We Must Not Run Away From the Centrality of Race to American History by Thomas Martin Sobottke

The moves made by several States to enact legislation that ban the teaching of critical race theory is already having a chilling effect on those of us that include race as a central factor in slavery, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement, and more modern expressions of racism that we now see. It remains a key concern to the present day. American historians at all levels wonder if what they teach about American history violates these newly enacted laws.

What the legislators are in effect doing is running away from having to face or having their State’s students face our nation’s real past. It includes the centuries-long racial genocide of people indigenous to North America. Our common history is not uniformly bad and present day Americans ought not to have any guilt for what their ancestors did. The only way they should feel guilty is if they practice racial prejudice or discrimination now. Our students need to know the truth. They cannot know that if we lie to them or cover up these very central events and realities of our nation’s past.

Too much of the reason that these laws are being enacted is that older, predominately white male legislators are presently practicing both racial prejudice and discrimination. They know it and it bothers them. Ducking the race issue is how they perceive these things are best dealt with. They could not be more wrong.

Abraham Lincoln said that if “slavery is not wrong nothing is wrong.”  W.E.B. Du Bois told us that “the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line,” to explain the Jim Crow Era of segregation and all it meant. Today, Black Lives Matter protestors pester us and our consciences with the fact that unarmed Black people are more than three times as likely to be shot to death by police as their White counterparts. Then we all saw the murder of a Black man on our television screens; less than ten minutes of disquieting footage that left no doubt what we were witnessing, the utter helplessness of George Floyd.

The battle over American history now is joined between the 1619 Project that asserts that American history began with purchase of 19 slaves from a Dutch ship that was part of that period’s triangular slave trade. While not absolutely accurate, the series of essays is a welcome antidote to whitewashed versions of American history that simply do not tell us the truth about ourselves. It is an outstanding achievement. Instead, we got President Trump’s 1776 Project which is simply a sanitized White history of the kind professional historians have all been complaining about.

Why can’t we let professional historians and teachers tell our nation’s stories to our children? No teacher is going to emphasize racism and racial killings to the youngest children. We are talking about those in middle school, high school, and university. For every single racial injustice we must teach there is a corresponding struggle for racial justice to tell about and grapple with.  There is also much of American history that has little to do with race.

The saving grace of American history is that Jeffersonian statement of liberty written into the Declaration of Independence: the self-evident idea, that quintessentially American idea, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Even though we have yet to fully achieve it, that it has for much of our history been much closer to John Calhoun’s “self-evident lie,” such an idea of human freedom could never be contained to only white male property holders. It has a moral fire of its own that jump’s the fence away from slaveholders and racial or sexist bigots to try, however imperfectly, to have us live out what is the American creed.

I’ll leave the last word to Abraham Lincoln, the man responsible for making me a historian:

                   They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all constantly looked to, constantly labored for, constantly approximated and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.

                   From Lincoln’s reply at Alton, Illinois, 15 October 1858, 379, in Paul M. Angle, ed., The Complete Lincoln Douglas Debates of 1858, (Chicago, 1961).