Editor's note: This is the third story in our "Schooled" series about how adults are failing this generation of students. Read the previous installment, on critical race theory and Virginia's policy war on Black history, here.
My path through a private Christian school in Florida offered me a front-row seat to the far-reaching power of white evangelicals over freedom of expression and facts. As critical race theory bans sweep the nation, I've been back in that familiar, uncomfortable place that marked my time at my alma mater—a sentiment that is likely to be the norm now as Florida and other states model public schools after whitewashed private ones like mine.
Among the many disturbing bills introduced during the 2022 Florida Legislative Session was H.B. 7, the "Individual Freedom" bill, also known as the "Stop WOKE Act." The sweeping law restricts conversations on "race, color, sex or national origin" in K-12 and at public universities, isolating nonwhite and LGBTQ+ youth in particular. The bill, signed into law on April 22, is also the first of its kind to limit race discussions among state employees under a critical race theory ban.
The law prohibits lessons that cause anyone to feel guilt or anguish for "actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex or national origin." Republicans have weaponized critical race theory—or CRT—as a rallying cry, a catchall for anything related to race and not what it actually is: a college-level framework for understanding our society.
The vague language of the law is confusing, especially for teachers, who are now required to be neutral or objective in their classrooms. By law, they're required to shy away from anything that might make a student feel guilty about their race's role in racism in the nation. But what that actually means is anyone's guess. The law has blurred the lines for freedom of speech for professors at public universities, who actually teach CRT, but have been banned from doing so at the risk of their institutions facing large financial penalties.
And it's not the only learning ban: In March, lawmakers passed H.B. 1467, giving parents in Florida the ability to limit and ban library books and curriculum that they deem inappropriate.
White fundamentalists and evangelicals have been major supporters and influencers of laws like these that model public institutions after their private ones. Under CRT bans, public schools will have a lot in common with my private Christian school, where leaders avoided conversations of racism and rejected any pursuit of justice.
I spent years unpacking trauma from school, and I'm not alone in that experience. As a Black woman, I know too well that the separation of church and state has been enforced primarily as a matter of convenience.
More of you should be concerned, too.
Religious entities waded into the CRT debate in the months following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the ensuing uprisings. In November of 2020, the presidents of Southern Baptist Convention's six seminaries, all white men, issued a statement proclaiming that the "affirmation of critical race theory, Intersectionality and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message."
"The Gospel gives a better answer," SBC President J.D. Greear added.
Christianity has been used to uphold institutionalized white supremacy, from chattel slavery to school segregation, including in evangelical private schools. It's actually how many of them got their start.
Two years after the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling desegregated U.S. public schools at "all deliberate speed," white segregationists formed a "massive resistance" to keep Black kids out. In 1956, Virginia Senator Harry Flood Byrd Sr.—a Democrat—authored the "Southern Manifesto on Integration," pledging to use "all lawful means" to reverse Brown v. Board.
"If we can organize the Southern States for massive resistance to this order, I think that in time the rest of the country will realize that racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South," Byrd, the father of "massive resistance," said then.
Nearly one-fifth of Congress signed onto the manifesto, which sought to prevent schools from integrating and use the courts to punish those that did. Although these lawmakers represented a minority in Congress, the Southern states they represented followed suit. For instance, the school district in Prince Edward County, Virginia, shuttered all of its public schools for five years instead of integrating.
In addition to increased violence against and criminalization of Black Southerners—like the white mob that threatened 12 Black students with guns for integrating a Mansfield, Texas, school in 1956—these anti-integration strategies ushered in a surge of private, Christian schools: segregation academies. "Seg academies," as they are known, often operated under Christian churches and acted as a shield for white parents and children who refused to grapple with the reality of race and integration. Many popped up in the early 1970s, following the subsequent 1969 Supreme Court ruling, Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, which addressed Brown's "all deliberate speed" clause, and required integration immediately.
"By 1958, the South's private school enrollment had exploded, increasing by more than 250,000 students over an eight-year period, and boasting almost one million students in 1965," according to a report from the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting equity for low-income and students of color in the South. And while many institutions claimed to be an effort to combat secularism, their primary function was to continue the apartheid in education.
Christian schools were once the conservative answer to circumvent integration, and scholars point to the resistance to integrate evangelical schools as the foundation for the influence of conservative politics over education policy today.
Around the same time as the Holmes decision, the Supreme Court issued an important ruling in another case, Green v. Connally, which many credit with emboldening the religious right as we know it. The 1971 ruling stalled federal tax exemptions for private schools that refused Black students. Within months, Bob Jones University, an evangelical college whose founder said the Bible supported racial segregation, received an IRS notice.
For years, the school tried to skirt around the IRS' requirements—like when it only allowed married Black students to avoid race mixing. By 1976, it lost its tax exemption status. In 2000, Jones III announced on Larry King Live that the university would be lifting its interracial dating ban. To this day, the South Carolina-based school remains overwhelmingly white, and its conservative curriculum is taught in many private schools throughout the nation.
