Guns, Bombs and Slurs — The Uniquely American Textbook Brawl Continues

Throughout the country, Republicans are engaging in a coordinated effort to change how history is taught in America. In Texas, for example, a new law will make it so K-12 schools have to promote what they’re calling a “patriotic education.” The goal is to focus on the good parts of Texas’ history and essentially avoid talking about any history of racism in the state. Similar things are happening in many other conservative states, like Oklahoma and Tennessee. 

All of this is, of course, a rebuke of critical race theory and the 1619 Project — a series in The New York Times about the history of slavery in America and its consequences. Those on the left believe it’s important to examine America’s history of racism, which is typically poorly covered — if it’s covered at all — in K-12 schools. But Republican lawmakers from coast to coast appear to feel students should learn even less about racism in our history. Neither critical race theory nor the 1619 Project are being taught in K-12 schools, but the right has turned them into symbols for talking about racism in the classroom. 

“I think America has great ideals, and the idea is to make them into reality as much as possible, but you can’t do that if you think they have been reality all along.”

Prof. Michael Kazin

One of the reasons America’s history of racism is not well covered in our public schools is that many public officials pretend all of that racist stuff never happened — a mentality that, over the centuries, has become something of an American tradition.

You can see efforts to re-frame American history in this way as far back as the late 1800s. This was the era of the “Lost Cause,” as it’s called. It’s the myth that the Confederates were honorable men — who were, according to many southerners, certainly not fighting to maintain slavery — became popularized. This fiction made its way into textbooks used in Southern schools, and it’s a myth that survives today. Going into the 20th century, there were many other efforts to control what young people would be exposed to and learn about in schools.

In the 1930s, there were millions of textbooks distributed throughout the country that were written by historians and social studies educators that were “somewhat critical” of the United States, Dr. Andrew Hartman tells The News Station. The Illinois State University history professor says this caused a major backlash from conservatives.

“Around the early 1940s, some conservative groups got wind of this, and there was this massive campaign to rid the schools of these textbooks,” Hartman says. “There were hearings across the country. Every local school board was inundated with right-wing protesters. Sound familiar?”

During the Red Scare in the 1940s and 1950s, conservative activists fought to make sure students were receiving a “patriotic education.” That may also sound familiar. In 1974, conservative Christians in Kanawha County, West Virginia refused to send their children to school, bombed an elementary school and shot out school bus windows with a shotgun after the county school board decided to adopt a reading curriculum that conservative Christians felt promoted multiculturalism and generally went against their values.

West Virginia, 1974

What to teach America’s youth has always been contentious, and the victims have often been on the losing side, hence many of America’s worst cultural sins have been purposefully omitted or rewritten by the descendants of the perpetrators of the atrocities.  

A lot of us recently paused to remember and mourn the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Many Americans took to social media to vent about how they were never taught about the epic and heartbreaking tragedy in school. The historians The News Station spoke with say that’s barely scratching the surface, because there are countless similar, horrific events from the 20th century alone. Did you ever know after World War I celebrations of national unity eventually gave way to grotesque and deadly race riots? Ever learn about the similar racial tensions that erupted during World War II

The 1943 Detroit Race Riot is likely something many Americans haven’t heard about. It involved brutal clashes between the city’s white and Black residents. One of the causes was white residents didn’t approve of Black Americans moving to the city for good paying jobs in the auto industry. Dozens of Black men were slaughtered in the melee. 

There’s also the Zoot Suit Riots, which left Los Angeles in flames back in 1943. Mobs of white Marines and sailors who were stationed in the area started viciously beating Mexican-American residents across the city. This went on for days. Hundreds were injured. Those riots started as one fight between white servicemen and young Mexican-Americans donning zoot suits — which were all the rave back in the day — and quickly escalated to the point where white servicemen were attacking every Mexican-American in a zoot suit they could find. 

A lot of the strife happening at home during World War II isn’t generally taught in history classes, because this time is seen as “an era of the nation coming together to fight totalitarianism across the planet,” Hartman says. America’s children are taught about the racist flaws in Nazism, the valor and heroism displayed by so many soldiers, but we rarely hear about the racial tensions that boiled over simultaneously back here in the US.  

“Around the early 1940s, some conservative groups got wind of this, and there was this massive campaign to rid the schools of these textbooks. There were hearings across the country. Every local school board was inundated with right-wing protesters. Sound familiar?”

Dr. Andrew Hartman

Every nation has its ideals and prideful moments, Georgetown University history Prof. Michael Kazin tells The News Station, but they also have very dark moments. It’s vital to tell the entire story — wrinkles, racism, savageness and all — so people truly understand their country’s past history.

“If you’re only teaching about America as a great place with a few little flaws, you’re not dealing with slavery in a serious way, or the dispossession of Native Americans or the pains of industrialization,” Kazin says. “I think America has great ideals, and the idea is to make them into reality as much as possible, but you can’t do that if you think they have been reality all along.”

Kazin has no problem with people being patriotic — but that doesn’t mean folks enthusiastically donning the Red, White and Blue should ignore large parts of history. Professor Hartman agrees. 

“The only way to really understand how things happen — why things happen — is to understand the bad things too,” Hartman tells The News Station. “Otherwise, it’s all just whitewashed.”

Thor Benson is an independent journalist who has contributed to The News Station, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone and many other publications. Find him on Twitter at @thor_benson.

Thor Benson is an independent journalist who has contributed to The News Station, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone and many other publications. Find him on Twitter at @thor_benson.

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