February, and once again too many Americans view Black History Month
as a footnote, impacting African-Americans but insignificant to the
greater country. Slavery was not merely a chapter in US history, it
was an institution that created America. However, children are not
learning about slavery, its impact, and its relevance today, and it
failure to address a legacy of enslavement and racial oppression
makes the US ill-equipped to deal with present-day injustices and
Southern Poverty Law Center has sounded the alarm by releasing a
Hard History: American Slavery.”
SPLC insists the country needs an intervention, and urges states,
school districts and textbook publishers to stop avoiding the hard
truths about slavery. According to the report, the white supremacy
and racism afflicting America today stem from the racial theories
used to justify the enslavement of African and native peoples.
long reach continues into the present day,” the SPLC says. “The
persistent and wide socioeconomic and legal disparities that
African-Americans face today and the backlash that seems to follow
every African-American advancement trace their roots to slavery and
its aftermath. If we are to understand the world today, we must
understand slavery’s history and continuing impact.”
United States teaches slavery in a way that lacks historical context,
accentuates historical positives while ignoring a troubling legacy,
and covers a difficult past only to the extent those problems were
resolved, the SPLC notes.
teach slavery as a purely Southern phenomenon, and focus exclusively
on white experiences, with scant attention to the impact on black
people. Some teachers lead students in re-enactments
exercises involving slave auctions and the Middle Passage - the
forced journey across the Atlantic in which at least 2
million Africans died
- which could traumatize children and impede learning.
history curricula ignore the role of white supremacy that justified
racial violence against African-Americans, and the connections
between the past and the present.
of high school seniors, social studies teachers, state history
curriculum standards and widely used textbooks tells the story. The
report found that only 8% of high school seniors identified slavery
as the cause of the Civil War and 68% were unaware a constitutional
amendment ended slavery. Moreover, fewer than one-quarter could
identify how specific parts of the Constitution benefited slave
more than 90% of teachers claim they are “comfortable”
teaching slavery to students, 58% of teachers found textbooks
inadequate, and 40% said their state provides inadequate support.
developed a rubric for textbooks to determine how comprehensively
they covered slavery and the plight of enslaved people. The best
textbook the organization reviewed achieved a score of 70%, with the
average textbook earning a paltry 46%.
course, states have their own standards for textbooks. But none of
the 15 sets of standards that were analyzed by the SPLC addressed how
white supremacist ideology justified the institution, and “most
[state standards] fail to lay out meaningful requirements for
learning about slavery, about the lives of the millions of enslaved
people, or about how their labor was essential to the American
clear disconnect from reality is what happens when the school system
fails to teach how the trading of human beings fueled US capitalism
and the Industrial Revolution, and made America a global
about what would happen if students opened a textbook and found that
in 1860, nearly 4 million enslaved people of African descent were
worth $3.5 billion - more than the nation’s railroads and
manufacturing combined, and the most
valuable single asset in America.
Banks, corporations and universities profited from slavery, providing
inherited wealth for whites, with centuries of unpaid wages for black
labor, helping explain today’s racial wealth gap.
post-Civil War Reconstruction came black empowerment and federal
troops to protect the newly emancipated in the South. When the troops
withdrew, whites re-established slavery through the economic
exploitation of sharecropping, criminalization of African-American
men, black disenfranchisement, and a reign of domestic terror
of black elected officials.
the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white Southerners looking to
bolster white supremacy and justify Jim Crow reimagined the
Confederacy as a defender of democracy and protector of white
womanhood. To perpetuate this falsehood, they littered the country
with monuments to the Lost Cause,” wrote Ohio State University
professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries in the report.
young people don’t understand the history behind racial
tensions in America, they become adults who don’t understand
why NFL players kneel in protest against repeated racial injustices.
students saw Charlottesville explode, they should have been able to
call to mind history lessons on Jim Crow, a time when white
supremacists erected Confederate monuments honoring the “Lost
1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” glorified the KKK and
the Confederacy, and President
who segregated the federal government, screened it at the White
House, declaring, “It’s like writing history with
lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Learning about Wilson’s views on the Klan would help students
understand why there was such an outcry by civil rights activists
when President Donald Trump proclaimed there were “very fine
people on both sides” in Charlottesville.
this historical knowledge, students cannot understand why 6
million African-American refugees fled the South
between 1916 and 1960 in the nation’s largest mass migration,
or why we even needed a civil rights movement.
are being forced to refight old civil rights battles. Wealthy
landowners constructed race and white supremacy to “divide
and keep enslaved Africans and European indentured servants from
banding together for economic justice. Poor
Southern white men
-whose labor was rendered obsolete and wages kept low by slavery -
fought and died to preserve the plantation police state “pure,
unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock.”
we see how racism manipulates the white poor and working class to
believe people of color are the cause of their problems. Trump’s
anti-immigration policies of “the wall” and mass
deportation for undocumented immigrants from nonwhite “shithole
countries” harken back to the lawsadvocated
a century ago by white
supremacists and eugenicists
to preserve stop the “vast
of brown people from Asia, and promote the
illegal deportation of 600,000 US citizens of Mexican heritage.
years before Colin Kaepernick took a knee against police brutality,
at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City - two African-Americans,
one white Australian - protested
against racial oppression
with their iconic Black Power salute during the National Anthem. Just
as these Olympians were shunned and subjected to death threats for
their bold stance against injustice, today’s NFL
athlete-activists are criminalized, labeled ungrateful
That anti-racism protests engender more outrage than racial injustice
demonstrates this nation must do better.
Santayana famously said those who cannot remember the past are
condemned to repeat it. Never will America address its fundamental
challenges if it refuses to learn the lessons of history and teach
its children well.
commentary was also posted on CNN.com