GOP demands removal of "1619 Project" from grant programs

Conservative lawmakers are asking the Biden administration to abandon curriculum like the "1619 Project," which they say fabricates American history, in school grant programs. Jesse Hagopian, co-editor of "Black Lives Matter at School" and a curriculum writer with Zinn Education Project and Rethinking Schools, joins CBSN to discuss.

Video Transcript

- Conservative lawmakers are asking the Biden administration to abandon curriculum they say fabricates American history in schools. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and 37 Republicans sent a letter to education Secretary Miguel Cardona to recall a proposal to provide federal grants to states and local schools for using tools like the "1619 Project" in classrooms. The project reframes American history, beginning with 1619, the year the first slave ship arrived to America.

The learning tool has ignited a fierce debate over the legacy of slavery and the treatment of African-Americans. Senator McConnell argues, Americans do not need or want their tax dollars diverted from promoting the principles that unite our nation toward promoting radical ideologies meant to divide us. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah Jones collaborated with the New York Times to create the "1619 Project."

She says the minority leader's effort to censor her project is a freedom of speech issue. For more, I want to bring in Jesse Hagopian. He is an award-winning educator at Garfield High School in Seattle and a curriculum writer with Zinn Education Project and Rethinking Schools. He's also the co-editor of the new book "Black Lives Matter at School" and "Teaching for Black Lives." Jesse, thanks for joining us. Great to have you with us. So for our viewers who are not as familiar with it, can you share the history and essence of the "1619 Project?"

JESSE HAGOPIAN: Well, thanks for having me on the program today. And the "1619 Project" is really about undoing master narratives that have erased the struggles and contributions of Black people to this country that are far too often whitewashed out of corporate textbooks. And it's about acknowledging that for over 400 years, Black people have stood up to racism in an unrelenting Black freedom struggle. It's about reframing this country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans really at the heart of what our country is about. And there's incredible essays and teaching materials that are used to deepen students' understanding of our nation.

- And so how does, then, the "1619 Project" and other similar learning tools, such as your own books, play a role in the American curriculum?

JESSE HAGOPIAN: Well, I think that it needs to play more and more of a role in the curriculum. I think that one of the greatest educators of our nation was actually the uprising that happened from the spring, and fall, and summer in the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. You know, that really increased the number of teachers and inspired so many more educators to begin teaching for social justice. And I think that's really what's driving these bills across the country.

They wouldn't be trying to ban the teaching of structural racism if there weren't so many teachers interested in joining the struggle and the Black Lives Matter at School movement. And you know, for all the work of these great social justice teachers around the country, who would have guessed that it's actually the Republican Party that's become the nation's greatest teacher about racism? Of course, the irony is that they are teaching a master class about how ingrained racism is in our society by passing racist legislation to ban the teaching of structural racism.

And you look at a bill like in West Virginia, where it states that they want to ban teaching that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist, but if you look up the definition of fundamental in Merriam Webster, it says, serving as an original or generating source. And there is just-- an honest telling of our country cannot be done without talking about the systematic genocide against Native people and against Black people.

And so you literally can't tell the truth about the founding of this country and the long history of systemic racism without talking about these difficult truths. And I refuse, as an educator, to lie to my students. And I know there are many more educators like me.

- And so when you hear lawmakers like Mitch McConnell saying that teaching this in schools actually further divides us, what's your response to that?

JESSE HAGOPIAN: Well, I think that Frederick Douglass talked about the role of racism in our country. And he said they used racism-- they divided both to conquer each. Meaning that racism is a wedge used to pit groups against each other. And when we don't understand each other, when we don't know each other's struggles and where we came from, then we can't build the type of empathy and solidarity that we need to achieve a better world.

And so I think it's actually these bills that are highly divisive and aimed at dividing and conquering. And I know that many educators are turning to the Zinn Education Project that I work to look for lessons to teach the truth about this country. And we're actually launching a petition today that's a pledge for educators to sign, saying that regardless of what the laws are passed banning the teaching about racism, that we will continue to teach these truths. And I know that many educators are going to sign this.

And it's not just about teaching about oppression. We also want to teach about the long history of resistance to that oppression and about how people have organized across race, across class, across gender to build a better society and to build social movements. And I think that in places like Arkansas, where they went as far as banning solidarity in their bill-- they proposed banning the teaching of solidarity. And I think that's exactly what we want to build more of in our society.

- Jesse Hagopian, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

JESSE HAGOPIAN: Thanks so much.