Christian Curriculum

How systemic racism is minimized and dismissed in the classroom ‹ Literary Hub

In late May, the Florida Board of Education issued guidelines banning social studies course materials from mentioning critical race theory. A month prior, similar policies led the Florida school board to ban 54 math textbooks for not “aligning” with state policies on critical race theory. (More than forty of these books were later banned after their publishers, according to the state, removed the “awake content.” At least one publisher disputes this, saying it made no changes to its textbooks. ).

That these policies now apply to social studies courses is not surprising. In courses on US history, government, and sociology, American students learn to acknowledge or deny, as Florida would have it, the realities of racism and inequality in the country. In other words, Florida policies have always been for the social sciences. The math textbook ban was just a rehearsal for the more controversial and consequential “review” of social studies textbooks.

This effort is not particularly new either. Almost a century ago, WEB Du Bois described how educational institutions in the United States taught propaganda as history, presenting Reconstruction in the American South in a way that affirmed white supremacy. Since then, education scholars have pointed to the many ways in which the “hidden agenda” of educational institutions erases histories of inequality and oppression.

History and social science textbooks, in particular, have long been implicated in the hidden agenda. In his influential book Lies my teacher told me, James W. Loewen has documented this, identifying factual omissions in a dozen leading American history textbooks. In a section of her book particularly relevant today, Loewen shows how history textbooks glossed over President Woodrow Wilson’s racist politics and policies, such as segregation from the federal government and Wilson’s promotion of supremacist film. white by DW Griffith. Birth of a Nation.

The way American educators teach about the past contributes to our collective understanding of the present.

Of these omissions, Loewen concludes, “absolving Wilson’s racism goes beyond covering up a character flaw. Concealment robs all students of the chance to learn something important about the interrelationship between leader and led. White Americans engaged in a further outburst of racial violence during and immediately after Wilson’s presidency. Indeed, during Wilson’s presidency, white Americans massacred black Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois (1917); Valdosta, Georgia (1918); Elaine, Arkansas (1918); and Ocoee, Florida (1920).

This last massacre took place on Election Day 1920, killing at least three dozen black Americans. “Americans must learn from the Wilson era,” Loewen writes, “that there is a connection between racist presidential leadership and a like-minded public response.” But this learning would require the authentic and honest teaching of this link and the historical facts that make it apparent.

Loewen first published Lies my teacher told me in 1995. But even today, textbook publishers and school boards continue to downplay and deny systemic racism, inequality, and violence by omission. In January 2020, the New York Times compared the history textbooks adopted by the market-creating states, California and Texas. Specifically, they compared textbooks adopted by the two states but which were, at the request of state school boards, “customized” – the industry euphemism for censorship, I assume – for each state’s use. .

As described by Dana Goldstein, the author of Time article, the gap between these panels is considerable. “All members of the California panel were educators selected by the State Board of Education, whose members were appointed by former Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat. The Texas panel, appointed by the Republican-dominated State Board of Education, was made up of educators, parents, business representatives and a Christian pastor and politician.

On the one hand, Goldstein notes that “recent textbooks have come a long way from what has been published over the past few decades. The Texas and California volumes deal more directly with the cruelty of the slave trade. Yet in the Texas version, references to housing discrimination against American citizens of color, redlining, and white trailing were absent. All appeared in the California version. Without teaching and learning about these issues, school boards and textbook publishers prevent today’s students from understanding contemporary America, with its high levels of segregation and the inequalities it creates.

Even today, textbook publishers and school boards continue to downplay and deny systemic racism, inequality, and violence by omission.

Omissions are not just a problem of high school textbooks. Kathleen J. Fitzgerald, sociologist of race, analyzed the four major undergraduate textbooks in the sociology of race and race relations. Fitzgerald did this to assess the adequacy of book coverage of late 19th and early 20th century racial massacres. Fitzgerald found that only one of the four textbooks she analyzed dealt with these massacres.

The “other three,” she writes, “completely ignore the national pattern of violence directed against African Americans.” Meanwhile, criminologists KB Turner, David Giacopassi, and Margaret Vandiver analyzed twenty-one criminology and criminal justice textbooks published after 2000 to see how these books portrayed slavery and slave patrols. They found that most overlooked or offered only superficial analysis of the role of slavery and slave patrols in the American legal and policing systems.

The way American educators teach about the past contributes to our collective understanding of the present. This is especially true in teaching the country’s history of systemic racism. When continuities between the past and present of racism, inequality, and violence are denied, students may believe that the past simply recurred as tragic episodes, rather than as an explanation or, more radically, a demand on the present.

This has consequences in the classroom. Educators, and especially white educators, may struggle to teach the history of systemic racism beyond textbooks. Many of us, too, learned in schools and universities shaped by the denial of racism. They may also be immobilized by fear of losing control, making mistakes, being perceived as biased, and now facing lawsuits or being fired for standing up to racism. And they may also be untrained, unpractised, and inexperienced in teaching systemic racism.

These limitations in historical knowledge and teaching skills are not accidental. They are the intended effect of the denial of systemic racism, as national efforts to censor the teaching and learning of US history make clear.

But these efforts also suggest something else. By banning the words and textbooks, school boards, school boards and state governments across the country are acknowledging that teaching and learning about systemic racism are powerful checks and balances to the denial of racism.


Extract of Denial: How We Hide, Ignore, and Explain Problems by Jared Delete Rosso. Copyright © 2022. Available from NYU Press. Adapted with permission from the publisher.