White Educator Removed from Teaching Black History Course
|thenorthstar||Mar 17, 2019|
A white Michigan high school social studies teacher was removed from his class after complaints about his African American history syllabus. While this incident may read like a story about insensitivity and thinly-veiled racism at first glance, it reflects a more complicated perspective of teaching, race, and accountability.
Scott Craig has taught social studies for over 30 years in the Birmingham, Michigan area and his elective course on African American history at Groves High School focuses on the eras of enslavement to Civil War, reconstruction and Jim Crow segregation, the 20th century fight for Civil Rights, and “the position and treatment of African Americans in modern America.” To further deconstruct these themes, Craig’s students are required to watch movies such as Boyz n the Hood and Do the Right Thing, as well as the documentary Inside Bloods and Crips; his reading list includes Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and works by Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass.
“Students will be exposed to readings and films that have distinct points of view. One skill we will work on is recognizing and evaluating point of view. Some of the readings will contradict each other, and students will have to wrestle with differentiating and deciding which POV is most valid,” Craig wrote in his syllabus.
Yet, an op-ed from a local Black writer and parent of a Groves High student criticized Craig’s class as a “miseducation,” and noted that Michigan high school social studies standards lack “what students need to know about African American history post-Civil Rights Movement.” The writer, Chastity Pratt Dawsey, alleged that students had heard Craig use the n-word in recounting “dialogue from a racial incident he had witnessed.” She also noted that Craig’s course did not devote enough attention to the accomplishments of African Americans.
Although this issue only recently gained national attention, Craig was removed from the class and replaced by another teacher in December. On February 11, several days before Dawsey’s article, Birmingham Public Schools Superintendent Mark Dziatczak sent a letter to parents expressing his “deep disappointment.” “We recognize that the resources listed in the course pilot syllabus failed to meet the depth and breadth of African American history. The syllabus…should never have reached our students’ desks,” Dziatczak wrote.
“I created the course because I saw a need,” Craig countered in an op-ed. “Most white students in Birmingham have little understanding about the real history and conditions faced by African Americans. Many of our Black students are truly interested in learning more about their history.”
During a board of education meeting on February 26, Craig said his removal had sent “a chill down [teachers’] spine,” who did not feel supported by the district. Yet the issue of a white educator teaching Black history, and the specific materials used in Craig’s class, are part of a larger issue regarding social studies education in Michigan and throughout the country.
“The way history courses go after Reconstruction, African Americans just sort of disappear until Rosa Parks and Brown v. Board of Education. You have an 80-90 year gap where regular books don’t tell you much,” Craig told The North Star, adding that the state requires just two years of American history. “As much as possible, African Americans need to be rolled in and included in ‘regular’ American history. I think there really is a place to teach a separate course where you can get into way more depth, and get into debates within the African American community.”
Craig pointed to the ideological differences between Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Because his course focused exclusively on Black history, he had the class time to teach about each leader’s philosophy, assign group research, and then host a debate where each student would argue in favor of one ideology. “They can’t do that in the regular American history class; there’s just not enough time,” he said.
Although everyone involved agrees on the need for the histories of marginalized people — including Latin, Native, and feminist histories — to be better included in curriculum, several parents and administrators took issue with the way Craig presented that history. The use of John Singelton’s 1991 drama Boyz n the Hood caught much ire. “If it’s a history course, I’m always curious why we’d use a fiction piece when there are plenty of firsthand accounts, but I understand that film is a good way to keep students engaged,” said Teaching While White Co-founder Jenna Chandler-Ward, who does not know Scott Craig. “I rarely find that it’s useful to decide what’s good or bad for people to teach. The critical questions are why is this being taught, what are the objectives, what is the critical thinking we hope will happen using this text.”
Craig said his guiding question surrounding the lesson that used Boyz was “Why African Americans hadn’t made more progress, given legal discrimination and segregation was banned in the ‘60s.” He cited the film’s varied characters and motivations, depictions of systemic violence that kept Black people marginalized, and discussions of gentrification from Laurence Fishburne’s character. “I think it’s a good film for kids because it’s about making choices, and they identify with characters more than a nonfiction text.”
