Why The History Of American Racism Is Going Down The Memory Hole
One thing that makes America unique is that Americans are, by in large, proud of their history. This has its upsides and its downsides, the upside is that it means that Americans are much more likely to fight for their values than the people of most other nations. The downside, however, is that pride can easily be warped by opportunists who want to use their patriotism for their own evil ends.
Hence, the term “anti-American.” To quote the late Christopher Hitchens:
In most obvious ways, the term “anti-American” is as meaningless or absurd as the accusation of “un-American” used to be. It is both too precise and at the same time too vague. In what other country could one imagine, say, a “House Un-Italian Activities Committee” being solemnly convened?
I have many Canadian friends, some of whom hate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Despite this, none of them have ever been called “Anti-Canadian,” nor are they called “un-Canadian,” for pointing out the violent and sometimes genocidal history of their nation.
The term “anti-American” has been a common propaganda tool for the right going back decades. The “House Un-American Activities Committee” (or HUAC) once launched several investigations into communists in the entertainment industry. (Never mind that, at this point in history, the ascetics of the Communist Party were incredibly patriotic in nature.) More recently, those who opposed George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and his War on Terror were blasted as “America haters” by conservative media.
These accusations are usually dismissed as silly. HUAC was never taken seriously — although it was being one of the loudest mouths in the group of loud mouths where Richard Nixon got his start — and the accusations of critics of the Iraq War “hating America” became harder and harder to justify as the American population turned against Bush and Cheney.
For the past several months, their for this label target has been “critical race theory,” and the 1619 Project, a series of essays from The New York Times which aimed to show how much the injustices of racism have effected American history. 1619 being the year American slavery of Africans began. The project has essays on topics like capitalism, healthcare (both in regards to how it’s done and why it’s not universal), prisons, and even the design of cities, all of which in some way relate back to the topics of race and racism. Personally, I found it to be a really interesting read and, even if it overstates exactly how large of a factor racism and slavery were in some cases, it always does a good job citing its sources and making its arguments.
In 2020, Senator Tom Cotton tried to ban schools nationwide from teaching a curriculum adapted from the 1619 Project. When protesters put the number “1619” on a statue of George Washington, Cotton called it a reference to said project, which he also dubbed “anti-American.” Meanwhile, in September 2020 President Donald Trump formed was he called “the 1776 Commission,” which was designed to counter the claims of the 1619 Project. (It should be noted that none of the of the members of the commission were historians, although many were Trump staffers, Republican politicians, and Charlie Kirk.)
Now, this is not the first time Republicans have tried to stop the teaching of the more controversial parts of American history. Ever since its publication in 1980, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States has been under attack by conservative figures, with states like Indiana and Arkansas trying to ban the book in schools. Here is former governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels talking about Zinn just after his death:
This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away…The obits and commentaries mentioned his book, A People’s History of the United States, is the “textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.” It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?
In 2004, Michael Allen and Larry Schweikart published A Patriot’s History of the United States, a book which sold itself as an alternative to Zinn’s work.
Zinn is even mentioned in the 1776 Commission Report along with the 1619 Project. On both, the report states:
By turning to bitterness and judgment, distorted histories of those like Howard Zinn or the journalists behind the “1619 Project” have prevented their students from learning to think inductively with a rich repository of cultural, historical, and literary referents.
Mind you, Zinn never denied being a rather hard-left historian, and he never intended for A People’s History to be the only thing you read on the topic of American history. Zinn wrote A People’s History Of The United States because he found textbooks on American history at the time to be overly bias in favor of the United States, even leaving out some of the worst actions of this nation. Zinn, as such, decided to write a book that goes in the complete opposite direction, questioning everything we knew about American history in the process — while sticking as true to the facts as he can.
It should also be noted that the 1619 Project was not uncontroversial even among other liberal and left-wing historians. The World Socialist Web Site, a website run by Trotskyists, ran a series of interviews with historians who were critical of its claims starting in October 2019. On 3/6/2020, Politico ran an article titled “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me,” by a woman named Leslie Harris. In the article, she says that, although she agrees with the purpose of the 1619 Project, she feels it is nowhere near as focused on facts and too based in hyperbole. Here’s her talking about the claim that slavery was the main cause of the American Revolution:
Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay. In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.
Then there is Critical Race Theory, something that has come under controversy for the past several months. Critical Race Theory, for those unaware, is a spin-off of Critical Legal Theory, which argues that laws exist for the protection of the status-quo. It is not much more than the study of how racism impacts the lives of Americans today, which is nothing more than basic sociology.
However, this has not stopped outrage from Republican politicians. Roughly a dozen Republican states have tried to ban “Critical Race Theory” in schools, with some already succeeding. In September 2020, President Trump even banned federal grants from going to programs which mention it along with the concept of “white privilege.”
However, you might notice Critical Race Theory is a rather vague category encompassing much of the possible study of American history. This is on purpose, and teachers have repeatedly made it clear this would stop them from teaching large parts of the past of our nation. To quote an NPR article published on 5/28/2021:
Nonetheless, educators say the newly adopted and proposed laws are already forcing teachers to second-guess whether they can lead students in conversations about race and structural racism that many feel are critical at a time the nation is navigating an important reckoning on those issues.
It’s rather coincidental that Republicans are doing this as they also try to pass voter suppression legislation that many are comparing to the old Jim Crow laws that were once common-place in the United States. They are trying to make sure students have no memory of who used these tactics in the past, and why they were used previously. Texas quite literally passed a bill that banned any conversation on race in schools the same day as they passed a bill that would cut down on the number of polling places in Democratic areas of the state.
But you see, this is the oldest tactic in the book. When your legislation gets compared to Jim Crow, don’t change the legislation or even double down on it, just remove Jim Crow from public memory. Make sure Jim Crow goes down the Memory Hole George Orwell wrote about in 1984.
In Shaun’s video on the 1776 Commission, he makes the point that Republicans view history not as events to learn from, or even just events to understand where we are, but as stories to be inspired by. They view American history in the same way many view the text of a religion, as a series of stories meant to inspire wisdom, with simple good guys and bad guys (America, of course, always taking the role of the good guys). In the real world, history is much more complicated, good people can do bad things, and sometimes nations full of good people have bad people in charge who do bad things.
There’s a famous phrase, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Republicans understand that phrase, and that is exactly why they do not want Americans to learn about the history of racism in this country. They want to be able to repeat that history in all its ugliest forms without anyone having any memory of how these tactics were defeated last time. We must make sure the American public knows the truth, and we should do everything possible to stop this historical negationism Republicans are engaging in.