The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama — where Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair were murdered in a 1963 bombing before any of them got to see their 15th birthday — is a 10-minute drive from where I grew up. I don’t believe I ever heard their names in any class I ever attended. I was never taught about Emmett Till or Ruby Bridges. I didn’t read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” until I no longer lived in Birmingham. I’m sure I read Truman Capote, but I wouldn’t have been told he was gay. I was taught that the Civil War was about “states’ rights” rather than slavery and that slavery would have been a silly thing to fight a war over anyway since most slaves were treated kindly by the people who enslaved them. Somewhere along the line, I was told that Abraham Lincoln was the worst president America has ever had. To be fair, there were one or two teachers who tried to push back against this false narrative (I did read Toni Morrison), but I don’t remember racism ever being named explicitly. If it had been, it would certainly have been treated as a bygone of the past because now, I was instructed, we lived in a colorblind society, one in which the erasure of race and ethnicity was passed off as a virtue.
All of this was intentional because Mountain Brook High School is a place where intentionality is expected. It is one of the top-performing public high schools in the country and currently the second-highest performing public high school in the state. By the time I graduated, I knew my sines from my cosines, could read music by sight, had a solid grasp on the theory of relativity, and possessed almost all the academic tools I’d need to function in the world and succeed in college, where roughly 98% of my classmates were headed. My education was stellar in all ways but one.
Right now we’re in a manufactured national panic over what happens when students are given an anti-racist education, often and insidiously mislabeled as “critical race theory.” But I know from experience that we should be far more worried about what happens when students aren’t given anti-racist education. I know what it means to attend a school in which this type of education is denied. I very personally feel its costs. And — most importantly — so do the students at that school who continue to suffer for it, whether they know what they’re missing or not.
My hometown was brought to the nation’s attention this past January, after a Mountain Brook High School history teacher invited his class to recite the Pledge of Allegiance while performing the Nazi salute. The class had supposedly been discussing the fact that raising one’s arm in such a way had once been called the Bellamy salute and used by Americans up until the 1940s when it was discontinued for obvious reasons. But the context does not explain why the teacher would have asked his class to embody a salute that is now and forever will be associated with a genocidal, fascist regime. All but a handful of students rose from their seats and did as they were told. “I was shocked and confused why people would do this,” Epps Tytell, the only Jewish student in the class, tells me. He was too stunned to make a move.
Right after leaving history class on January 18, Epps Tytell texted his mom, Mariya, to tell her what had happened. “We didn’t really believe him because it seemed too crazy to be true,” Mariya recalls. One of Tytell’s friends had the wherewithal to pull out his phone and video the incident, but even after he showed his parents the video, “My husband and I were inclined to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt. We thought he just did something stupid, and that could happen to any of us. We’ve met that teacher before. We like him. We were more inclined to overlook this incident — until the next day.”
The next day, Tytell was pulled out of class and called into a meeting with the assistant principal and the history teacher who had prompted the salute. The video was circulating, and they had assumed, wrongly, that the one Jewish student present must have taken it. “My vice principal said how I’m making Mountain Brook look bad,” Tytell explains. “He told me to apologize to my teacher. I didn’t apologize because I didn’t think there was any need to.” Tytell also would not divulge the name of the student who had taken the video. “They wanted the victim to apologize to the wrongdoer,” says Mariya. “And we had to hear [about] it from our child who was very shaken up and upset.” For her, that meeting was the point at which the school had really crossed a line, the point at which the poor decisions that had been made weren’t just accidental.
After all, at Mountain Brook very little happens by accident. In her 2017 New York Times Magazine article, “The Resegregation of Jefferson County,” none other than 1619 author Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed to Mountain Brook as the first suburb in Alabama to respond to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling by withdrawing from the city of Birmingham entirely, creating a playbook by which other white, wealthy suburbs could sidestep desegregation efforts by incorporating as brand new cities. Today, Mountain Brook is the richest suburb in the state — and over 97 percent white.
In other words, it is a place in which racial and socio-economic diversity is almost a theoretical notion — and a place that was designed as such. And it is a place that demonstrates the ill-effects of not providing an anti-racist education to children in a school that was specifically founded on racist principles, as so many were. The Nazi salute was not the first alarming incident at Mountain Brook. Not even close.
In May of 2020, I began hearing from friends back home about a video circulating that showed teens drawing two large swastikas and the word “heil” on the back of a shirtless Mountain Brook boy. The community voiced alarm, and the school formed a diversity committee tasked with determining how to head off such incidents. The committee ultimately recommended that the school district partner with the Anti-Defamation League, a national organization that has been offering anti-racist resources to schools since the 1980s and whose anti-bias training is used by hundreds of schools across the country, including many in Alabama. In February 2021, the Mountain Brook Schools superintendent signed a contract with the ADL, and by mid-June at least 500 teachers and staff had attended an ADL workshop called “No Place for Hate.”
