Black school board members and education professionals across the country are under attack for their commitment to equity and justice. Approximately two weeks after one of Georgia’s most diverse school districts elected its first Black woman chair, Tarece Johnson, Ed.D., finds herself under attack by conservatives for her commitment to equity and justice.
Sen. Burt Jones, a Republican candidate for Georgia lieutenant governor, called for an investigation into Johnson’s implemented policies and decisions based on her public-facing comments and teachings about systemic racism. From his inquiry, it doesn’t sound like he knows the school board’s function but is undoubtedly trying to drum up points with the base ahead of the spring primary election.
If only people crying about censorship and freedom of speech for multimillionaire podcasters showed concerns for government targeting people like Johnson.
Following the contrived outrage by conservative media outlets and social media platforms, Jones expressed concern about how Johnson’s leadership would impact students and whether she was in violation of any laws.
Spoiler: She’s not.
Understandably, people might be uncomfortable with her explanation. She discusses structural racism and its harmful impact on all people. Using the videos to attack her or claim she’s violating laws has nothing to do with protecting the children of her district.
Made in the summer of 2020, Johnson was among the many who used social media, including TikTok, to talk about racism and other issues impacting communities around the country.
Responding to the backlash in a statement, Johnson explained her position further, stating that she teaches about “implicit biases, systemic racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, misogyny, bigotry, micro-aggressions, and anti-Blackness.”
“Implicit/unconscious biases are unintentional and are most related to societal racism and stereotypes we have about a person or group of people,” Johnson wrote. “It is these unconscious biases that influence our actions and perpetuate structural racism. We must be consciously intentional about engaging differences in a safe, respectful, and brave space.” (Read her complete statement here).
Attacks on diversity and equity in public schools and school board leadership are not new. Still, the magnitude of attacks against Johnson represents the sophistication of misinformation and disinformation efforts to malign those committed to forward-moving change for all.
Speaking with NewsOne, Johnson remained resolute in her commitment to diversity and equity as a Gwinnett County School Board member and as its newly elected chair.
“I don’t teach in the GPS school system, nor do I impact curriculum in that way,” Johnson said. “But I am unapologetic about being a leader on that board, who’s an anti-racist school board member.”
Her work has informed her leadership in advocacy for policies to eliminate disparities impacting Black and Brown children, like discipline approaches. Johnson favors a data-informed approach to education policy, which includes supporting students with parents who are not native English speakers.
Noting the presence of the significant Vietnamese population, Johnson said there is a need for “bilingual teachers and staff supporting the needs of the population of parents who speak Spanish and Vietnamese.”
She also explained that she intends to meet the needs of everyone in the school district’s broader community. Johnson explained that a school system that keeps equity at its core is committed to meeting the needs of every child.
“It means, let’s figure out what schools need and let’s meet their needs, regardless of their zip code, regardless of their race, regardless of who’s representing them,” Johnson said. “An equity-minded school system is very intentional about meeting the needs of each and every child.”
In an election year with Republicans in a race to the bottom to feed the base with new meat to chew, Jones’ investigation request does not serve the public’s interest or help further the aims of the Gwinnett County School Board by taking action based on mob mentality.
She has also been receiving threats after a conservative social media account spread a compilation video of several of Johnson’s videos, raising concern about her fitness after being named board chair. Like many people, Johnson is an avid TikTok user who likes to post a range of videos. Many of Johnson’s TikTok videos focus on aspects of her Jewish faith, such as a video of students talking about the importance of having Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off from school.
Other videos show off her American Sign Language and dance skills or simply affirm the beauty within all people.
“In Tik Tok, you’re limited to with the timing right, so I knew I had to quickly cover some concepts that of course need way more education around what I’m sharing, but I summarized very quickly,” Johnson said. “Many people use their own freedom of speech to teach and to educate people about history or diversity, equity, inclusion about all sorts of topics, and you see that beautifully done on social media.”
Johnson remains consistent in her commitment to making sure all children of her district have what they need to thrive. As a Black Jewish educator and organizer, Johnson sees herself as a conduit for healing and expanding people’s horizons.
Like many districts around the country, Gwinett County’s school board has been attacked with the critical race theory red herring that has proven to be an effort to undermine equity and inclusion efforts. In September 2021, NBC News reported that many districts being attacked with this false rhetoric have been rapidly diversifying in recent years.
A post on the school district’s website again debunks the presence of critical race theory after conservatives claimed a syllabus for an AP class was evidence of the school teaching the niche legal theory. According to the school board, the syllabus was a part of what the College Board calls an audit process to see if the teacher has the actual capacity and depth to teach a course. The teacher never used it in actual instruction.
“As a result, false and misleading information about our school system has appeared on several websites and in news stories,” the district’s website explained.
A statement from Superintendent Calvin J. Watts called out Heritage Action specifically for spreading misinformation about the district and its curriculum.
Gwinnett County Public Schools is a highly diverse district with students from over 181 countries who speak at least 100 different languages. Black and Latino students make up the district’s two largest groups at 32 percent and 33 percent, respectively.
“I don’t know how to keep saying it over and over that equity is not about exclusion. It is totally about inclusion,” Johnson said.
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