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What history are White people so afraid of?
Just exactly what is it about White people and race in America? The Tea Party’s need to, “Take the country back?” The dread of the year 2044 when White people will become a minority – and what…People of Color will pay them back for the past few hundred years? The pressing need to feel superior. To have the playing field slanted to their benefit. Voter suppression. Affirmative Action. The endless opposition to light rail and to more affordable housing. The opposition to natural hair in the workplace, i.e. braids and dreadlocks. The ever-present, “Ending racism (and allowing equality) takes time.” Or…“There’s been progress (over the last 404 years) so just be patient!” Exclusionary zoning. Violence. “The Talk” that Black parents have to have with their children regarding police. Politicians using race to gin up the fear that gets out the vote. The neighborhoods. But most of all….the schools.
This is a story about a school in Chapin, South Carolina, a teacher named Mary Wood, and a writer named Ta-Nehisi Coates. You’ve never heard of Chapin or Mary Wood. But if the name Ta-Nehisi Coates sounds familiar it’s probably because he’s written a NY Times Best Seller and garnered a few writing awards. Eleven at last count, including the prestigious National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism for "Fear of a Black President; the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism; the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism for "Fear of a Black President"; Harriet Beecher Stowe Center Prize for Writing to Advance Social Justice for "The Case for Reparations"; Fellow of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; and National Book Award for Nonfiction for Between the World and Me
But really, this is a story about the concern that so many White people seem to have about teaching the history of America’s on-going struggle with race.
South Carolina is just one of many states to restrict education on race, according to an Education Week tally. And per this analysis, at least half the country has passed laws that limit instruction on race, history, sex or gender identity.
Dwell on that for a moment. Laws that limit the teaching of actual history and restrict lessons on race - America’s number one, longest living, most damaging trauma. It’s been left untreated for so long that it’s made the country sick. As Mary Wood said to me when I contacted her, “An educated populace is the only way to create a more equitable future.” Of course, Ms. Wood is assuming that America wants to be more equitable.
America has always been conflicted about who we say we are and who we actually are. We have a lot of stirring rhetoric that we repeat at every opportunity. The words ‘freedom’ and ‘created equal’ and ‘liberty’ and ‘justice for all’ and ‘life’ are tossed around a lot as God-given, inalienable rights. “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
White Americans, and especially Conservative Christians like to believe that’s who America is. They seem to know intuitively that if America taught the history of race in this country that it would be hard to hold onto our rhetoric. So in states like SC, they outlaw teachers from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of their race.
When Ms. Wood introduced the best seller, “Between the world and me”, a book that dissects what it means to be Black in America by acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates to her Advanced Placement language class, the school shut her down with a two-word edict: “Pause instruction” of Coates’s book.
Ms. Wood is not the first teacher to get caught in the crossfire: According to the Washington Post at least 160 educators have lost their positions since the pandemic due to political debates. Among them was a Tennessee teacher terminated for telling White students that White privilege is a fact. A Texas principal who lost his job for allegedly promoting critical race theory. A Wisconsin teacher who was dismissed after criticizing her district’s decision to ban the song “Rainbowland,” which advocates for inclusivity.[i] Since January, 2021, 44 states have passed laws or taken other measures that restrict or limit how teachers can discuss racism or sexism.[ii]
In 2019 the NY Times launched the 1619 Project that attempts to re-frame the history of the United States to illuminate the legacy of slavery and the many contributions of Black Americans to every aspect of the United States. The Times also developed a curriculum that was free to schools. School districts across the country took immediate steps to forbid the use of the 1619 curriculum and to limit what could be taught about the country’s on-going history and struggle with race.
The Trump administration threatened to withhold federal funding from any school district that used the 1619 curriculum. Trump also quickly formed the 1716 Commission to promote patriotism in the classroom. Hillsdale College, a Trump ally, followed his lead and developed a 3,268-page curriculum to “fairly and comprehensively” emphasize and promote patriotism, American history, and American exceptionalism. The Hillsdale guidebook warns against other “fashionable ways” to teach about America. For example, teachers are instructed to avoid discussions of political activism and ideology and the roles of major corporations, ethnicity, and race.
