To understand the history wars, follow the paper trail

To understand the history wars, follow the paper trail
© ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

On June 15, the campaign of a candidate for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates promised voters that his first bill “will ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project in Virginia’s Public Schools.” The candidate’s website offers no evidence that he is aware of what is actually taught in the state’s public schools. The specifics of his proposed legislation suggest he has barely a notion of what critical race theory is, and that he has not actually read the text of the 1619 Project.

As historians with a combined five decades of experience teaching in universities across the United States, we’re gratified to see so many politicians interested in what historians teach. But to legislators, we offer the same advice we’d give our own students: do your homework. Read a text, learn about a situation, before passing judgment on it. Otherwise, you might find yourself peddling a sloppily written cookie-cutter bill that has no connection to what’s actually being taught in history classrooms, all because a few politicians have decided that creating a full-on moral panic will help their party win the midterm elections.

The so-called “divisive concepts” bills now enacted in nine states and proposed in 17 others prohibit things that rarely, if ever, happen, like teachers trying to “direct or otherwise compel students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to” the idea “that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior” or “that individuals…are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin,” to quote the Idaho version of the legislation. For a fun exercise, try asking a roomful of teachers whether they’ve directed or compelled students to “personally affirm” anything; then count the eye-rolls and guffaws you receive in response.

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As for the idea that historians of racism believe “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” as the Texas bill presumes, Ibram X. Kendi, a historian frequently cited by purveyors of these myths, has made it clear that this is not at all what scholars have said. “No nation, no person, is inherently or permanently racist,” Kendi wrote last month. “The anti-racist resistance to slavery and Jim Crow is as much a part of American history as those peculiar institutions are. White people have been abolitionists and civil-rights activists, and they are among the people striving to be anti-racist today. Some institutions in the United States have been vehicles of equity and justice.”

Here’s the irony about what is and is not divisive: There’s broad consensus across partisan lines that what actually is being taught in schools — the history of racism and slavery and its impact on the development of American society — is essential content and wholly appropriate for school history classes. A survey conducted by the American Historical Association and Fairleigh Dickinson University with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities found that, regardless of political identity, age, race, gender or education level, most Americans agree on the need for an honest reckoning with their histories. “Asked whether it was acceptable to make learners uncomfortable by teaching the harm some people have done to others,” the survey authors wrote, “over three-fourths of respondents said it was.”

So, we should be clear about what’s happening here. This is the legislative equivalent of push-polling — creating division where none exists, raising fears about something that isn’t even happening to score political points. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory,’” wrote conservative activist Christopher Rufo, one of the leading figures promoting these myths.

Russell Vought, director of the Office of Management and Budget during the previous administration, appears to be the mastermind behind the bills themselves. The exact language common to many of the bills is posted on the website of an organization that Vought leads, along with “a toolkit on how to stop critical race theory and reclaim your local board.” If you’ve wondered why all the bills have the same language, this is why: they weren’t written in response to local curricula, but factory-style, by Vought and his associates. The law now pending in your state legislature was written inside the Beltway, copied word-for-word from a document so hastily written and published that it has the filename “Model-School-Board-Language-to-Ban-CRT-SD-HCS-edits-1.” 

This lazy, sloppy operation is backed by serious political muscle. A Loudoun County rally that was televised was organized by Heritage Action, which is the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), with long experience with state legislative templates, is involved. Steve BannonStephen (Steve) Kevin BannonHas Trump beaten the system? Trump discussed pardoning Ghislaine Maxwell: book To understand the history wars, follow the paper trail MORE explained the endgame, “I look at this and say, ‘Hey, this is how we are going to win.’ I see 50 [House Republican] seats in 2022. Keep this up.”

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None of this has anything to do with history education, which history educators have well in hand. There’s a reason that our organization, the American Historical Association, along with more than 130 scholarly associations, higher education accreditors, and other organizations, have signed a statement explaining that “the goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States.” That, and to win an election.

The AHA’s Criteria for Standards in History/Social Sciences/Social Studies notes that “students should learn to ask questions about that past that can be applied to contemporary issues.” It’s a sentiment that has broad support among a supermajority of Americans, from all political parties and walks of life. So let politicians argue about their visions of and for the United States. That’s their job. But don’t deprive students of the facts they need to learn, discuss, and draw upon our nation’s history. Helping them to do that is our job. Let us do our job.

James Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association. Jeremy C. Young is the communications and marketing manager of the American Historical Association.