Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
In certain states, we are witnessing a dangerous, all-out assault on how elementary and high school students will be taught the history of racism and civil rights in the United States. And it’s only a matter of time before this campaign reaches our college campuses.
In recent months, many conservatives have turned “Critical Race Theory” into the new weapon they’re trying to wield against Democrats, akin to the migrant “caravan” and “socialism” memes they’ve invoked in recent years. They are stoking fears in communities around the country about what their kids are learning in the classroom.
Last summer, as a result of the killing of George Floyd, many people finally started to focus on the horrors that Black Americans have long faced at the hands of our criminal justice system. Now this new conservative assault is threatening to eclipse the reckoning over racism with a McCarthyite frenzy over school curricula.
The most recent legislative effort to cancel out our understanding of the history of racism in America is taking place in Texas. The Republican-controlled state Senate passed a bill that would undermine the ability of teachers to offer substantive and accurate lessons about the nation’s past.
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 Cesar Chavez – would be pushed out of the required content for the courses.
According to Bloomberg Law, the author of the bill, State Sen. Bryan Hughes, said, “What we’re doing with this bill, we’re saying that specific reading list doesn’t belong in statute.”
The bill would also eliminate a requirement that students learn about the history of white supremacy and the “ways in which it is morally wrong.” The book that is to be published this fall from the New York Times’ 1619 Project would be prohibited in Texas.
Nor is Texas alone. The attacks on civil rights history are taking place in other states like Tennessee, where a bill passed by the House would ensure that teachers could not work with students on any material that makes them “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.”
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 kinds of subjects and readings that are at the heart of these legislative purges go far beyond a theory born out of the research of law school scholars in the 1970s. Rather, the kinds of bills that we are seeing pass in states like Texas amount to the imposition of a very particular version of patriotic education that seeks to downplay the failures and injustices of the United States. This quickly becomes propaganda rather than history.
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.
In 1968, the Kerner Commission, an official group established by former President Lyndon Johnson filled with mainstream “establishment figures,” concluded that the nature of policing and the economic organization of inner cities produced racism.
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.
Historians who study the 19th Century have published fascinating books and articles about how the institution of slavery impacted almost every aspect of America’s political life – from the organization of Congress, which empowered southern Democrats and slaveholders – to foreign policies that benefited the southern economy. Southern slaveholders had immense political power, so it isn’t that surprising that they worked hard to inscribe themselves and their interests into the country’s institutions.
And the list goes on and on.
While there are of course always going to be examples of these topics being handled poorly or of shallow training programs disconnected from the substance of this scholarship – and there are legitimate historical debates over subjects such as those tackled in the 1619 Project – it would be a massive mistake for politicians to preclude classroom discussions on the ways in which institutions perpetuate racism.
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.
Learning history isn’t meant to provide comfort. As historian Timothy Snyder wrote in The New York Times, “History is not therapy, and discomfort is part of growing up. As a teacher, I cannot exclude the possibility, for example, that my non-Jewish students will feel psychological distress learning how little the United States did for Jewish refugees in the 1930s.”
The political mobilization against civil rights history is a dangerous development. While it started as a talking point for Fox News hosts and conservative politicians, it is now turning into a legislative reality that will have devasting effects on the quality of the historical knowledge of our youth.
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.