Thirteen states fought a war to preserve White dominion over Black Americans and with no mincing of words, they were clear about what they were fighting over. In his famous ‘Cornerstone speech’, given days before the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumpter, Alexander Stevens, Vice President of the Confederacy was both eloquent and precise: The new (Confederate) constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution. African slavery as it exists amongst us is the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization… Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea (of equality among the races); its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, (to be) based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Every state that seceded held a convention to decide whether to secede or not to secede. Meticulous minutes were kept that make it clear why the confederate states seceded and what they thought of Black people.
In addition to the state conventions, five seceding states, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Mississippi all wrote brief open letters explaining their decision to secede. Referred to as the “Declaration of Causes”, they were all somewhat similar. Texas wrote this; “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable. That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.”
So there you have it. Before the war – slavery, servitude, and white supremacy. After the war - rhetoric, memories, and revisionist history all did a 180. It’s this “before the war” stuff that conservative white folks do not want taught to their children, lest it make them feel bad about their race. Less superior perhaps.
After the war, under pressure to justify the war and the reason leading up to it, southerners simply re-wrote history. Two years after the end of the war, Edward Pollard wrote a book that became the bible of the south, The Lost Cause – A New Southern History Of The War Of The Confederates. Take note of the word, “new”. In it he promoted that the war had nothing at all to do with slavery and everything to do with the right of the states to govern themselves without federal interference. So strongly was this promoted and adopted by southerners, that we still see and hear it commonly used today. Don’t like something…maybe school integration or integrated lunch counters or universal health care, or abortion, or gun control? States’ rights. When you now see that phrase being used, remember - it has a racist beginning and to this day is often used to mask a racist agenda.
The ‘Lost Cause’ myth was picked up and adopted by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It became their operating manual. Their bylaws. The UDC exist to honor the memory of the Confederacy. But historian and author James Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me, Lies Across America) refers to them as, “A bunch of racist old ladies promoting White supremacy.” They are behind funding and dedicating many of the Civil War statues and monuments across the nation. The UDC picked up and ran with Pollard’s revisionist history version of secession and the war, gaining considerable clout and momentum along the way.
That's how many students were enrolled in the South's public elementary and secondary schools between 1889, when the government began counting students, and 1969, the height of the segregationist Jim Crow era, according to the U.S. Department of Education statistics. During those years the UDC was in a position to inspect, monitor, and approve the text books used in the public schools across the south. The UDC scrutinized them through the alternative reality lens of The Lost Cause, a false version of U.S. history developed in response to Reconstruction that minimizes slavery's central role in the Civil War, promotes the Confederacy's aim as a heroic one, glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, and portrays the white South as the victim.[iii]
Along the way, when the UDC wasn’t screening text books and putting up statues in recognition of people who took up arms against the United States, they were busy giving speeches, writing and distributing pamphlets to their constituents. Their aim was to re-write history. They were successful. Very, very successful.
Pew Research estimates that around 40% of Americans, including teachers, do not know that the secession and the war were about slavery. James Loewen and other historians who’s focus is on the Civil War era believe the number to be closer to 80%. That’s a problem because by promoting the myth slavery was benign and that enslaved people and their masters loved each other like family hides the truth about the horrors of slavery that are covered up and hidden from view. That leads to the belief held by so many that racism either isn’t real or is not much of an issue.
In April, Pew Research asked Americans which was the bigger problem facing the country when it comes to matters of race: People overlooking racism when it exists or seeing racism in places where there is none. Almost half (45%) said people seeing discrimination where it does not exist is the bigger issue. Overall, more than half of White Americans (54%) said people seeing non-existent racism was the bigger problem.
Most Republicans and those who lean Republican (74%) said that people seeing non-existent racism is a bigger problem, while 80% of Democrats say the bigger problem is people not seeing racism that exists.
A different poll in 2016 found that 56% of White people believe that discrimination against White people was as big or bigger a problem as discrimination against Black people. 45% of MAGA republicans believe they face a lot of discrimination while only 22% felt that Black or Brown people face a lot of discrimination.
By believing that racism doesn’t exist, or isn’t much of an issue, when you look at Black Americans being at the very bottom of every matrix, the only conclusion that you can come to is that Black and Brown Americans are stupid, lazy, prone to drugs, alcohol and crime. They need to be incarcerated, not lent a helping hand.
So there you go. That’s the history that so many parents, politicians, and school boards do not want you to know. We could be a better country. Ask Mary Wood.
Oh…and I highly recommend the Facing South article about the UDC and The Lost Cause.