That’s around the time that word reached Alabama that critical race theory was the latest offensive in the liberal attack on decent, God-fearing capitalists and their innocent offspring. Never mind that CRT is a graduate-level study of how race intersects with institutions, and is not taught in K-12; as the school year wound to a close, countless school board meetings across the country were hijacked by Fox-watching parents who seemed truly convinced that CRT had “trickled down” into all forms of diversity, equity, and inclusion training and that someone was trying to mind-control their children by teaching them that bias is real.
Soon, I was Zooming in to these meetings to find that my alma mater had, predictably, become one of the culture war’s new battlefields. As some parents opened up about how their Jewish and LGBTQ+ children were being targeted and harassed, others pushed back on “No Place for Hate” and the idea that their children could be hateful at all. The ADL was deemed an agent of liberal propaganda, eagerly waiting to indoctrinate young white, Christian minds in the evils of critical race theory, teaching them to hate themselves, to feel guilty for events outside their control, and to (horrors) put their necks on the line in allyship of others. “My impression from the [ADL] training was that it was grounded in a worldview that embraces premises and theories concerning implicit biases and privilege as fact,” said one former English and American Studies teacher with disdain at a city council meeting last June. “But the bigger problem for me during the training itself was really how it focused on something they called the ally, how to be an effective ally and the kind of culture I think it would create in the classroom. According to the ADL, an ally is someone who helps to stand up against prejudice and biases as the ADL defines them. A true ally cannot be someone who is colorblind, but must be someone who is willing to question and challenge and confront those they perceive as making these microaggressions.” The teacher found this abhorrent. When she finished speaking, she was applauded and cheered for boldly taking a stand against taking a stand.
The school did not take a stand. The ADL was cut loose. The summer of 2021 started with promises to engage the community in developing a diversity, equity, and inclusion program in-house, but come fall, no program had materialized. What had materialized was a vociferous anti-mask coalition and a highly conservative lobbying group called Mountain Brook Families, which masqueraded as a non-profit.
Meanwhile, Tytell can’t even get many of his peers to admit that doing the Nazi salute was wrong. “I don’t think any of them are fully anti-Semitic. But just them not seeing a problem with it and following along?” He sighs deeply. “When I complained about it to some other kids, they’re like, ‘He’s just teaching.’ No one sees a problem with it.”
If Alabama’s lawmakers have anything to do with it, no one ever will. In August, the state board of education approved a resolution that bans the teaching of anything that would “indoctrinate students in social or political ideologies that promote one race or sex above another,” which detractors argue is a squishy way to prohibit not just critical race theory but any type of anti-racist teaching. The seven white (Republican) members of the board — including Governor Kay Ivey — voted in favor of the resolution; the two black (Democratic) members voted against it. The resolution was condemned by the NAACP but codified by a follow-up vote, along similar racial lines, in October. Its language is so vague that, according to Alabama Superintendent Eric Mackey, it has led parents to contact his office with the complaint that acknowledgments of Black History Month violate the resolution. “You know, ‘Why do we even have Black History Month? We’ve moved beyond that now. We should just incorporate everybody’s history,’” he says.
In language and intent, Alabama’s resolution is similar to the more than 90 bills that have recently been introduced in at least 34 states attempting to restrict what teachers can say about race, gender, and religion and to combat the idea that any person or institution is inherently racist. Many ban or limit the discussion of “divisive concepts.” Many call for highly punitive outcomes for school districts or teachers who do not comply, in the form of hefty fines or termination of employment. And, perhaps most egregiously, the bills do so under the auspices of the idea that acknowledging difference is, in and of itself, racist or biased. “They tend to be phrased in these ways that — if you’re not really reading between the lines — sound positive,” says Carey Andrzejewski, a professor of education at Auburn University who specializes in preparing teachers for classroom diversity. “Like ‘Students should not be made to feel that because they’re in a particular group, they’re less capable.’ Well, of course they shouldn’t. But when you dig a little deeper, what you realize is, ‘Oh, wait, this is actually meant to silence diversity, equity and inclusion work. That’s what it’s meant to do.’”