In fact, most private Christian schools still educate relatively homogenous, majority-white student bodies—and employ majority-white faculties. The National Center for Education Statistics, which is housed within the Department of Education, found that 66 percent of private school students were white, compared to 55 percent of students in U.S. public schools.
Although private schools educate a small proportion of U.S. students—as of 2019, 9 percent of U.S. students attended private school—their commitment to whiteness does irreparable harm to the nonwhite students in their midst. Among the 4.7 million private school attendees in grades K-12, 12 percent were Hispanic, and 9 percent were Black. In contrast, 28 percent of public school students were Hispanic, and 15 percent were Black.
Still, despite efforts to desegregate public education, many public schoolhouses are highly segregated—and increasingly so. And now the curriculum taught to the majority of this nations' children stands to be just as whitewashed.
I have lived experience with the lasting harm of learning ahistorical accounts from white teachers as I sat next to my white peers at my Christian private school. My concern is that H.B. 7 and similar laws essentially turn public schools into private ones, where Black history has long been informally banned under white evangelical rule.
Anti-CRT laws are now on the books in 42 states, and are primed to recreate the white evangelical education model that whitewashes history and fosters environments that leave Black kids like me with years of trauma to unpack.
The same history that's now illegal to teach in many schools is repeating itself.
At age 8, I first walked into third grade, I encountered a student body and faculty who were majority white. Coming from a majority Black public school in Pensacola, this shift was a bit of a culture shock. My only goal was to continue to love school and make friends as easily as I did at my public school. Instead, I got a lesson on racial capitalism.
My parents paid the expensive tuition out of pocket for my sister and I because they believed that a Christian school would be a safer environment for us. They worked really hard to make this possible, and if they ever struggled financially, they hid it well. In this environment, my peers were hyperfixated on money, as private schools still achieve a blend of the haves and the have-nots who attend through scholarships or discounted rates if their parents worked for the school or affiliated church. This is where I learned that we were solidly middle class. Compounded with being one of just a few Black kids, my white peers flexing their large homes and designer accessories made me feel less than. I felt that my best method for survival was to distance myself from how I interacted with my peers in public school, and partake in the hyperfixation of materialism.
In hindsight, assimilating to the culture of the school cost me parts of my identity, like using Black vernacular and being more open in expressing my love for Black culture that I gained back only in this past year—after I left their church and cut ties with them altogether after 13 years.
My school used the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) curriculum, the largest non-Catholic Christian school association in the U.S. ACSI was founded in 1978 and as of September 2019, more than half of their member schools have student bodies that are at least 80 percent white. For the small percentage of racial minorities who do attend private Christian schools, I know what it feels like to be ostracized not only by my peers and teachers, but also by whitewashed curricula and interpretations of the Gospel.
Many Black students at these largely white institutions aren't accustomed to religion being enforced by white teachers and pastors. Their religious and spiritual lives have, usually, been protected and shepherded by Black leaders. As Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said almost 70 years ago, Sunday mornings are still "the most segregated hour in Christian America."
Alexsa Mercado, who is Puerto Rican and Black, attended Christian schools for her K-12 education in Orlando during the early and mid 2000s. She didn't have a single teacher of color until 10th grade—"and there was only one," she said.
"At the time, I didn't see an issue with it, because when you're in something, you don't think about it that deeply until you're out, and you're like: 'hmm that's not right.' And then talking to my friends who were at public school, and they had teachers who look like them or can relate to them on certain issues. I didn't really get that experience or have any representation of that throughout any of the staff members at the school."
Mercado's first time at a public school was Valencia College in Orlando. The transition wasn't an easy one.
"I actually put off college for a whole entire year because being in a private Christian school, the space was so small, so it gave me a lot of anxiety to be in a place with so many different people who have so many different beliefs," Mercado said. "When I finally went, it was a shock to see so many different kinds of people, whether that be the faculty and staff or just the students in general."
Layne James, 21, attended a majority-white private Christian school in Pensacola, Florida, for the first two years of high school in 2015 and 2016. But after repeated racist encounters—like being asked to control her naturally curly hair and having a white classmate use the n-word with no repercussions—it became too much, and she transferred to a public school.
"I was to the point where I did not want to go to school at all, which was odd because up until then I really liked school," James said. "It got to the point where my parents were starting to see its effect on me, and I just started getting more angry."
The private school James attended uses the controversial Bob Jones University Press curriculum. Bob Jones III, the heir and third president of the evangelical university in South Carolina, created the curriculum in the 1970s with two of the university's science professors, George Mulfinger and Emmett Williams. The curriculum includes passive stands on the nation's history of slavery, including textbooks where slavery was depicted as a necessary, harmonious institution.
James recalled a standout moment when she had to compare the United States and Mexico for a global history class, and a teacher chastised her for pointing out the successes and failures of both nations. She noticed that slavery was listed as a failure for Mexico but not the United States, which she found to be strange.
