This issue of Teaching Tolerance addresses some of the ways we teach—and sometimes mis-teach—United States history. We’re wrapping up our Spring issue at the end of a year during which current events, from demands to remove Confederate statues to white supremacist marches replete with Nazi flags, have taken history out of the textbooks and put it into the news. And this issue comes out at the beginning of a new year in which Teaching Tolerance launches a campaign to change the way we teach about our racial past: Teaching Hard History. The first phase of the campaign will focus on American slavery.
With Teaching Hard History, we’re calling on American educators, curriculum writers and policy makers to confront the fact that slavery and racial injustice are not only a foundational part of the nation’s past, but a continuing influence on the present.
Sam Cooke told the truth in his 1960 hit song, “Wonderful World”: We "don’t know much about history." And we’re paying for it.
In the words of Professor Hasan Jeffries, chair of the Teaching Hard History advisory board, “Slavery isn’t the original sin of America; it’s the origin.” For 150 years slavery provided the labor that built colonial America; it persisted for nearly another 100 years after the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights …” Racist doctrines and white supremacist ideology developed to provide a rationale for this clearly inhumane institution. Even after slavery was formally abolished, this ideology lived on through Jim Crow laws, lynching and, later, the War on Drugs. And while the civil rights movement disrupted some of these more modern forms of racial control, the legacy of disparate outcomes has continued in the 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
That’s 400 years of history bearing down on the present.
Yet we live with narratives created by those mainly white Americans who benefitted from social constructions of race and racism, rationalized their privileges and cast them as earned.
How else do we explain the existence of Confederate monuments and place names across the nation? The South didn’t win the Civil War, but Southern apologists wrote the history that allowed these monuments to be raised. Today, teachers tell us that students in the most unlikely states, from New York to Iowa and Idaho, embrace the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of their own independent spirit.
How else do we explain why, in 2017 (according to Pew), most white people believed that their race afforded them little or no advantage? Or that an NPR poll reported that, in the United States today, 55 percent of white people believe they are victims of racial discrimination?
The only way to explain it is that too many of us are comfortable with a history that tells us that past injustices have been corrected. It’s certainly easier this way; if we’re not encumbered with the responsibility of seeing injustice, then we’re not encumbered with the responsibility to do anything about it.
Learning history can correct false narratives and lead us to make better choices. Understanding how slavery operated, how much of our nation’s foundation was built by black labor, and how racial myths have been bred into the bones of American life may be the only way we can ever reconcile with—and triumph—over the past.
We invite you to join with us in Teaching Hard History and to become part of the journey.