Which means that the miseducation I received is the one that lawmakers across the country are currently attempting to codify, a particularly frustrating prospect for educators who wrestle daily with the clear outcomes of social, political, and educational policies that are a result of “divisive concepts” they would not be supposed to discuss. “CRT is a distraction,” says Andrzejewski, who has testified about the prevalence of CRT — or lack thereof — for the House Education Policy committee. “It’s an important theory, but in the context of K-12 education, it has totally taken over our time and energy when we have really serious problems to tackle. Black and brown children in this state underperform their white peers on virtually every measure you care to mention. Whatever label we put on it, we are systematically serving some kids a lot better than we serve others. And this conversation takes us away from thinking about what we need to do about that.”
Doubling down on the board of education resolution, Alabama House Bill 312 was read to the House on February 8th — the same day the Mountain Brook Nazi salute incident was widely reported — joining three other anti-CRT bills that were filed this past summer. HB8, HB9, and HB11 prohibit teaching “divisive concepts” or “certain concepts regarding race or sex, such as critical race theory.” HB312 provides for the employment termination of teachers who do and was voted out of committee on March 15 in a voice vote that lasted all of 45 seconds. On March 17th, it was approved by the Alabama House legislature. It is expected to be voted on by the Senate this legislative session — and it is expected to pass. In heading off an imaginary problem, HB312 will only compound one that is very real.
Epps Tytell knows what that compounding feels like. He knows what is to be hurt not just by discrimination but by denial of its existence, denial of the fact that anything needs to be addressed at all. After the Nazi salute incident, it took over two weeks for the principal to meet with his family. “He said he was too busy to meet with us,” Tytell’s mother tells me. “I found that to be very hurtful because if he doesn’t have time [to address] Nazi salutes being performed in his classrooms, then what else is going on at the school that’s even more important than that?”
It’s unclear if and when Mountain Brook will institute diversity, equity, and inclusion education, and unclear what that education would even look like under HB312. But when I asked Tytell what he thought could have prevented the incident from happening, he answered that the diversity program the school had considered implementing — and ultimately abandoned — “definitely could have helped.”
As someone who grew up in Mountain Brook, I had to agree. The state-mandated curriculum is certainly better now than it was twenty years ago when it comes to acknowledging the accomplishments of Black and LBGTQ+ individuals, but I doubt it acknowledges how the school system itself and its de facto segregation is proof of structural racism. I doubt students are asked to turn the critical-thinking faculties the school hones so well to the particular social setting in which they find themselves. “We attest that much of the curriculum and culture of MBS, intentionally or not, obscured historical facts about race and racism and avoided addressing racial discrimination as an ongoing reality,” posited a 2021 open letter to the Mountain Brook Board of Education written by alumni of the school. “Beyond curriculum, we were implicitly taught that it is normal to attend schools with nearly all white children, nearly all white teachers, and all white leaders. As we graduated from MBS and went on to forge professional lives and careers, we experienced the negative impacts of this mis-education (and of the lack of diversity in the community in which we were raised), and we had to find ways to seek out the education that we were denied.” To date, the letter has been signed by over 2,000 current students and alums. At how many hundreds or thousands of American schools would students and alums attest to a similar form of mis-education?
So many of the proposed anti-CRT bills, and so many of the heated school board meetings around the issue, mention guilt, a fear that white children will be harmed in some way by being invited to reckon with the truth of America’s past and how it is still playing out in the present. But I am here to say that it’s not the knowing that’s brought me guilt; it’s the amount of time I spent not knowing. It’s how I had to leave Mountain Brook to even learn what I still needed to learn. It’s my past belief in an alternate reality, one in which nuance was stripped and cruelty was relegated and outright lies were told — and in which I might still believe if people hadn’t taken it upon themselves to actively re-educate me despite the fact that it wasn’t their job to do so. “You’re not the least racist person I know, but you’re definitely the one who has come the furthest,” I was once told by my college best friend, a woman of color who now works in diversity education. It was not a back-handed compliment; it was an acknowledgement of truth, and the fact that she could say it is why we love each other. It didn’t divide. It drew us together.
The Tytells never reached out or spoke to the media outlet that first reported on the Nazi salute incident. They don’t know who did. They don’t know by what means their story became known to the national media. But the day that happened, some of the community rallied around them, and some of the community didn’t. By evening, there were threats to beat Epps up, threats to burn down their house. “They are saying that I’m making Mountain Brook look bad,” Epps tells me that night, his voice hushed but firm. “I had someone come up to me and say, ‘Do you understand what you’re doing? We won’t be able to get into frats in college.’” He shakes his head. “I mean, yeah…There’s nothing really to say.”
As for what there is to do, it is almost certain that laws will soon be on the books that constrain Alabama schools from doing it. The one action Mountain Brook has taken since the incident of the Nazi salute is to ban the use of cellphones in class. When it comes to the truth of what’s happened and what’s happening, the message is clear and consistent: it’s simply best not to know.