Efforts by US states to ban school curricula offering historically accurate accounts of racism in the United States are attacks on fundamental human rights, Human Rights Watch said today on the May 3, 2023 National Day of Action for the Freedom to Learn Campaign.
Human Rights Watch, together with Black-led US civil rights organizations and scores of other organizations and individuals, has endorsed the Freedom to Learn Campaign. The campaign was developed in response to decisions by state legislatures and local school boards to ban thousands of books. Laws have been proposed or passed in 36 states and counting that restrict education about racism and other discrimination, including against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, and that distort or omit the accounts of the history and contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups.
“The May 3 Day of Action in support of the freedom to learn underscores that children and adults have fundamental rights to education and to access accurate information,” said Alison Parker, deputy US director at Human Rights Watch. “Attacks on education are attacks on US democracy because they ban access to the kind of information that motivates voting and political participation.”
Two landmark moments in US history were accompanied by special efforts to provide strong and accurate racial justice education, Human Rights Watch said. After the US Constitution was amended in 1870 to end restrictions on the right to vote based on race, formerly enslaved people set up Freedmen’s Schools to provide both civics and racial justice education. Similarly, ahead of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black Americans and their allies created hundreds of Citizenship Schools to educate the disenfranchised.
The measures banning anti-bias and racial justice education in states like Florida have been countered by legislators in at least 17 other states, where laws have been proposed or enacted to protect fundamental rights to education and to access information. In addition, the College Board, a nonprofit organization that administers tests and Advanced Placement courses, has announced its commitment to revise its 2022 Advanced Placement African American Studies course. This should include restoring content removed in February 2023 under pressure from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Human Rights Watch said.
“The College Board and states across the country should ensure that students everywhere have access to authors, ideas, and concepts that can help them make sense of their history, the current moment, and the future,” Parker said.
Steps to protect the freedom to learn are aligned with obligations of the United States under article 7 of the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which the US ratified in 1994. The convention obligates governments, including at the local level, to adopt immediate and effective measures, particularly in teaching, education, culture, and information, to promote tolerance and combat prejudice against national, racial, and ethnic groups.
Human Rights Watch, jointly with the American Civil Liberties Union, published a report in August 2022 on the US government’s record under the Convention.
To combat prejudice and intolerance, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN body monitoring compliance with the treaty, in recent years has urged countries to engage in affirmative efforts to ensure that textbooks contain “chapters about the history and cultures of peoples of African descent,” and to “encourage and support the publication and distribution of books and other print materials, as well as the broadcasting of television and radio programs about their history and cultures.”
“Some US states are doing what is required to protect the freedom to learn, and the Day of Action shows that communities across the country support access to accurate information for all children,” Parker said. “These rights-respecting efforts should be affirmed and replicated to protect the human rights of children and to ensure that racial discrimination is not tolerated in the United States.”