Children are unfortunately exceptionally effective political pawns. According to the 2020 US Census, there are 63 million Americans with children under 18 living in their households. These Americans are a powerful voting bloc whose fierce nurturing instinct makes them susceptible to emotion-laden political rhetoric centered around the country’s youngest. Few things can galvanize a child-rearing electorate quite like the idea that its children may be under threat. And it is this fear that American conservatives have used time and time again to rewrite American history under the guise of “proper education.”
There have been multiple progressive movements dedicated to achieving racial equity since the founding of the United States, many of which were followed by strong backlash from the political right. With each retaliation comes a push to educate children about the “correct” history of the country, a story that promotes the idea of American exceptionalism and is scrubbed of its more violent and oppressive details. While the instinct to protect children from traumatic imagery may be reasonable, it prevents Americans from learning and understanding the flawed aspects of their country and stalls progress for historically marginalized communities. If progressives want to make lasting change, they must prioritize the teaching of a fair and honest American history in public schools.
Following the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era was arguably the most rapidly progressive period in American history. The ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments lifted Black people out of enslavement, granted them American citizenship, and gave Black men the ability to vote. As a result of this newfound suffrage, Black people quickly began filling seats in all levels of government. These newly-constituted governments began rebuilding a fairer South, creating the region’s first public schools and outlawing racial discrimination on public transport, among other things. White supremacy remained the norm, and Black Americans were still far from receiving the justice they deserved. Nevertheless, Reconstruction was an incredible feat that began the road to a more perfect union. But it would not last.
The Republican Party—at this time considered the “progressive” party—controlled all three branches of the federal government for much of Reconstruction, allowing Republican-run state governments in the South to seek help from Congress. Aid came in various forms, such as a series of “Enforcement Acts” that aimed to suppress political violence and protect the constitutional rights of Black citizens. The white supremacists of the South, however, had not disappeared. The Redeemers, the Southern wing of the Democratic Party, worked tirelessly to undermine Republican governments in the region. Insurgent groups like the Ku Klux Klan used violence to suppress the Republican vote and terrorize Black citizens. Several Supreme Court decisions weakened the power and scope of the 14th and 15th Amendments, curbing the federal government’s ability to protect Black Southerners. Disagreement among Republicans on the appropriate role and size of the federal government created a rift that left the Party vulnerable. The end of Reconstruction was looming overhead.
The final nail in the coffin came with the Compromise of 1877, which followed a contentious presidential election the year before. Democrats agreed to let Republican nominee and incumbent President Rutherford B. Hayes win the Electoral College and retain his position on one condition: The federal government would withdraw the remaining troops from the South, effectively turning a blind eye to the final stages of the Redeemers’ Southern takeover. Without federal oversight, the only remaining Republican states in the South—Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina—quickly fell to Democratic control. Reconstruction was over, and white Democrats were in power once again.
Soon after consolidating power, Confederate sympathizers sought to tell a story of Southern triumph. Instead of an honest recount—that the South seceded from the Union in order to maintain chattel slavery—white Southerners wanted to paint a picture that glorified the Southern cause and reduced the fact that slavery was at the center of it all. This malicious retelling of the Civil War was called the “Lost Cause,” and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) led the charge in advocating for its teaching across the United States. Adhering to the UDC’s goal to teach an allegedly “proper and truthful history,” Mildred Lewis Rutherford, one of the UDC’s most prominent members, wrote a pamphlet establishing a standard for US history textbooks. “The Measuring Rod” was published in 1920 and was, in the same year, followed by a book titled “Truths of History,” which included a blacklist of books thought to give dishonest teachings of the Southern story. These works inspired book-banning campaigns across the nation and led to the creation of Lost Cause textbooks that would be used well into the 20th century. The Lost Cause ideology, in tandem with Cold War hysteria, would even be used to advocate against the Civil Rights movement in public schools.
Though significant progress has been made since the UDC’s founding, the United States once again finds itself in the throes of a battle over education. The 21st century saw another period of significant change, this time with the election of the first Black president and the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement. While some hoped that Obama’s election signaled the start of a post-racial America, this hope was revealed to be naive following the 2016 presidential election. Like Reconstruction, this period of progress did not mean that racism had simply gone away. Rather, it stoked a fire under more extreme conservatives that contributed to the election of Donald Trump, a candidate who was at the forefront of the racist “birther” conspiracy theory aimed at the sitting Black president. The popularity of Trump’s unabashedly racist rhetoric served as a reminder that racism was alive and well in the United States, and it would all come to a head in his final year as president.
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of white police officer Derek Chauvin resulted in a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020. With an estimated 15–26 million participants in the United States alone, this movement was the largest in the nation’s history. As protestors called for racial justice, they also demanded an honest telling of American history—one that acknowledged America’s oppressive past and put pressure on the nation to take accountability. President Trump, however, could not be convinced. He released a memo warning federal agencies about the “divisive” nature of critical race theory (CRT), followed by an executive order banning any training within federal agencies that implied the United States was foundationally racist. His overt opposition triggered a national movement against CRT, resulting in various state legislatures banning its instruction in public schools.
What makes this movement so bizarre is that CRT was never taught in American grade schools. Developed by legal scholars in the 1970s and ’80s, critical race theory is “a movement that challenges the ability of conventional legal strategies to deliver social and economic justice and specifically calls for legal approaches that take into consideration race as a nexus of American life.” Put simply, CRT acknowledges that racism has played a significant role in American history and, therefore, has overarching systemic effects. Until recently, CRT was a theory safely contained within the halls of higher education, never seeing the light of day in American public schools. But now CRT is a national bogeyman, the monster under the bed of conservatives who claim that schools are teaching children to hate each other. The theory has transformed into a larger-than-life ideology representing essentially anything that acknowledges race or racism. The movement has precipitated widespread book bans against literature that is not “redemptive” of past white Americans.
It is no coincidence that the Lost Cause movement followed Reconstruction or that the anti-CRT movement followed Black Lives Matter. The rewriting of American history is intentional and serves to legitimize a misguided narrative and perpetuate white supremacy. In sanitizing our past of violent oppression, we make the oppression impossible to address. Children without education on racism grow into adults without any sense of its ongoing functions and impacts, making them highly susceptible to white supremacist rhetoric and fearmongering about the education of their children. It is a poisonous cycle intended to impede the delivery of justice to marginalized communities who continue to feel the very real effects of racism. And now, Republicans are using it as a political tool to get them elected.
Children deserve an accurate education. Marginalized groups deserve to have their history taught. Parents deserve elected leaders who will not use their love for their children to push an oppressive narrative. We cannot achieve racial justice without first addressing our history of racial injustice. Progressives must make public education a priority if we are to see a more equitable future.