The Texas State Board of Education this week adopted new standards for the teaching of social studies and history describing state’s rights as the cause of the Civil War and barely mentioning slavery, racism, or segregation. As of next school year, Texas’ five million public school students will be learning a revisionist version of history in which slavery was “a side issue to the Civil War.” The new textbooks describe the Civil War as having been caused by “sectionalism, state’s rights, and slavery,” with the brutal system that made property out of tens of millions of human beings deliberately listed last, emphasizing what the Texas school board views as its “secondary role” in the war.
In describing this War of Northern Aggression, the new textbooks present Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis in a similarly heroic light. And while students are required to read Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address along with many others by Confederate officials, there is no mention of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ famous Cornerstone Speech, in which he says that the South’s desire to perpetuate slavery was “the cornerstone of the new government and… the immediate cause of this late rupture and present revolution.” The new curriculum mentions official segregation only tangentially, and includes not a single mention of the Ku Klux Klan, sharecropping, or Jim Crow laws.
Pat Hardy, a Republican member of the Board, sums up the views of many white Americans on the Civil War: “There will be those who say the Civil War was over slavery. No. It was over state’s rights.” Sure, in some sense, the war was about state’s rights. State’s rights to allow slavery. Perhaps to Hardy and his ignorant cohorts World War II was about national rights – national rights to commit genocide but national rights nonetheless. While several Southern states have admirably scaled back the revisionism in their curriculums, Texas’ Ministry of Truth has been editing relentlessly for years. Among other absurdities, Texas students have since a 2010 curriculum overhaul learned that America is not a democracy but a “constitutional republic”; that the nation is “a Christian land governed by Christian principles”; that the United Nations is a threat to American sovereignty; and that McCarthyism was justified as a response to Communist threats to America. All references to capitalism have been removed from the state’s schoolbooks and replaced with the gentler “free-enterprise system.” The Virginia Board of Education in 2011 introduced textbooks describing how “thousands” of African-Americans willingly fought for the Confederacy.
These changes and others were ostensibly implemented to remove what Board members saw as “liberal bias” in the curriculum. Unfortunately for the Board, reality does indeed have a liberal bias, and America is currently facing a reality crisis. Anyone who doubts this need only consult a recent Pew poll which found that 48% of Americans view state’s rights as being “the main cause” of the Civil War, compared to only 38% who believe slavery was the main cause. Or, a Harvard University study that found that almost 60% of white Americans believe African-Americans are paid equally to whites. Most damningly, the study found that white Americans are 10% more likely to think anti-white bias is more prevalent than anti-black bias than to see anti-black bias as more prevalent. Yes, you read that right: White America believes it is the victim of more racism than Black America. When so many people’s perceptions are so vastly and dangerously divorced from reality, is it any surprise that a Rhodesia-flag wearing terrorist would shoot up a black church in an attempt to prevent the downfall of American society? And, ultimately, public figures from Fox News anchors to Texas Board of Education members need to be held partially responsible for the effects of the bigotry they jam down the throats of the American people.
In the weeks since the brutal and tragic terrorist attack at an African-American church in Charleston, SC that claimed nine lives, America has once again been grappling with the persistence of deeply-ingrained racism. While the recent spate of police shootings has drawn attention to the problem of an inherent and systemic racism that persists nationwide, the Charleston attack has shifted the focus to the more aggressive and overt racism that continues to fester among many in the United States, particularly in the South. In an age of increasing tolerance and knowledge, many have asked how so many people can continue to be so strongly and dangerously bigoted in spite of all evidence. The answer lies in this ruling in Texas, and dozens of similar instances throughout the South and the nation, in which the version of history and reality – whether peddled by teachers, parents, or peers – that white children are brought up to believe is one in which “the race card” is a tool used by sore-loser liberals as a catch-all excuse, where there is a “crisis of fatherhood” in black America, where black “animals” destroy their own communities, and where African-American “thugs” are a threat to the American social order.
In other words, far too many of the official institutions of this country continue to promulgate a deliberately falsified and thinly-veiled racism that has been subconsciously absorbed by a large percentage of this country’s white population. What is perhaps most infuriating is that, while the racists of decades past at least had the courage to admit they were racists (Mississippi’s 1861 Declaration of Secession: “our position is clearly identified with the institution of slavery… There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union”) the modern rhetoric of all but the most fringe racism has become so dominated by euphemisms (thugs, inner city, state’s rights, moochers, lazy, etc.) that many white Americans seem to have forgotten that they are in fact preaching racism when they bemoan everything from the loss of Southern heritage to increased crime around subway stations. Racists continue to spout their racism with as much vitriol as ever, but today can shroud it in admirable causes, opposition to political correctness, and the insiduous argument used against liberals that pointing out racism is racist. This Orwellian collective amnesia, however, did not come around by accident, but rather as a result of a distinctly racist and revisionist narrative that is deeply ingrained in the American public psyche at all levels. The removal of the Confederate battle flag from State Capitol grounds in Alabama and South Carolina is a step in the right direction, but the deeper underlying causes of America’s racist hangover need to be addressed – and that means preventing things like telling race-fueled lies to public schoolchildren.
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.