After many years of pressure, protests and complaints, the Washington, D.C. football team announced last week that it will change its name from one that is defined in the dictionary as a racial slur.
Watching the slow death of George Floyd in police custody on a street in Minneapolis, Minnesota only two short months ago awakened the conscience of American citizens as no protests, pressure or complaints have done in the past half-century.
The nation has taken to heart the systemic way in which the lives not only of African Americans but of all minority and disadvantaged peoples have been devalued in an institutional way, and efforts are being made to rectify problems in many facets of society.
In addition to monuments that have been toppled in the streets by protesters, many public officials have taken action to remove institutional symbols of racism like the Confederate battle flag symbol on Mississippi’s state flag and numerous Confederate monuments around the nation.
But for all the people who think of these moves as progress, there is an equally strong resistance by many who call such changes a “move to erase history.”
What many people do not acknowledge, however, is that politics largely determines what history is told. Some factors that shape what we are taught of history include:
● The United Daughters of the Confederacy was formed in 1894 precisely to “protect and venerate” the Confederacy, despite the fact that people who fought under the Confederate flag practiced treason.
● Most Confederate monuments that exist today were placed in the early 20th Century after the passage of Jim Crow laws that institutionalized segregation, to “obscure the terrorism required to overthrow Reconstruction and to intimidate African Americans politically and isolate them from the mainstream of public life,” according to the American Historical Association.
● Textbooks that are used in American classrooms are adopted on the state level, and almost half the states have followed the textbook choices made by the state of Texas, one of the largest textbook purchasers in the nation. History is included in the English and Language Arts/social sciences curriculum.
As an example of how corrupt and political the process can be, in the 1980s the Texas textbook selection committee, made up of political appointees, demanded that the textbook they chose for the history curriculum must list Moses as one of the Founding Fathers, an editorial change the publisher bowed to the committee and made.
Fortunately, no other states adopted the textbook that includes this misinformation, but more than one generation of Texas students grew up having learned this gross fallacy in school.
● The Daughters of the American Revolution worked to assure that textbooks present every aspect of American society in a positive light, downplaying issues of slavery, racism, gender discrimination and other warts on American society.
● Most textbook publishers have worked to align their textbooks with Common Core State Standards adopted by most states in 2010 and 2011, which has reduced much of the local influence but has not eliminated it altogether.
Yes, “History is written by the victors,” as Winston Churchill and many before him have said, but too often those “victors” are partisans who win state elections and are appointed to textbook selection boards.