Trump lit the torch on race in schools, and Republicans are carrying it toward 2022

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Thirty-eight senators joined Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell by signing onto a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on the latter front. “This is a time to strengthen the teaching of civics and American history in our schools,” the letter argued. “Instead, your Proposed Priorities double down on divisive, radical, and historically-dubious buzzwords and propaganda.”

About that. The Root’s Michael Harriot did some serious research to locate the textbooks some of the signers of this letter most likely learned history from themselves, and … yeah, it’s bad. Harriot and The Root “dug through bios, school archives and academic resources to find out how these GOP legislators gained their knowledge of America’s past. In most cases, we were able to find the exact textbook each legislator’s school district used for one of the state or American history courses. In other cases, we were able to find contemporaneous descriptions of the textbooks from academic journals or reports.”

Among their findings:

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who complained, “The 1619 Project is nothing more than left-wing propaganda. Tennesseans don’t want it in our schools. We want our children to learn about our nation’s history,” went to school in Mississippi at a time when the state history curriculum was heavily influenced by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. John K. Bettersworth’s textbook Mississippi: a History dedicated five pages to slavery, including the claim that slave-holders taught enslaved people “as they taught their own children.” The textbook also railed against the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, so Blackburn was literally taught that desegregation was a bad thing.

Sen. John Kennedy—who’s been sneering about President Biden going “wokerista”—went to segregated schools all the way through high school. One edition of a textbook used in his district claimed that Louisiana’s slaves were “among the happiest and most content.” 

But Louisiana had competition. Going to high school in Kentucky, McConnell, the author of the letter to Sec. Cardona, would have learned that it was the enslaved people of his state who were best off—in fact, Kentucky’s education department still embraces that claim. And in grade school in Georgia, McConnell learned from a book that ignored Black people almost entirely: “The word ‘slave’ is used in the book five times, the word ‘Negro’ only five.” 

Sen. Tom Cotton, who called The 1619 Project “revisionist history at its worst” probably learned high school history from a textbook that never used the words “Civil War,” opting instead for the “War for Southern Independence,” which it characterized as beginning when, “In 1860-1861, eleven American states, led by the rebel Jefferson Davis, were seceding from the Union by throwing off the yoke of ‘King’ Abraham Lincoln. With that burden gone, the South was confident that it could work out its own peculiar destiny more quietly, happily, and prosperously.”

Cotton, mind you, is one of the youngest people in the U.S. Senate at 43 years of age. Terrible, racist history textbooks are not a relic of a bygone age.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Tommy Tuberville—the picture of history as much of the U.S. Senate was taught it doesn’t get much better. But it’s not like future senators got an especially racist version of history class. A lot of the country learned history in exactly these ways, and that’s part of what Republicans are preying on with their sustained campaign against changing the way history is taught to reckon with slavery and segregation and ongoing systemic racism and to incorporate Black people and their contributions into the story of the United States of America. 

Republicans are using that sense on the part of many adults that the version of U.S. history they were taught was U.S. history, the whole and inviolable reality of it. And, of course, they’re using straight-up racism. There are a lot of white people who like the racial deal they’ve got and really, really don’t want students learning how it all works.

Semi-undercover right-wing reporter Josh Kraushaar is making much of a hilariously slanted poll basically proving this point: If you give white people the racial message they want to hear, they’ll ardently embrace it. So, surprise! It turns out that 73% of people are opposed when you ask “Should schools teach that white people are inherently privileged, while Black and other people of color are inherently oppressed and victimized?” Ask if school should “teach students that their race is the most important thing about them” and 70% are opposed. It’s like those questions came out of a focus group on how to make white people feel defensive, and indeed, the poll was conducted by a Republican pollster on behalf of a “grassroots” right-wing parents’ group headed by a veteran of multiple right-wing organizations.

The push is on to make white people scared that if the way history is taught changes, they will lose out. It’s not a hard story to sell to a lot of white people, as Donald Trump showed us. Now, the institutional Republican Party is gearing up to make that pitch in a way that would have looked screamingly unsubtle right up until Trump busted the racism curve.

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