The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservatives’ educational push resurrects authoritarian tactics

Attempts to limit educational materials may work in the short term. In the long run, however, they’ll just deepen societal fractures.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) talks to the crowd before publicly signing HB7, also dubbed the “Stop Woke” bill, during a news conference at Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., on April 22, 2022. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/AP)
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Teaching the United States’ sordid racial history has become increasingly fraught. In the most recent escalation, on Jan. 12, the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced that the state would block a newly designed Advanced Placement course in African American studies. State officials argued that the course violated state law and lacked educational value. In April, DeSantis signed legislation (dubbed the “Stop Woke Act”) governing the teaching of race in public schools that prohibits “subjective indoctrination that pushes collective guilt.”

The efforts of DeSantis and other Republicans pushing to remake education policy and restrict the teaching of history resemble the information control strategies deployed by the government in Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) during the Cold War, as it tried to avert the global tide of decolonization. The leaders of this White settler colony in southern Africa used tactics including sleight of hand, outright bans and restrictions on access to information to maintain power. These efforts resulted in an increasingly violent and polarized society as Black anti-colonial nationalists escalated their resistance.

The determination of this small clique of Whites and their ability to hold out against world opinion until 1979 shows that while reactionary tactics may not be sustainable in the long run, they can garner unexpected success and create lasting divides that are difficult to surmount.

In the aftermath of World War II, colonial empires disintegrated. Rhodesia’s White leaders were alarmed by decolonization and independence struggles. Yet, unlike neighboring South Africa, which embraced Apartheid in 1948 and a policy of explicit segregation, Rhodesia initially opted to project a facade of liberalism. The government combined modest policy changes with propaganda, which falsely maintained that citizens of all races “had equal political rights.”

Between 1953 and 1963, Rhodesia was the centerpiece of a federation of three quasi-autonomous British colonies that promoted a policy of “multiracial partnership.” Its White leaders misleadingly asserted that they presided over a meritocracy, where all races supposedly enjoyed the same opportunities.

The federation’s White leaders courted independent African states to bolster the facade of racial equality. Lawmakers from Nigeria and Uganda visited. The federation hoped to host an African head of state, like Liberia’s William Tubman, who had personally received federal diplomats. Beginning in 1962 a small group of Black parliamentarians even sat in the Rhodesian legislature.

These efforts at projecting a racially harmonious society were widely perceived as a smokescreen and proved resoundingly unsuccessful. The federation collapsed in 1963. Its other two members, Malawi and Zambia, became independent under Black rule the following year.

This disjuncture spurred White backlash in Rhodesia. Rather than adequately addressing the segregation marring their society, the Whites dug in. In late 1962, an even more right-wing party came to power. It initially fielded Black parliamentary candidates but stopped after the federation was terminated. The new leaders claimed that traditional chiefs, not politicians, were the true representatives of Black Africans. The Rhodesian government banned Black-led political parties in 1959, 1961, 1962 and 1964 on the flimsiest of pretenses.

In 1965, Rhodesia illegally declared its independence from Britain. The renegade prime minister, Ian Smith, announced the move as “a blow for the preservation of justice, civilization, and Christianity.” White Rhodesia promoted parallels to the United States’ successful struggle against British control and its declaration of independence drew upon its American counterpart. Yet, the most realistic parallel between Rhodesia in 1965 and the United States in the late 18th century was the persistence of a racist caste system that undermined lofty language about freedom and self-determination.

As the 1960s progressed, conditions worsened for Black Rhodesians. Basic social amenities like schools and hospitals remained segregated. Hotels that integrated in the early part of the decade returned to more restrictive practices. A new constitution in 1969 reduced the number of elected legislative seats allocated to Blacks. Leading Black politicians were imprisoned, with many subjected to torture. Blacks, over 90 percent of the population, could not legally own land in about half the country.

The government, however, tried to mask these deplorable conditions with spin. Rhodesia’s leaders repeatedly asserted their global significance and commitment to justice. Smith stated that Rhodesia was “a vital link in the chain … binding the Free World together.” Farcical government propaganda contended that restrictions on land ownership gave “the African breathing space.” In 1971, when he appeared to be on the verge of successfully negotiating an end to the rebellion with the British on terms favorable to continued White dominance, Smith infamously quipped: “We have the happiest Africans in the world.” The comment came as Rhodesia was under comprehensive international sanctions, a pariah state due to its racist practices.

Smith’s government also pumped out propaganda to Black audiences. A state newspaper, the African Times, dubbed the government of newly independent Mozambique “barbarous and uncivilized.” Widespread censorship controlled who learned what. Smith’s administration repeatedly deported missionaries and university lecturers. It banned independent newspapers in 1964, 1974 and 1978. The authorities even outlawed a pamphlet of the Central African Historical Association, a local historical society with overwhelmingly White membership. Bureaucrats speculated that a leading tourist attraction — the Great Zimbabwe medieval-era ruins — was the work of non-African foreigners. Accepting its African provenance would have clashed with the official view that heroic Whites developed “a bare veld, ravaged by marauding tribes.”

In 1976, under increased military pressure, Smith began to reverse course. He declared, “I am opposed to a Black government merely because they are black. Equally, I am opposed to a White government simply because they are white.” By that time Smith had been premier for 12 years. He only announced his first Black cabinet members weeks later. An attempt to install a Black puppet government in 1979 lasted just months. The following year, a settlement negotiated by the British facilitated genuine independence and brought to power one of the nationalist parties Smith proscribed in 1964.

However, White resistance left a trail of destruction in its wake. Tens of thousands died in the guerrilla war and associated violence that continued into the 1980s. Zimbabwe has had just two heads of government since 1980, Robert Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa. Much like their White predecessors, they do not tolerate dissent.

The efforts of American conservatives to regulate education have stoked national cleavages but are not as expansive as the racial policies Ian Smith pursued. Conservatives have tried to reframe attempts at teaching a more complete version of the American past — including its ignominious chapters — as unpatriotic or indoctrination. Republican-controlled assemblies have passed or introduced legislation targeting the New York Times’ 1619 Project and “Critical Race Theory,” both of which emphasize the pervasive impact of race and racism on American society. New laws have made it difficult for school libraries to procure new books, especially on topics related to race and gender.

While there is a difference in degree, curbing the discussion of the United States’ history of racism, segregation and slavery puts American conservatives in the same camp as Smith’s Rhodesia — using a selective version of the past and attempting to strictly regulate access to information to bolster their own political project. The similarities expose the reality: information control is a tool of despots, and it’s ultimately rarely effective. Instead of winning anyone over, such strategies just deepen societal fissures.