The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Of all the conservative bans on teaching about racism, the one in Texas is the worst

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) speaks in McAllen, Tex., on Sept. 22. (Joel Marinez/The Monitor via AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

America’s cresting conflict over how to deal with racism in the teaching of history makes sense as a matter of ideology, but not as a matter of pedagogy.

As a matter of ideology, conservative parents’ fear that their children are being indoctrinated by progressive textbooks and teachers is an endemic feature of education in America. What is different this time around is the speed and vigor of Republicans at the state level in turning their hyperventilation into legislation. Over the summer, at least 12 states restricted how teachers can discuss race or racism in the classroom.

The state of Texas — confirming its status as the laboratory of idiocracy — did the most damage. It has forbidden the teaching of any “concept” that causes an individual to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”

The consequences for violating this law are unspecified. But the vagueness is the point. White children — really the White parents of White children — have been given an open invitation to protest any teaching on U.S. racial history that triggers their “discomfort.” Which for some parents will mean any teaching on racism at all. This will inevitably lead to self-censorship by teachers who want to avoid trouble.

A history curriculum designed to ensure the comfort of White people would have more than a few gaps. And teaching down to such a standard undermines one of the main purposes of historical education, which is to foster a useful discomfort with injustice.

The attempted declawing of historical studies may be politically useful for Republicans in some places. But it bears little relationship to the way history is actually learned. All good history teaching involves layering the perspectives of a period’s participants. For this reason, the great debates of U.S. history cannot be held within polite, nonoffensive boundaries.

Consider the case of David Walker’s “Appeal, to the Coloured Citizens of the World,” written in the late 1820s. Walker, a Black anti-slavery activist, argued that American slavery was far worse than the servitude the Egyptians imposed on the children of Israel. By depicting America as a place of exile and cruelty, Walker was completely subverting the Puritan self-conception of America as the “promised land.”

Walker argued that the list of grievances against the British contained in the Declaration of Independence was trivial compared with the “catalogue of cruelties” committed by White Americans against Black people. And he drew the logical conclusion that, if violent rebellion was justified against England, it was also justified against slaveholders and their enablers. “See your Declaration Americans!!! Do you understand your own language?”

Walker was clear about who had imposed slavery on his people. “The whites,” he said, “have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority.” He argued that slavery had structural roots in an economy based on stolen labor. “The greatest riches in all America,” he wrote, “have arisen from our blood and tears.” And he diagnosed, not only the abject failure of America, but of American Christianity. “Can any thing be a greater mockery of religion than the way in which it is conducted by the Americans?”

Walker thought that Whites’ repentance might be possible, and that America could exist as a multiracial democracy. But still he warned: “The whites want slaves, and want us for their slaves, but some of them will curse the day they ever saw us. As true as the sun ever shone in its meridian splendor, my colour will root some of them out of the very face of the earth.”

This makes for bracing reading, even at a historical distance. And it demonstrates that history is not an easily tamed discipline. Walker’s voice in the classroom may trigger some parents in Texas. Who the hell cares. Walker made a Christian critique of an oppressive country headed toward self-destruction. And he was correct in just about every detail.

Because Walker’s perspective was justified does not make it comprehensive. Frederick Douglass looked at the same crimes, expressed the same anger, but eventually took the position that slavery could be ended through activism and political engagement. For all the U.S. Constitution’s flaws, Douglass saw it as a “glorious liberty document” that could be employed on behalf of abolition. Still other Black leaders of the era felt the American experiment beyond redemption and recommended a return to Africa.

Struggling to understand these layered perspectives is practice in critical thinking and mature citizenship. The discipline of history teaches us to engage with discomforting, distressing ideas without fearing them. This is something Texas (and just about everywhere else) could use more of.