This Black History Month, Americans are trying to whitewash US history
OPINION: Republicans like Ron DeSantis are doing their best to ban any teaching of America’s racist past
February is Black History Month in the United States, a time in which national institutions related to history and culture “join in paying tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society”. This year, Black History Month comes amid heated right-wing attacks on education, many of which centre on banning the teaching of America’s actual racist history in public schools.
In the summer of 2020, following the brutal murder in Minneapolis of George Floyd, who was Black, by police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, the US was engulfed in massive protests amid an outcry against systemic racism and anti-Black police violence.
Since then, Republican politicians and activists have increasingly fixated on opposing the supposed teaching of ‘critical race theory’ (CRT) as an issue to motivate the party’s mostly white, aggrieved majoritarian base, who like to scream about “CRT” when they’re not screaming about drag shows. (In reality, it’s highly unlikely that any American schoolchildren are being exposed to theory typically reserved for advanced undergraduate or even postgraduate university studies.)
Painting the majority as the ‘real’ victims in order to justify attacks on othered groups is a characteristic tactic of fascist movements and regimes, and the Republicans have moved in this direction with both their embrace of the “great replacement” racist conspiracy theory and their campaign against what they are calling CRT – by which they appear to mean nothing more than the teaching of truths about US history that might make white children feel uncomfortable.
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Instead, the Republicans want a fantastically whitewashed version of our country’s realities in which our founding fathers were entirely upstanding; the ugly history of slavery, Jim Crow and redlining – the practice of keeping African Americans from buying homes in desirable areas – have no lingering effects for which reparations could be owed; and efforts to address discrimination and inequality in the workplace constitute the only discrimination that we need to worry about in the US today.
The example of Florida
According to the CRT Forward tracker maintained by the UCLA School of Law, about a quarter of US states have introduced laws against the teaching of CRT, while many more such initiatives (567 to date) have been introduced at local, state and federal levels. But few, if any, states have gone as far as Florida.
For the disproportionately powerful minority of Americans who want to ban classroom discussion of racism, non-heteronormative gender and sexuality (and much else besides), Florida governor Ron DeSantis has emerged as a champion – arguably an even more significant champion than ex-president Donald Trump.
The two are expected to compete to become the Republican candidate in the next presidential election, in 2024. DeSantis is a smoother and more sophisticated political operator than Trump, which may allow him to do even greater damage to American institutions as president than Trump could.
He has already made efforts at state level to bring education and healthcare in line with right-wing orthodoxy (expertise, patient/doctor relationships and academic freedom be damned) and could well try to replicate at US-wide level his success in abusing and politicising Florida’s bureaucracy. Coupled with his talent for political theatre, this makes the prospect of a DeSantis presidency particularly troubling.
Last April, DeSantis signed into law the ‘Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act’, generally referred to as the Stop WOKE Act (which I’m sure Republicans think is very clever). The law bans not only the teaching of CRT from primary school all the way through to university (private institutions excepted), but also any diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, which the law characterises as “discrimination”.
In November, federal district judge Mark Eaton Walker issued a ruling that temporarily blocked the law being used against lecturers in state universities. Calling out DeSantis and his fellow travellers on their typically authoritarian abuse of the English language, Walker described the law as “positively dystopian”, observing that “in the name of combating ‘indoctrination’ of one perceived orthodoxy, the State allows for ‘indoctrination’ in its preferred orthodoxy.”
African American Studies: banned and changed
In his latest move, in January, DeSantis banned Florida high schools from adopting a new advanced placement (AP) course in African American Studies.
AP courses are introductory university-level courses on a wide variety of subjects that may be offered to qualifying high schoolers by their schools in cooperation with the College Board, which creates and provides the curricula. The College Board, a private, not-for-profit corporation, also administers the SAT exam, which is widely used as an admissions criterion by colleges and universities.
AP courses are popular with academic achievers because most US higher education institutions offer course credits to students who score well on relevant AP exams, thus affording them a head start on completing their (absurdly expensive) education, which may help them graduate early.
The African American Studies AP course is currently in its pilot phase, being tried out in a small number of schools. Revision to pilot courses is common, but it appears that the College Board has capitulated to the American right with the changes it has just announced to the course – it has removed engagement with Black radicalism and intersectional feminist theory, among other things that DeSantis considers “indoctrination”.
Of course, to describe engagement with any topic, writer or text as “indoctrination” is absurd in itself. I’m sure DeSantis knows this – he is playing to his base and probably intentionally trolling Americans who support diversity, equity and inclusion. To provide a banal example, I read and write about conservatives all the time without being “indoctrinated”; I’m as opposed to reactionary ideology as I’ve ever been.
Growing up white in the United States, I learned very little Black history in schools
In my view, what book-banning Republicans are really afraid of is the hard, ugly truth of US history and the implications that this truth has for how we ought to work towards a more just, democratic present and future. They love their white privilege and want to maintain it, and white privilege is most powerful and least open to challenge when no one talks explicitly about it.
Attempting to deny children access to language and thinking that might open their eyes to the racial inequities of the United States is an aggressive defensive measure – and, indeed, a kind of indoctrination. The hope is that these children will grow up to defend the status quo, or even to work to push the US further back in terms of civil rights.
Growing up white in the United States, I learned very little Black history in school. As far as I recall, I was never directly taught anything about how slaveholders routinely broke up Black families and raped their slaves, or about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, or about Malcolm X – but I did ‘learn’ that the Confederate general Robert E Lee was ostensibly an admirable man who wasn’t fighting to uphold slavery per se, but only to defend his native Virginia. We did read Harper Lee’s novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, but we didn’t dive too deeply into its more disturbing aspects.
I am confident that many American schoolchildren have a similar experience, precisely because the US is still heavily shaped by systemic racism. Facing the truth of white atrocities against Black Americans, and learning about Black responses to white supremacism that might make many of us white Americans uncomfortable, is a necessary step toward equality.
The College Board’s decision to appease white conservative Americans in its revisions to its African American Studies course is troubling – especially in the context of our current moment of right-wing backlash against civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities, women and queer people.
Bullies and authoritarians such as Ron DeSantis will not be won over, no matter how much liberals and leftists attempt to compromise with them. They can only be dealt with through staunch and sustained resistance. African American history is replete with powerful examples of resistance, and in times like these, learning from that history is critically important.
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