As America struggles to come to terms with systemic racism — many may ask why has this issue not been addressed, and why has it taken so long to have a national discussion. One answer may be how we teach history. If we don’t teach the truth, generations are mislead by old and ugly myths. For years, politically motivated textbook review boards have filled our high school with “happy timelines” covering up the wrongs committed through our history. In 1995 historian James W. Loewen looked at American history textbooks, and pointed out the many, many omissions and myths. He called it Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.
The book finds a Euro and male centric view of the world, full of fairy tales and overlooking the roots of systemic racism. And this “March of Progress” of white men, with little attention to people of color, women, or working families left most students uninitiated, disenfranchised, and ignorant. The textbooks greatest crime is not the false stories they teach, but rather what they leave out. Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but the genocide of more than 130 million Native Americans is often left out. The books might hint at the more than 12 million Africans forcibly brought to America as slaves, but then doesn’t follow their lives and struggles. And, they put forward false and laughable arguments that the North and South were “distinct and opposite societies,” and that economic factors caused the Civil War, not slavery.
The point Loewen makes so clearly is that we are not teaching the truth. Like the statues of Confederate soldiers, we are offering a false parade of history that glorifies and distorts. Many American textbooks still offer up the outdated and racist theme of manifest destiny, and fail to ask questions about difficult points. And they gloss over America’s failures, such as the long and bloody war to colonize the Philippines or the consequences of the election of 1876.
But it has to be slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow in the South that is the most distorted. Southern states are shown as having just cause, Confederate leaders as shown as being noble, and Reconstruction is cast as radical and harsh. Even Lincoln is watered down, his long journey to signing the emancipation Proclamation often ignored.
Very few textbooks discuss the racism or white supremist feelings of Woodrow Wilson. This president who sought to segregate the US government has a dozen high schools named after him today. In a disturbing parallel to today, Wilson’s racism helped spur a boom in KKK membership and violence. He also allowed Jim Crow laws enacted in Washington DC and allowed the segregation of the US Treasury and the Post Office, which had been a route for advancement for African Americans.
As Loewen put it: “Americans need to learn from the Wilson era, that there is a connection between racist presidential leadership and like-minded public response.”
So, as we ask ourselves, how did we get here - and why did it take so long to confront systemic racism? The answer is simple — for decades we have lied to our kids, shared a fairy tale past that ignores the truth about immigrants, women, Native Americans, Latinos, the labor movement and African Americans. We have offered them a Disney-World like ride of progress, destiny and empire that not only turned our kids away from history, it sent them out into the world in full ignorance. They see Robert E. Lee and Jefferson David as heroes, Ulysses S. Grant as a failure, and Woodrow Wilson as a great man. In fact, it is all about men, white men. We taught them to be racists. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And we have.
So, let’s teach truth to the next generations, let’s take slave owners off our currency, rename schools named after bigots, and celebrate what we could be, not what we have been.