, therefore, to democracy in the United States.

A Blueprint for Sweeping Authoritarian Change: Project 2025
If the broad scope of the assault on antiracist and LGBTQ+-inclusive education wasn’t already frightening enough, the Heritage Foundation and 100 right-wing organizations have drafted a sweeping blueprint for a conservative administration titled Project 2025, a plan to impose their regressive agenda throughout the federal government. As described in the over 900-page “Mandate for Leadership,” a “whole of government” priority would be “deleting the terms sexual orientation and gender identity (‘SOGI’), diversity, equity and inclusion (‘DEI’), gender, gender equality, gender equity, gender awareness, gender-sensitive, abortion, reproductive health, reproductive rights…out of every federal rule, agency regulation, contract, grant, regulation and piece of legislation that exists,” as noted by The Nation.

Duke Professor Nancy MacLean warns, “If its counsel is adopted, no one in government will be allowed to talk about or collect data on race, gender, or “sexual orientation.” Project 2025’s “extreme agenda represents a threat to democracy, civil rights, the climate, and more” and “focuses on packing the next GOP administration with extreme loyalists,” according to Media Matters’ Guide to Project 2025. Perhaps even more insidious, however, is the rhetoric employed in Project 2025 that is emblematic of authoritarian propaganda. As Stop the Coup 2025, describes it: “This is the basic three-step propaganda strategy of autocracy: pit groups of people against each other; mark vulnerable groups as people to be hated, feared, and seen as a threat to the community; and finally, criminalize the members of those groups.”

Sounding the Alarm: The Time to Take Action is Now
Facing this looming threat, it’s important to remember how we got to this point. Attacks on CRT didn’t end with CRT. The same backlash infrastructure that fast tracked copycat legislation and mobilized dark money-funded non-profits against CRT had the flexibility to use that momentum to roll on to intensify and expand attacks on trans youth and launch legislative attacks on teaching about LGBTQ+ identities. Parallel lines of attack on Black books, knowledge and scholarship, DEI initiatives, affirmative action, trans youth, LGBTQ-inclusive education policies, reproductive rights, environmental justice, and voting rights are coordinated by the same think tanks and networks that are amply funded by the same dark money.

If all of these are part of one agenda, should our resistance efforts be segmented? Why are we not one unified movement fighting together for the people who will suffer most under these legislative and legal attacks: Black and brown, queer and trans, low-income young people? While we are alarmed about the path we're on, there are steps we can all take to stop this U-turn on racial and social justice, on human rights, and on our democracy. Action takes many forms, and every action counts.

One of the ways in which we are taking action at the Freedom to Learn network and Right to Learn coalition is by supporting a National Day of Action on May 3rd which will be the start of a new Freedom Summer. On May 3rd, we will convene at 10:45am for a rally at the Supreme Court that uplifts the dangers to racial justice, democracy and education from legislations and policies that seek to undermine truthful education and democratic participation. The event will symbolically be held in front of the Supreme Court to uplift the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which recognized the essential connection between education, racial justice and democracy as we face contemporary attempts to undermine all of those ideals. Speakers at that event will include Kimberlé Crenshaw, Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum; Damon Hewitt, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Melanie L. Campbell and DeMareo Cooper, Co-Executive Director, Center for Popular Democracy.

The Freedom to Learn Day of Action will launch “Freedom Summer 2024,” a series of events, convenings, teach-ins and other activities sponsored by multiple partners. The day is a moment for leading civil rights, human rights, and social justice organizations to partner with democracy’s stakeholders to send a clear message to the country that there will be No U-Turn on Racial Justice! For more information about the Freedom Summer and how you can support it in Washington D.C. on May 3rd, please visit www.freedomtolearn.net or email us at info@freedomtolearn.net. You can also follow the African American Policy Forum here