American History Wars
by Benjamin H. Johnson, Professor in the Department of History and the School of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago
The tumultuous and bitter politics of the United States have come – or rather, returned – to the history classroom. As a scholar of racial violence whose first book documented the consequences of racial violence perpetrated by the Texas Rangers and vigilantes, I am not surprised to find that the teaching of U.S. history can be controversial. But recent developments have turned universities’ history curricula into a battleground of partisan politics.
In the past months, a number of state legislatures have passed measures regulating the teaching of American history. Most of these laws ban the teaching of critical race theory, an approach to race developed by legal scholars that stresses the importance of institutions and policies, rather than culture and individual attitudes, in creating race and maintaining racial hierarchies. Many explicitly forbid the teaching of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a set of essays that frames slavery as foundational to the United States and that stresses the continuity of anti-black racism across American history.
These laws have all been passed and proposed by Republican state legislators, working in a loose network supported by the right wing policy group American Legislative Exchange Council. Former Trump administration official Russell Vought has posted language for such bills that has been incorporated verbatim into numerous measures. These advocates are not shy about their goals – to promote “patriotic” education that fosters awareness of “the history of prosperity and democratic freedom in the state,” as stated in one of at least three Texas bills. The Texas legislation also bans teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”
Collectively this legislation is an attack on the teaching of an American history that honestly reckons with racial inequality and that ties the past to such present questions as police violence and enormous wealth disparities by race. It is a big step toward replacing the judgment of historians and other educators with state propaganda. No wonder that measures of this sort have been opposed by historical associations and teachers’ unions.
Given that nearly identical bills have been passed or introduced in about half of the states, there is no doubt that this push reflects the strength of the right wing in contemporary United States politics. The history teaching aimed for in these bills is closer to what one sees in authoritarian regimes like Hungary, Poland, or China than to liberal democracies. Can one imagine, for example, a major German party proposing legislation banning the teaching of the long histories of anti-semitism, or prohibiting teachers from presenting the Holocaust as anything other than an exception to a history of tolerance and inclusion? Where the American legislation rather oddly includes the mandate to avoid “that any individual should feel or be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological or emotional distress on account of that individual’s race or sex,” most of us understand that such feelings are natural, even healthy responses to learning about one’s ancestors’ roles in such horrific practices as slavery, lynching, and genocide.
Yet it is worth asking how successful this legislation is likely to be. Whether these measures succeed in marginalizing the teaching of such historical topics as slavery and mob violence remains an open question.
On the one hand, educators, particularly primary and high school teachers, are vulnerable to this kind of legislating from above. In early July, for example, Tennessee history teacher Matthew Hahn was dismissed by his school board for teaching a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay about the Trump Presidency and whiteness. The conservative Texas Policy Foundation circulated a list of terms such as “colonialism” and “ white supremacy” that it warned parents and students might mean critical race theory was being taught. Texas’ Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who has succeeded in electoral politics largely on the basis of his stance against Latin American immigration, ordered the Bullock Museum of Texas History to withdraw sponsorship of a talk by authors of the book Forget the Alamo, which argues that protecting slavery was one of the causes of the Texas Revolution. One of the most insidious provisions included in many of these bills is a measure that limits the connections that organizations with “private funding” that engage in “social or public policy advocacy” can make with teachers and school districts. This provision could be used to ban the kind of work that Refusing to Forget, an organization that I and other scholars of the US-Mexico border founded to foster the memory of anti-Latino racial violence, has done with teachers and state institutions like the Bullock Museum of Texas History. (The provision is also so broadly written that it might be used against conservative groups as well).
On the other hand, those of us intent on teaching an honest American history that looks unflinchingly at dark chapters from the past and relates them to contemporary social issues also have considerable resources on which to draw. Numerous legal challenges are being mounted against the bill, most on the grounds that it violates the first amendment right to free speech of teachers. As literary historian John Morán González and I argued earlier this year in the Washington Post, the explosion of scholarship on African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Indigenous peoples since the 1970s has changed the teaching of American history at every level. Textbooks used in schools and universities today more accurately depict the extent and role of slavery, the violence and disfranchisement visited on Latino and Black populations, and their struggles for civil rights since the 19th century. Many teachers and school districts have welcomed this new content, in part because it better connects to the world in which their students — fewer and fewer of whom are white — live. Our experience is that many public history professionals at museums are similarly interested in presenting inclusive and sensitive accounts of the past, and in drawing on scholarly expertise to do so.
The view of American history as upbeat and inclusive that undergirds this legislative onslaught is also likely to fall apart when its specific measures are implemented in the classroom. What happens when a teacher assigns the U.S. constitution, and students point to the 3/5 clause and provisions for a fugitive slave act, and wonder if racism is not merely a “deviation from” the “authentic principles” of the founding of the United States? Or when a teacher assigns Texas’ 1836 Constitution, which explicitly mandates the continuation of slavery, bans the Texas legislature from limiting slavery and individual slaveholders from emancipating their property, and made it illegal for any free person of African descent to live in Texas? Our students are neither dumb nor pliable, as the authors of these bills seem to assume. One does not have to say “critical race theory” – three words I don’t think have ever been uttered in a classroom together in my twenty-five years of university teaching – to prompt a conversation about the deep ways in which American institutions have fostered race and racism. Honesty in the classroom is hard to outlaw.
In a more general sense, the debates over these kinds of interventions into history teaching may risk obscuring just how much ground the advocates of a triumphalist and uncritical U.S. history have already ceded. The glorification of the Confederacy – the states that attempted to secede from the United States in 1861 and thus prompted the bloody civil war that ended slavery – occupied the highest levels of American society for more than a century, from around 1900 to recent years. Not only were numerous statues to Confederate leaders such as General Robert E. Lee and President of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis erected across the South, but also in the capital of the United States. Confederate flags abounded and many schools (like the high school I attended in Houston, Texas) had the “rebels” as their mascot. But in recent years the explosion of anti-racist protests connected with the Black Lives Matter movement have created extraordinary changes. Statues of Davis and other Confederate luminaries were pulled down or removed by city authorities in Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital (in what historian Matthew Karp has called the “second fall of Richmond”), across the South, and from the U.S. capital. Even the notoriously conservative racing car association, NASCAR, banned the flying of the Confederate flag.
The proponents of the recent legislation about history teaching seem to fear that if coercive measures are not resorted to, students will be exposed to accounts of U.S. history that suggest that race and racism are central and enduring features of its national history. In this sense, surely they are right, and perhaps their efforts will end up being a rearguard action in a battle already lost.
About the author
Benjamin H. Johnson is a Professor in the Department of History and the School of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago. He is the author of numerous works on the U.S. Mexico border, including Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans (2003), Bordertown: The Odyssey of an American Place (2008), and Bridging National Borders in North America (2010). He also teaches and studies environmental history; his most recent publication in that field is Escaping the Dark, Gray City: Fear and Hope in Progressive-Era Conservation (2017). Johnson helped to found the “Refusing to Forget” Project, which commemorates the legacies of the border violence of the 1910s.