Echoes of racist past now heard in modern classrooms
May 5, 2021
School textbooks published prior to the 1960s often included both explicit and passive racism. While many thought such lessons a thing of the past, critics say “critical race theory” has revived them in modified form.
“There are definitely parallels,” said Sen. David Bullard, a Durant Republican and longtime history teacher. “If it was wrong in 1860, it’s still wrong. It doesn’t matter if it’s reversed or reciprocity racism.”
Bullard is an author of House Bill 1775, which bans Oklahoma’s K-12 schools from requiring or making part of a course any material that declares “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
The bill, which has passed through the Legislature, also bans teaching other similar beliefs, such as telling children that individuals “should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.” It also prohibits public schools from teaching that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race.”
Groups such as the Oklahoma PTA have come out against the legislation, saying the bill “runs contrary to PTA’s position on racism and diversity, equity, and inclusion,” and that a prohibition on teachers advocating racial superiority and similar concepts “does not allow us to move forward with a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive future for our students.”
HB 1775 was also among a group of bills recently criticized by Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) Executive Director Shawn Hime, who said OSSBA has “serious concerns” about the “origins, the divisive rhetoric associated with the bills and the potential damage they could cause to school environments.”
But public-school textbooks and lessons, both past and present, have been rife with racist indoctrination.
The 1914 edition of “A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems,” by George William Hunter, used evolution to justify racism. The book stated, “At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.”
That book also declared that if some people “were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading,” and advocated for placing many individuals into asylums and “preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.”
The 1957 edition of Charles Grayson Summersell’s “Alabama History for Schools” described slavery as “the earliest form of social security in the United States” since it was “the legal responsibility of the master to take care of aged workers.”
The 1911 edition of “An American History,” by David Saville Muzzey, a professor at Columbia University in New York, dismissed reports of Ku Klux Klan violence following the Civil War as more propaganda than reality.
“Inevitably there was violence done in this reign of terror inaugurated by the Ku-Klux riders,” Mazzey wrote (page 487). “Negroes were beaten; scalawags were shot. Of course these deeds of violence were greatly exaggerated by the carpetbag officials, who reported them to Washington and asked more troops for their protection.”
The book also harshly criticized black politicians involved in the Reconstruction governments of southern states following the Civil War.
“Why did the Republican Congress of 1867 put upon the South the unbearable burden of negro rule supported by the bayonet?” Muzzey wrote. “For various reasons. Some misguided humanitarians … let their sympathy for the oppressed slave confuse their judgment of the negro’s intellectual capacity.”
Donald Yacovone, an associate at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, has researched the racist messages of old textbooks. One textbook highlighted by Yacovone is the 1943 edition of “A Short History of American Democracy” by the University of California’s John D. Hicks. That textbook informed students, “Heaven to the Negro was a place of rest from all labor, the fitting reward of a servant who obeyed his master and loved the Lord.” The Hicks textbook also told students, “Slave women rarely resisted the advances of white men, as their numerous mulatto progeny abundantly attested.”
“What they were teaching in the 1850s is that the black race was incapable of living outside of slavery,” Bullard said. “That was part of their argument—that they couldn’t live outside of slavery, that they were too fragile.”
While such arguments are not typical in today’s school textbooks, material derived from critical race theory nonetheless contains similar arguments, Bullard said, citing as an example a recent claim that white men are at a “disadvantage in developing higher consciousness.”
“That is transposed from what they were teaching in the 1850s about slaves,” he said.
In numerous instances, critics say various education entities are focused today on race in a way that has strong similarities with material previously common in century-old textbooks defending slavery.
The National Education Association, whose Oklahoma chapter is the state’s largest teachers’ union, declares that the concept of “colorblindness” or “race-neutral” policies are “harmful racial discourse practices” that “reinforce the common misconception that racism is simply a problem of rare, isolated, individual attitudes and actions.”
The NEA declares that the promotion of “a blanket standard of ‘colorblindness,’ while simultaneously promoting so-called ‘race-neutral’ policies and practices,” serves to “reinforce the power of white anxiety and fear in policymaking and decision-making.”
When such concepts are put into practice, the result often involves targeting certain students based on race.
A recent report issued by the Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture (GCA) at the University of Oklahoma revealed instruction at the college will now include teaching white students “cultural humility.”
A black mother in Las Vegas filed a lawsuit in December 2020 after a local school required her mixed-race but light-skinned son to “label and identify” his gender, racial, and religious identities. Students who fell into certain categories were instructed to “accept the label ‘oppressor,’” the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit also noted the boy’s father was white and had died when the youth was “too young to know him.” The lawsuit said the teacher-presentation material at the Las Vegas school nonetheless “purports to supply substantial information as to what sort of man he was” and “what sort of relationship he had with Plaintiff William Clark’s black mother.”
The lawsuit revealed that students were taught, “Interpersonal racism is what white people do to people of color close up.” The course cited “beatings and harassments” as examples with the only caveat being that some white people “are not consciously oppressive.”
Lesson plans in Buffalo, New York, reportedly taught students that “all white people play a part in perpetuating systemic racism.” Older white students were instructed to atone for their “white privilege.”
Such practices, Bullard believes, strongly echo some of the worst racial incidents from the nation’s past.
“The old adage that I used to tell my kids, and most history teachers are guilty of using this line, is that the whole point of studying history is that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it,” Bullard said. “And we’re there.”