The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

The recent fatal shooting of 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket by a self-professed young white nationalist is the latest evidence of a growing concern: dangerous embracement of “the Great Replacement Theory” — a conspiracy touted by white supremacists and far right-wing TV hosts.

Unfortunately, the theory that an influx of immigrants and people of color will lead to the extinction of the white race is gaining traction among Americans who fear that the changing racial mix of the U.S will ultimately shift the country’s power base: Nearly one in three Americans say they are extremely or very concerned that native-born Americans are losing “economic, political and cultural influence” in this country because of the growing population of immigrants.

Dylann Roof, the young white supremacist who killed nine Black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, believed in GRT. In his manifesto, Roof made it apparent that he was concerned about the loss of white dominance in America and Europe. “I saw that the same things were happening in England and France, and all the other Western European countries,” he wrote, “the homeland of White people.”

Although GRT has been around for some time, I believe that pre-K-12 educators haven’t reckoned with the degree to which some young people will defend “whiteness.” History indicates that violence is a tool of white supremacy: From the slaughtering of Native Americans to the lynching of Black Americans in the Jim Crow era, racial violence has been used to defend the status quo of white supremacy and racism in the U.S.

If our students continue to have access via social media to unchecked racist propaganda and flawed history, they will be vulnerable to committing racial violence.

Therefore, I believe, the only way to combat racial violence is to teach young people to be “anti-racists,” which includes studying the history of U.S. racism and global colonization. However, teaching this content has become a flash point: Many parents and school board members argue that teaching about racism in schools is itself divisive and causes children to hate white people.

Right-wing groups have begun to describe anything in schools that focuses on racism, diversity or equity, or acknowledges our country’s racist history, with the catchall term “critical race theory,” or CRT. The term has been used by white supremacists to scare people into thinking that Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian and Indigenous people are threatening their power or their “whiteness.”

But CRT is not about creating division or about hating white people. Instead, it is an academic concept that emerged from studying how race and racism are embedded in legal systems and government policies. And as a result of learning about racism, I believe, students become more thoughtful about their actions and are more likely to be accepting of differences.

Related: Banning critical race theory ignores truths all students must hear

Nonetheless, this white supremacist fear and perceived threat were the driving factors behind the murderer’s actions in Buffalo.

If our students continue to have access via social media to unchecked racist propaganda and flawed history, they will be vulnerable to committing racial violence.

So, how do we combat white supremacist ideology and propaganda like the GRT? There is only one way: teaching anti-racism. We must counter racist ideologies with truth, facts and the reality of American and global histories. We must effectively teach students of all ages about the history of racism and how racism impacts current systems (health, education, criminal justice), policies and structures.

Related: What do classroom conversations about race, identity and history really look like? 

Classrooms must embrace racial and cultural diversity, and become spaces where students learn about the ramifications and long-term consequences of hatred. And teachers must be equipped with an understanding of extremist propaganda such as GRT.

Harvard University educators Adrienne Stang and Julia Jeffries have provided five useful guidelines when teaching about the history of racism:

  1. Create a classroom culture that values students’ multiple social identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender).
  2. Use primary sources. The exact words of the people described in history textbooks can help students connect material to the present day.
  3. Ensure content is age- and development-appropriate, and provide support for processing emotions.
  4. Highlight individual stories of success and struggle.
  5. Include the entire school. All teachers, not just history teachers, need to understand and incorporate the history of racism in their lessons.

Experts also advise that educators must become more racially and culturally self-aware before teaching hard histories about racism. Here, at American University’s School of Education, we introduced an anti-racist teacher professional development curriculum in which “self-interrogation” is a major component of teacher training.

We’ve found that teachers also need training on how to apply their knowledge of racism and anti-racism to their actual classroom practices and strategies.

Ultimately, if we fail to teach about the history of racism and its impact on today’s society, we are doing our students a huge disservice. Essentially, we are leaving them open to radicalization by white supremacists.

Perhaps if schools had given more attention to teaching the truths about the U.S. history of racism rather than banning books about U.S. slavery, we could have prevented the racism-inspired violent act in Buffalo.

Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy is dean of the School of Education at American University.

This story about teaching anti-racism was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

2 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. Hartford Public Schools lost 11% of their teachers this school year. They can’t fill the vacant jobs. This is happening all over the vountry. Teachers are leaving the profession despite decent pay, good healthcare, pensions, government and union worker protections. Why? Because of the endless list of things they should do better. Yhis article is yet another reason teachers are leaving on droves. Who needs this? And guess what? Now the Hartford Public Schools have larger class sizes and the criticism on the teachers remaining increases. Not to mention the pressure put in them to inflate grades for students who don’t earn them or risk being subject to scrutiny for bias. Education requires standards, a teacher’s dignity does as well. Lowering the standards is not going to create equity. What is equity anyway?

  2. This opinion piece serves as a powerful call to action for schools to prioritize teaching anti-racism and confronting the systemic issues that perpetuate racial inequality. The article aptly highlights the connection between the fear of white dominance and the violence witnessed in recent tragedies, emphasizing the urgent need for education to combat racism. It is crucial for educational institutions to actively promote inclusivity, empathy, and a deep understanding of the harmful effects of racism to foster a more just and equitable society.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *