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Lynching is now a federal crime. Good luck teaching kids why.

Joe Biden's remarks about Emmett Till were poignant, but may be off limits in some classrooms.
Photo illustration: Patches of red color cover pages of an open book that has an image of Mamie Bradley, mother of lynched teenager Emmett Till, crying on the left page and Emmett Till's portrait on the right page.
President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law on Tuesday.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

While signing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law Tuesday, President Joe Biden gave an impassioned description of the way lynchings typically happened: “Innocent men, women and children hung by nooses from trees,” he said. “Bodies burned and drowned and castrated. Their crimes? ... Simply being Black.”

The president then added, “Often the crowds of white families gathered to celebrate the spectacle, taking pictures of the bodies and mailing them as postcards.”

Biden shared in detail the horrific story of how in the summer of 1955, white supremacists brutally “mutilated” and murdered Emmett Till.

Biden then shared in detail the horrific story of how in the summer of 1955, white supremacists brutally “mutilated” and murdered Emmett Till, a Black 14-year-old, for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Poignantly, the president connected Till’s murder to the present, noting that just as Till’s mother, Mamie Till, warned him to be “humble” when speaking to the authorities, “too many Black parents today still have to use that admonition … when it comes to encounters with the law enforcement and so many other circumstances.”

Though Biden's remarks about lynchings were 100 percent correct, it’s likely that his comments could not be discussed in a classroom in any of the 15 Republican-controlled states that have implemented prohibitions on what they wrongly call critical race theory.

These laws don’t explicitly ban teachers from explaining that two white men savagely murdered Till and that a jury of all white men came back with an acquittal in 67 minutes, after having dragged the time out for a soda break “to make it look good.” Instead, these measures, like the one Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed last year, expressly prohibit teaching students about topics that will cause anyone to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race. The exact language is included in similar bills in other states, including Tennessee and Florida.

By not explicitly defining what might cause white people to feel “discomfort” or “guilt,” the GOP’s goal is to scare teachers into self-censoring. And it appears to be working to plan. There’ve been dozens of articles about teachers across the nation deciding not to teach lessons that expose America’s racism. In Florida, a school canceled a lecture on the history of the civil rights movement for fear it would violate the law. A teacher in New Hampshire decided not to teach about redlining policies that restricted where Black Americans could buy homes.

In Oklahoma, administrators instructed teachers not to mention “diversity” or “white privilege,” and one teacher in the state even feared making the obvious point that it was white people who defended slavery in the United States. And the list goes on of teachers who no longer believe they can facilitate robust discussions of American history, especially those topics that are more focused on Black Americans or white supremacy.

Teachers have every reason to be concerned. A Tennessee high school teacher was fired in 2021 for assigning a Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay about Donald Trump, provocatively titled “The First White President” and for showing a video of the spoken-word poem “White Privilege.” In New Hampshire and Oklahoma, the penalty for teaching the wrong thing can include being stripped of one’s teaching license, which likely means the end of a career.

The list goes on of teachers who no longer believe they can facilitate robust discussions of American history.

In Florida, which effectively implemented a ban on teaching racially sensitive topics by regulation even before the new law was drafted, state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran bragged last year, “I’ve censored or fired or terminated numerous teachers,” adding, “There was an entire classroom memorialized to Black Lives Matter and we made sure she was terminated.”

The GOP shows no signs of letting up in its efforts to whitewash American history. Just two weeks ago in Mississippi — the state where Till was lynched — Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed a law that will effectively limit the discussion of race. When the law was being considered, the Mississippi superintendent of education stated that critical race theory, which lawmakers say they’re against, is not even taught in the state’s schools. But these GOP laws have nothing to do with critical race theory. These laws are about one thing: preserving white supremacy by ensuring that students don’t learn the evils of it.

Biden plainly stated the evils of white supremacy when he signed a long overdue anti-lynching bill into law Tuesday, but a teacher in Mississippi might be fired for fostering a discussion about the president’s remarks or even about that horrible crime in Mississippi that shocked the nation and the world. And that’s how the GOP wants it. They don’t want students to do what Biden did in his remarks: connect what happened in the past to what’s happening now. They believe whitewashing the past is necessary to keep them in power in the present.