"I ended up getting pulled out of the classroom by an older white teacher, and she told me that I was disrespectful, I was going to grow up to disrespect authority and police, and I was going to start riots on college campuses. And I just basically needed to work on my attitude."
I had a similar experience. My middle school history teacher used her classes as an opportunity to promote many of her own opinions and beliefs, many of which were ahistorical. I recall her overemphasizing that the Civil War wasn't about slavery, but state's rights versus federal rights. Southern states' steadfastness to allow the ownership of humans was the proverbial elephant in the room that she somehow failed to address. Her jurisdiction to teach what she thought was important was a huge red flag in hindsight. But I was also just a child in her room without the knowledge I have now. Instead of using the available textbooks, she printed out worksheets that she found to be relevant to our lectures.
I also remember challenging her viewpoints on President Barack Obama—she made a point to express her disdain for him and his politics on numerous occasions—after she told us about a big fight she had with her brother, who supported Obama, while watching one of the presidential debates in 2012. Yet, I often didn't feel empowered to speak up when I vehemently disagreed with her and her politics, out of fear of being seen as disrespectful.
By the time eighth grade rolled around for me, I was eager to return to public school and was happy that my season of private school was done.
Returning to public school was mainly about access to opportunities. My private school only offered two electives and didn't have honors or accelerated programs. Despite all the friendships and great memories I experienced over the years, I was mentally ready for a new challenge and a fresh set of faces. I wouldn't fully realize the impact of the microaggressions or whitewashed history I had endured until college.
But my connection to the institution wasn't over. My family and I continued to attend the church that ran the school throughout my high school and college years. It wasn't until last January, when I was 21, that I felt it was my time to part with the church after repeatedly calling out racism to the lead pastors, who were majority white. They met my demands with passivity and menial efforts that vaguely addressed racism, but never specifically repented for their part in upholding an unbalanced church culture that made many of their Black parishioners feel erased and uncomfortable.
I would leave these meetings feeling a glimmer of hope, only for church leadership to scold me, angrily and condescendingly, about my latest social media post on racism. They would affirm my voice and passion for social justice in private meetings, then openly rebuke me on Facebook for others to see. Yet, Black and white parishioners and former members of their church would come to my defense time and time again until the pastors retracted their comments for being "misconstrued."
After attending a community college in my hometown, I applied to only one university, adamant about attending Florida A&M University, an HBCU in my state's capital. Even if it was only for two years, I longed to attend an institution where the professors and students shared experience of Blackness was not seen as something to be checked at the door, but worthy of celebration and acceptance.
James, however, took a different route, and now attends Baylor University, a private Christian university in Waco, Texas. She often sees parallels in her college and K-12 experiences.
"The main reason for attending Baylor was the money. I got a full scholarship,"she said. "If I could go back in time, I would go into a little bit of debt for a better experience. I'm thankful that I'm able to get an education but after my experience with high school and undergrad, I don't think I would want to go to another private Christian institution."
James is still regaining her strength as she processes many of her experiences and figures out how to regain her confidence to speak out about white supremacy in Christian spaces.
"I've experienced so much burnout in my passion for social justice, because it's like I have to scream to get people to hear me—and it's like now I've lost my voice and don't have the energy to do it," James said. "I think that private Christian institutions need a lot of reform. My dad would say, 'Some things can't be rebuilt, they need to be burned down.' I think that's the case for a lot of these places, because they are not safe spaces for a lot of people who don't fit the social norm."
I relate to the burnout James feels. I've been criticized in my home church for continually calling out my fellow Christians and their institutions for their active participation in pushing minorities even further to the margins and chasing them away from the love of God. I know that leaders and members of my former church and private school would be happy if I left silently and didn't call them out for remaining complacent—and complicit—instead of addressing and dismantling racism. But when you realize you've been called to intertwine your identity as a follower of Christ, a Black woman, and a journalist to expose and undo unjust systems, including ones that misrepresent Christ, you can't simply go quietly.
Put frankly, private Christian schools weren't created for Black students, and there are hundreds of thousands of Black students over the years that have felt that sense of unbelonging, and internalized it. And "school choice" laws mean this dynamic will continue.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Carson v. Makin that school-voucher programs must include religious schools as an option, further blurring this country's separation of church and state for the benefit of white families. School voucher programs use public money to send kids to private schools as a fixture of the "school choice" movement. The Association of Christian Schools International, which governs my private school's curriculum, supports this "freedom to choose," accepting public money for privatized education.
This sneakily continues segregation under the guise of protecting a freedom to choose a less Black school, for instance. It's the same "individual freedom" laws like H.B. 7 cling to today, mirroring the fundamentalists and evangelicals that run many Southern private schools and religious institutions.
Being a Black Christian in this nation often means pushing back against attempts from white evangelicals and fundamentalists to speak for all Christians, or to shroud their harm in scripture.
In the words of Psalm 106:3, I speak out for those students who have gone on to adulthood, still wounded by an institution that proclaimed Christ while rejecting those that were made in His image:
"Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!"