How Should Slavery, Jim Crow, and Racism Be Taught in Schools?

How should we teach Americans about race in our schools? In my colonial history classes I have had much success teaching Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom. The book is aging, but it still provides a good introduction as it shows how the colonies first brutalized indentured servants, often working them to death, and then, in time, turned to slavery and an ever deeper racism.

One of my favorite moments in class was when an African American student said, essentially, “I might have done the same thing had I been in their shoes.” In other words, truly to understand the rise and progress of slavery and racism is to understand it from a human perspective. Morally speaking, there but for the grace of God go we. We are more likely to prevent evils from occurring when we see how well-meaning humans, and not cartoon villains, make horrible choices. Recall the profound truth that Satan is a fallen angel, perhaps implying that evil is often the result of a misguided effort to do good.

But how to teach race and slavery before college? Consider that question as part of a larger one: Why do we teach American history? We teach our children U.S. history not simply to understand how the nation came to be what it is today, and not simply as philosophy by example (by exploring the record of events, we learn what kind of creatures we humans are and what might and might not be done with them), but also because it is a fundamental part of civic education. As such, we learn about American democracy historically. Moreover, as human beings seem to be tribal by nature, our self-understanding is, in part, based upon how we understand the history of our tribe. How we teach American history shapes America’s self-understanding, and how our kids learn our history, inevitably, will shape how they behave when they take on the responsibilities of citizenship when they are adults.

This concern with how teaching shapes the civic character of our children explains the dust-up over what is being called “critical race theory.” (I put it that way because the brand “critical race theory” has now become a common term for something different from how academics use the term, just as since the New Deal the term “liberal” has been used in the U.S. for an ideology that is different from what philosophers mean by “liberal.”) In order to step up the teaching of race in our classrooms, many teachers are bringing, it seems, a Manichaean “anti-racist” pedagogy into the classrooms, teaching a simplified “whites are bad” and “minorities good” line. In some cases, they have literally separated white students, and, after the fashion of a Maoist-style struggle session, had them confess their racial privilege, or participate in “privilege walks.” The training and pedagogy that Paul Rossi describes at New York City’s elite Grace Church School is more common than many would like to admit.

It is important to remember that each cohort of children is learning U.S. history for the first time. If we were teaching, say, white college students who spent their teens learning U.S. history in the Jim Crow South, then, perhaps a compensatory pushback might make sense. And that seems to be how the purveyors of today’s “anti-racist” education seem to see it. But today’s children have yet to learn U.S. history, and given this, we have the ability to re-center and re-balance the storyline from day one. Presenting a reverse image of the neo-Confederate line (that is, the true America is the America of the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South, and of a North where racism was also extensive) is unlikely to foster racial progress. In time, in fact, it is more likely to reinforce and deepen racial tribalism, as many whites will conclude that they are inescapably on “team white” and will act accordingly. The students who wore “White Lives Matter” T-shirts to school are reacting as one would expect many kids to react. The effort to replace the stigmatization of blacks with stigmatization of whites is unlikely to work.

Recall Frederick Douglass’s comment that he left William Lloyd Garrison’s extremist camp because he was “sick and tired of arguing on the slaveholder’s side.” The argument that the American founding and Constitution were pro-slavery was the South’s argument. In his extreme condemnation of the founding, Garrison implicitly agreed. Douglass recognized that Garrison was wrong, and he also understood that it was not the best argument to move the nation forward against slavery. Teaching Americans to be proud of their country, even as they seek to improve it, is much more likely to bear fruit. The philo-patriotic mode produced the North that fought and won the Civil War, and the America that supported the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (when the nation was 88 percent white).

Much of today’s “anti-racist” teaching, following the 1619 Project’s view that racism is “in America’s DNA,” embraces the point of view Douglass rejected—that to move forward we need to reject the founding and the Constitution. (That, incidentally, is the line that connects this educational turn to the original critical race theory—the idea that the problem is the liberalism of the founding, and not, as most Americans think, the failure to live up to the ideals of 1776.) In other words, woke teachers are pushing a self-contradictory line: to love America is to hate what America has been.

The backlash we are seeing grows, I suspect, from an instinctive understanding parallel to Douglass’: that (a) such an anti-American approach is unlikely to produce racial progress, and (b) it’s not, in fact, true to most white people’s understanding of the American story. That many African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants and their children integrate into and rise rapidly in the United States suggests that racism in the United States isn’t anything like it used to be. This view is not confined to whites. Black critics of this form of “anti-racist” instruction, such as John McWhorter, are much more typical than critics think. Recall that in progressive California, voters by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin rejected an amendment to legalize affirmative action in the state. Californians do not think that affirmative action is essential to racial progress. The opposition to critical race theory in the classroom reflects a similar spirit.

I am not saying that the muckraking approach to the past does not have an important role to play in our work as historians. What I am saying is that it is a mistake to make it the center of civic education. (Recall that Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “muckraker” to describe journalists who, like the man with the muck rake in Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” spent all his days looking down at muck). It would be better to wean our children on inspiring stories. In kindergarten and lower grades it probably would be better to teach, say, the story of Frederick Douglass, the underground railroad, the end of slavery in the North in the decades after 1776 and in the South later, and to teach the Civil Rights movement and end of Jim Crow. Mention slave catchers and Bull Connor, of course, but focus on Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. As children age, it becomes time to teach the tragedies and complexities in more depth and in more detail—the racism of the North even after slavery, the harshness of Jim Crow, the history of redlining, the resistance to desegregation. Teach the rise of the first and second Klans, incidents like the pogrom (for want of a better term) in Tulsa in 1921 and the like, and some of the evils of slavery and Jim Crow, but only introduce the truly gruesome details of the stories in high school when children are mature enough to begin to wrestle with the problem of human evil. Similarly, it makes more sense to focus on our common humanity and citizenship in earlier years and to bring in the tensions between national and racial and ethnic identities later on.

Why put it this way? Because we Americans are all in the boat together. Our common story, as Annette Gordon-Reed noted in a recent op-ed, is about the road from the Declaration of Independence to Juneteenth and beyond. The Declaration is, in a sense, the final cause in American politics. (A final cause is, philosophically speaking, the thing toward which something tends.) In other words, the great truth of human equality is, as Lincoln put it, “a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated.” Or, as he wrote elsewhere, “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” King called it a “promissory note,” setting out the direction America must develop if it is to fulfill the promise of the revolution. Abigail Adams’ famous “remember the Ladies” letter of March 1776 begins by criticizing Virginians for slavery, which reminds us that people at the time understood the logic, and the direction it pointed. But politicians seldom make radical change successfully when they try to do it rapidly. Hence the tragic story of American history.

As the Declaration is our founding document, equality, not racism, is our DNA. And on that basis, we can find a common ground of citizenship that also serves as a guide for the civic education of our children. Instinctively, I suspect, the general resistance to what is being called critical race theory is fueled by a desire to have precisely this kind of civic education and it reflects an understanding that many of our professional educators are, perhaps naively, sustaining racial separation rather than helping Americans to recognize our common humanity and citizenship.

Editor’s Note: A version of this essay first appeared at Real Clear Politics.


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About Richard Samuelson

Richard Samuelson is associate professor of history at California State University, San Bernardino.

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