The latest battle over how US history is taught in public schools — part of a larger fight over how Americans see themselves — centers on “critical race theory” (CRT). Migrating from academia to the public sphere, CRT has become a catchall term for what, according to conservatives, currently ails the nation: a misguided belief that US society is inherently racist.
The pedagogical skirmish broke out after last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which concentrated not only on police brutality but symbols of racial tyranny such as Confederate monuments. The attack against applying a critical lens to history has only intensified in 2021. On Thursday, the Florida Board of Education passed a new rule that looks to block critical race theory — “teaching kids to hate their country and hate each other,” in the words of Republican governor Ron DeSantis — from the state’s schools.
A key marker of the current battle was the release of the 1776 Commission report during the waning days of the Trump administration. Lampooned by many historians, the 1776 Commission has become the template for several states seeking to counter the New York Times’ 1619 Project. This year, the South Carolina state legislature debated a bill that would have used the 1776 Commission report for US history in middle- and high-school classrooms.
Conservatives insist they’re countering the pernicious influence of biased, propaganda-filled teachings that run down the United States. But what many conservatives clearly want isn’t a balanced portrayal of the past but a sterilized, hagiographic account that closes off connecting the issues of yesteryear with the problems of the present.
The 1776 Commission’s report absurdly equates “progressivism” with slavery and fascism and argues that the racism of the Jim Crow South was, for all intents and purposes, equal to the “racism” of another modern bogeyman, “identity politics.” Regarding the goals and achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, the authors write that the movement “was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders.” The report condemns even modest policies, such as affirmative action, as “explicit group privilege” that threaten the very foundations of American freedom.
In Texas, Republican governor Greg Abbott and his allies are pushing the “1836 Project” — a reading of the state’s history that will likely leave out one of the critical reasons white Texans fought for independence in the 1830s: keeping and enshrining slavery in territory that belonged to Mexico. A project about Texas history could be rich in content, focusing on not just white Texans but Indigenous peoples and Africans and Latinos in the region. It could discuss ideological battles over what freedom meant and who was to be included in the American project. Instead, we can expect the 1836 Project to offer the usual story of heroism at the Alamo, omitting the moments when white Texans fought to preserve slavery against the Mexican government in 1836 and the American government during the Civil War.
In his chapter “The Propaganda of History” in Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880, W. E. B. Du Bois warned that the purpose of history is not to shy away from its most painful elements. “If . . . we are going to use history for our pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego, and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment,” Du Bois argued, “then we must give up the idea of history either as a science or as an art using the results of science, and admit frankly that we are using a version of historic fact in order to influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish.”
The kind of propaganda Du Bois was writing against in Black Reconstruction threatens, in one form or fashion, to return as the norm in US schools. Dealing with history as history and not merely as propaganda means being serious about America’s past.
Conservatives may not like it, but African Americans have a long history of teaching themselves and anyone else who would listen about the trials and tribulations of American history. Black-run primary schools in the twentieth-century South often had to work hard to give their students the historical lessons they needed to understand where they came from and where they could go. This wasn’t about besmirching the United States — it was about building a democracy worth the name.
There is a reason, after all, that many in the Civil Rights Movement explicitly invoked various moments in US history. During his 1965 speech in the aftermath of the Selma to Montgomery march, Martin Luther King Jr cited C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow and its portrayal of the Reconstruction and populist eras in Southern history as examples of aborted attempts at biracial democracy. “If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus,” King proclaimed, “then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow.” Knowledge of the past that showed the possibility of a multiracial coalition fighting for justice — no matter how tenuous — meant it could be done again.
The vision of history sought by those in favor of banning critical race theory or following the 1776 Commission’s precepts is one where the United States has solved all its problems and where the only issue is recalcitrant minority groups trying to change the past. Instead, we must hold on to an idea of US history that is more difficult and complicated than a rosy fairy tale.
A version of the nation’s past that ignores its problems is not merely propaganda — it is bad history.