3 things schools should teach about America’s history of white supremacy

When it comes to how deeply embedded racism is in American society, blacks and whites have sharply different views.

For instance, 70 percent of whites believe that individual discrimination is a bigger problem than discrimination built into the nation’s laws and institutions. Only 48 percent of blacks believe that is true.

Many blacks and whites also fail to see eye to eye regarding the use of blackface, which dominated the news cycle during the early part of 2019 due to a series of scandals that involve the highest elected leaders in Virginia, where I teach.

The donning of blackface happens throughout the country, particularly on college campuses. Recent polls indicate that 42 percent of white American adults either think blackface is acceptable or are uncertain as to whether it is.

One of the most recent blackface scandals has involved Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, whose yearbook page from medical school features someone in blackface standing alongside another person dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam has denied being either person. The more Northam has tried to defend his past actions, the clearer it has become to me how little he appears to know about fundamental aspects of American history, such as slavery. For instance, Northam referred to Virginia’s earliest slaves as “indentured servants”. His ignorance has led to greater scrutiny of how he managed to ascend to the highest leadership position in a racially diverse state with such a profound history of racism and white supremacy.

Ignorance is pervasive

The reality is Gov. Northam is not alone. Most Americans are largely uninformed of our nation’s history of white supremacy and racial terror.

As a scholar who researches racial discrimination, I believe much of this ignorance is due to negligence in our education system. For example, a recent study found that only 8 percent of high school seniors knew that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. There are ample opportunities to include much more about white supremacy, racial discrimination and racial violence into school curricula. Here are three things that I believe should be incorporated into all social studies curricula today:

1. The Civil War was fought over slavery and one of its offshoots – the convict-lease system – did not end until the 1940s

The Civil War was fought over the South’s desire to maintain the institution of slavery in order to continue to profit from it. It is not possible to separate the Confederacy from a pro-slavery agenda and curriculums across the nation must be clear about this fact.

A Confederate treasury note from the Civil War Era shows how reliant the South’s economy was on slave labor. Scott Rothstein from www.shutterstock.com
After the end of the Civil War, southern whites sought to keep slavery through other means. Following a brief post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction, white southerners created new laws that gave them legal authority to arrest blacks over the most minor offenses, such as not being able to prove they had a job.

While imprisoned under these laws, blacks were then leased to corporations and farms where they were forced to work without pay under extremely harsh conditions. This “convict leasing” was, as many have argued, slavery by another name and it persisted until the 1940s.