The distaste for the use of the film may stem from deeply held, though perhaps unrecognized, social and cultural beliefs. Groves High School (GHS) is in the affluent Birmingham Public Schools (BPS) district, and over the past 10 years or so, more educated, middle class Black families have moved into the southern part of the district that feeds into GHS — which is about 30 percent Black, compared to the district’s other high school, where Black students account for 3 to 4 percent of the population, Craig said.
Craig added that BPS has experienced “our share of race tensions,” and witnessed a rash of graffiti, hate speech, and messaging on social media after the election of Donald Trump. Most of these incidents occurred at the middle school level, he noted. “When they fixated on Boyz n the Hood and said ‘He’s portraying negative images of African Americans,’ it took me a while to realize that they don’t want to be associated with those images, ever, because it perpetuates stereotypes.”
Chandler-Ward suggested that some parents may have been upset that Craig’s abridged reading list didn’t include more uplifting works. “The books that we’re reading are most often in a form of oppression. I see students who only see themselves through heartache and trauma and oppression. But what does joy look like, and success, and all of those other things that are missing typically?” Craig noted he tried to contrast lessons about enslavement, lynching, and Jim Crow with stories about Black people who resisted and fought back, while also giving time to periods such as the Harlem Renaissance.
Yet during the February 26 school board meeting, parent Hammie Dogan said Craig’s syllabus was “disrespectful and hurting,” and called for a change in mentality. “It takes a village to raise a child, but not only that, it takes a healthy village. If I pollute a child’s mind with negative, infuriating, unhealthy things, that is what we will get as a citizen." However, multiple parents and Craig noted that students were not consulted throughout the discussion of race and education. Several former students and members of Craig’s Diversity Club posted their support to Facebook and in private messages to Craig.
“To be truthful, I myself was reluctant about you, a white man, teaching a Black history course. I did not know you that well yet….So, I can understand why some parents would initially be uncomfortable,” wrote Loreal Salter, a 2017 graduate of Seaholm High School (where Craig also teaches) and president of their Black Student Union. “However, after about a week in your class I realized how educated you were on Black history. It was the first time in formal education where I learned Black history besides MLK. It was kind of like a relief, because being president of BSU, there was such much stuff I had to find on my own to share with other students. The reading materials, the movies, the lectures, etc, where all fascinating and informative.”
At the same meeting, Arthur Jack, a Groves parent and leader of the Birmingham African American Family Network, presented seven demands, including that the parents be allowed to engage with creating the course curriculum, and that Craig be replaced with a Black teacher. Jack said the school needed to “teach the fullness of Black history and all our contributions. We just need to stretch a little further.” Both Craig and Chandler-Ward agree that having a Black teacher teach African American history is ideal. However, parent involvement can be a slippery slope where educators aren’t viewed as experts and their authority is compromised. Chandler-Ward encouraged community discussion, and suggested hosting parents as guest speakers as a way to bring the voices of the historically silenced Black community to the classroom. Craig noted that his curriculum had to be approved by an education council, which had several Black parents at the time he proposed the course.
Teaching is a historically white profession, which affects students of color in a multitude of ways. White teachers who teach minority students and histories of marginalized populations have an even bigger responsibility to be good stewards of education “I don’t think every single white person is qualified to teach African American history,” Craig said, noting he has a master’s degree in African American and labor history and sponsored Seaholm High’s Diversity Club for 25 years. “Teaching a course like this is a bit like a landmine. You have to get past the point where people make those initial assumptions and people get to know you, but you might not get that chance.”
A big part of the issues that informed the situation at Groves High School, Birmingham Public Schools, and institutions nationwide is that teachers don’t understand their whiteness, Chandler-Ward said.
“Until a teacher has really investigated how their race has impacted their life, what they teach, and how they teach… [and] how whiteness influences what we think of as essential skills and information, and how whiteness shapes our own word views, I think that’s a huge blind spot,” she said.
Rather than credentializing, white teachers should be open to dialogue and feedback, and show humility. “No matter what, this white man will not have a full understanding or ability to convey the Black experience. They should never assume we’ve arrived in terms of racial awareness and literacy,” she said.
About the Author
Jessica Lipsky is the content editor for The North Star. Her work as an editor and reporter has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Vice, Billboard, Remezcla, Timeline and LA Weekly, among others. She regularly pens authoritative features on subculture, broke several music industry-focused #MeToo stories, and also writes on the business of music.