The legislation eliminates requirements that students read a number of key writings on women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement and more. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, along with the work of figures such as Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. — as well as Cesar Chavez — would be pushed out of the required content for the courses.
This is a concerted effort to wash away some of the most crucial elements of the nation’s past. Though much of the debate is being framed as being about “Critical Race Theory” — a term that is politically useful since most Americans have no idea what it means — it’s really about teaching the history of race relations and civil rights.
The goal of the bills is not to get the history right, but to roll back deep-seated changes in historical research that have occurred since the 1970s — what many in my profession call the “social history” revolution — which rejected the depiction of this nation’s story as an inevitable march toward progress and a triumphant attainment of liberal values.
Historians throughout the country produced immense amounts of archivally-based research that documented how racism, sexism, nativism, anti-Semitism and ongoing struggles over democratic rights have been at the core of US history.
The nation’s most esteemed historians produced cutting-edge books about how different inequities played out and about the movements which arose to combat them. They wrote about how the goal for many reformers was to make true the promise of America’s founders.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said in his “I Have A Dream Speech” in 1963: “In a sense we have come to our Nation’s Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
The point of this strand of historical research is not that every American is a racist. The argument has been that even if individual Americans don’t act with racist intention, we all live in systems that produce terrible inequality and violence.
Scholars have shown how the differences in sentencing for different kinds of legal infractions — selling or using marijuana versus white collar crime, for example — resulted in a disproportionate number of Black Americans being imprisoned since the 1970s.
There is a vast history of the real estate industry using practices such as red-lining — private banks and government programs denying loans to people in neighborhoods populated by Black Americans — to perpetuate residential segregation.
Jim Crow voting laws that required literacy tests and polls taxes didn’t state that their goal was to prevent Black Americans from voting, but that was the exact objective. State laws that prohibited interracial marriage were blatantly racist but would not fit into the new educational curriculum.
And the list goes on and on.
Students will only be able to understand the positive strands of our history — the abolition movement or the great technological breakthroughs — if they have a full picture of the defects in the development of US democracy. Otherwise, they are just learning selective history that bears little relationship to the lived experience of Americans.
At moment when we need to be giving students a better and more robust historical and civic education, these efforts will take us 10 steps backward to an era when our textbooks and lesson plans offered inaccurate, skewed and bombastic versions of American history.