Historians complain that a Trump Syllabus is as white as the man himself

Historians in the News
tags: election 2016, Trump



A letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

To the Editor:

Over the past year, scholars have curated a number of public syllabi and reading lists, most crowdsourced through social media, to provide historical context for understanding various contemporary events and phenomena. Many of these carefully thought-out efforts represent the best of academic public engagement, respect for scholarly diversity, and a commitment to social justice.

On every count, the "Trump Syllabus" (June 24, 2016), published as part of The Chronicle Review’s special issue on the "phenomenon that is Donald Trump’s presidential campaign," does not. We, the undersigned, find the "Trump Syllabus" highly objectionable and call upon The Chronicle Reviewto make immediate revisions.

The syllabus fails to include the works of scholars of color, thereby perpetuating the message that the only works worth reading in American political history are those written by white scholars. In a syllabus that promises to offer "insights from history, literature, philosophy, political science, psychology, and beyond," the authors have excluded seminal works in all of these fields written by scholars of color. It also centers the scholarship of (white) men and overlooks any work produced by LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups in the United States. The lack of diverse voices on this syllabus is not only inappropriate but also highly offensive. As the historian N.D.B. Connolly explains in the comments section, "this syllabus offers a disgraceful example of white methodological myopia." Regardless of The Chronicle Review’s intent, the syllabus reinforces the same racist, sexist, and xenophobic messages articulated by Trump and many of his supporters.

The syllabus is also grossly inaccurate and incomprehensive in its avoidance of many central issues relating to the Trump campaign. A "Trump Syllabus" that fails to include works on sexism, racism, whiteness, immigration, xenophobia, Islamophobia, or nativism is not only intellectually dishonest but irresponsible. As educators, we have a duty and responsibility to present an accurate and nuanced portrayal of our history, and any attempt to explain the phenomenon of Trump’s campaign must take into account race, gender, and religion. Significantly, any discussion of Trump’s campaign must consider the voices and experiences of those most affected by Trump’s (divisive) rhetoric — namely, Latin@s, American Indians, women, Muslims, immigrants, and African-Americans. Avoiding these core voices, while emphasizing trivial issues such as "New York City in the era of Big Hair," further serves to marginalize those who bear the brunt of criticism and disdain by Trump and his supporters. Integrating more diverse readings and perspectives would have significantly enhanced the syllabus by shedding light on key issues and historical developments, including white popular sovereignty, the racial contract, and "color-blind" racism.

Perhaps one of the most glaring omissions is the fact that the syllabus fails to acknowledge the intellectual genealogy on which it is based. So committed to presenting a "whites-only" portrayal of American political history, The Chronicle Review completely ignores the fact that it draws inspiration from several earlier initiatives led by scholars of color, including the #Fergusonsyllabus and the #Charlestonsyllabus. These efforts, rooted in urgent needs for racial awareness, utilize an interdisciplinary and inclusive approach to shed light on contemporary events — an approach sorely lacking here.

For all of these reasons, the "Trump Syllabus" should not have been published (as is) by The Chronicle Review. The editors’ decision to publish the syllabus without ensuring the inclusion of more diverse issues and voices only underscores their racial illiteracy. As Connolly so accurately explains in the comments section, "Intended or not, this document offers sad testimony to the ongoing segregation of American political history, and is far less an interrogation of racism than an artifact of racism itself."

N.D.B. Connolly, Johns Hopkins University

Keisha N. Blain, University of Iowa

Chad Williams, Brandeis University

Stephen G. Hall, Alcorn State University

Leah Wright, Harvard University

A full list of signatories is available at the website of the African American Intellectual History Society.

Editor’s Note: We apologize for the absence of works by scholars of color and other marginalized groups. We recognize that these omissions are offensive. Responsibility rests solely with The Chronicle, not the scholars who offered suggestions for the syllabus. We have and will continue to cover issues of race, and we’d like to hear from you. Please write to us at editor@chronicle.com.




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