Maureen Downey: Diversity ought to be celebrated, not circumvented in Georgia

Tribune Content Agency

At Morehouse College’s commencement earlier this month, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore told the graduates, “Our history is our power.”

Moore, Maryland’s first Black governor, advised graduates to dismiss politicians who claim that book bans and limits on classroom discussions of America’s history of race are needed to protect students from feeling “discomfort and guilt.”

“When politicians ban books and muzzle educators, this is not about a fear of making people feel bad,” Moore said. “This is about a fear of people understanding their power. I’m looking around the country right now and I’m seeing people being censored, teachers being censored. I see curriculum of truth being taken out. This is not just a threat to our history. It is a threat to our strength.”

Moore acknowledged what Georgia’s governor and education leaders will not — that the erasure of the terms diversity, equity and inclusion from the education lexicon and the removal of books that feature protagonists of color or LGBTQ characters pander to white voters fearful that allowing more voices to be heard and heeded will drown out their own.

With Florida and Texas as the template, Republican governors and legislatures including here in Georgia are outlawing diversity initiatives and classroom lessons that reveal America’s racism or reflect historically marginalized voices.

Because many of these new censorship laws trigger the removal of a book after even a single challenge, we are seeing Ruby Bridges’ account of integrating an all-white school pulled from shelves, along with “And Tango Makes Three,” an award-winning picture book depicting the true story of two male penguins who parent a baby penguin.

In Florida’s Miami-Dade district, a K-8 school restricted elementary student access to “The Hill We Climb,” the poem poet Amanda Gorman read at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, after a parent said it was “not educational,” had indirect “hate messages” and served to “cause confusion and indoctrinate students.” It’s unclear if the parent knew much about the poem, stating on her complaint that the author was Oprah Winfrey.

In a statement where she described herself as “gutted” over the school’s actions, Gorman said, “I wrote ‘The Hill We Climb’ so that all young people could see themselves in a historical moment. Ever since, I’ve received countless letters and videos from children inspired … to write their own poems. Robbing children of the chance to find their voices in literature is a violation of their right to free thought and free speech.”

Rather than shaking their heads in disdain over Florida’s antics, Georgia GOP leaders are nodding in agreement. Georgia legislators last year passed a law that allows some books to be banned. Two weeks ago, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission struck references to “diversity” from the rules that guide the state’s teacher preparation programs. The rules now substitute the word “different” for “diverse” in several places, eliminate a definition of diversity — including examples such as race, sexual orientation and gender identity — and replace mentions of “diverse students” with “all students.”

Education leaders in Georgia ought to be leading the charge against these attacks on diversity. Instead, they’re apparently assisting them. The Georgia Professional Standards Commission says the University System of Georgia sought these changes to remove “ambiguous terms” that have taken on “multiple or unintended meanings.”

What is ambiguous about the word diversity? The dictionary is quite clear: it defines diversity as the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders and sexual orientations.

Education leaders at the K-12 and college level in Georgia have largely remained silent as politicians have cast diversity, equity and inclusion as a threat to white Georgians rather than an expansion of opportunity for all Georgians. These leaders ought to speak out in defense of teachers who increasingly feel they are under surveillance and students who are not seeing themselves represented in the books they are reading or the history they are learning.

“It is our kids who are going to be impacted, kids who need a voice and need a teacher to say, ‘I see you and all of you’ and we are going to learn in community with one another,” said Tracey Nance, Georgia’s 2020 and 2021 Teacher of the Year. “It’s a lack of knowledge about each other that creates fear and resistance. If we can just open our hearts and minds to learn about one another, I do believe the trust will follow.”