White people love critical race theories.
While they generally oppose Critical Race Theory, the academic movement started by Black scholars, they have historically embraced the uncapitalized version of race theory. However, because so many see whiteness as a default, they don’t understand that their entire education has already been racialized. The fact that most people know about Betsy Ross’ amazing ability to sew or Paul Revere’s talent for riding and yelling, but have never heard of Mary Ellen Pleasant or Colonel Tye is proof that the American education system is filtered through the lens of whiteness.
So when Mitch McConnell and 38 Republican senators sent a letter to the secretary of education decrying the ghastly prospect of white students having to learn actual facts about slavery, it was not unexpected. For centuries, this country’s schools have perpetuated a whitewashed version of history that either erases or reduces the story of Black America down to a B-plot in the American script. It’s why they hate Critical Race Theory, The 1619 Project and anything factual—because the white-centric interpretation of our national past is so commonly accepted, white people have convinced themselves that anything that varies from the Caucasian interpretation must be a lie.
This is not new,” Jelani Cobb told The Root. “One of the most under-discussed topics in education is the role slavery plays in the early history of the country.”
Cobb, a journalist and educator, earned a Ph.D. in American history under the supervision of David L. Lewis, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his two-volume Biography of W. E. B. Dubois, the American giant whose early works provided the template for the study of the history of Black people in America. As a professor at institutions from Columbia University to the historically Black Spelman College, Cobb notes that the “propaganda of history” has been so whitewashed that most people don’t realize that they learned a whitewashed version of America’s founding.
“It is important to realize that all history is revisionist history,” Cobb explained. “The established historiographies are constantly revised as we learn more information.”
Even though no teacher in America has been hogtied and forced to teach the curriculum devised by historians, journalists and people who know things, The Root was curious. If The 1619 Project is an attempt to rewrite history, which version of history does the GOP fear is being altered?
The Root decided to see what some of the signatories to Mitch McConnell’s Strawberry Letter knew about slavery and Black history. We dug through state curriculum standards, yearbooks and spoke with teachers to see which interpretation of history the white tears-spewing politicians learned when they were in elementary and high school. In doing so, there are certain things we realized:
- There is no one Social Studies curriculum: Most states’ departments of educations create a K-12 social studies curriculum that sets a minimum standard for what students should learn by a certain grade (Here is Georgia’s). The rest is usually left up to the districts, schools and even the teachers.
- There are two histories: As someone who was homeschooled, this was a revelation to me. The majority of K-12 students cycle through two levels of social studies. The basics of geography, civics and history are usually taught in elementary and middle school. Students learn another, more detailed history and civics curriculum in high school that usually includes separate courses for civics/government, world history, and American history.
- But really, there are three histories: Many states mandate a “state history” course, usually from a limited selection of one or two state-approved textbooks. In some cases, the state course totally contradicts what the students learn in American history classes.
- Sometimes there are four histories. There are some states where students take two different state history courses—one elementary level class and one high school level class.
- ...Or six histories: Take Georgia, for instance. In elementary school, students learn the basics of American history and state history. In middle school, they take world history and another year of state history. In high school, they do it over again, with mandatory courses in world history and U.S. history. However, in Georgia, and in most states, students use textbooks from different publishers and authors, many of which tell completely contradictory versions of the same stories.
- But no Black history: Aside from cursory mentions of the Civil War, Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, most state educational curriculums don’t specify how much history should be dedicated to Black history. In Georgia, students have courses on Native American history, Latin American and Caribbean culture, a course that combines African and Asian geography, but nothing specifically on Black history.