As we get closer to the opening of schools for the 2021-2022 academic year, it is more important than ever to be sure that our children and youth are learning an honest and accurate American history. Why is it important? Future generations of American students need to be able to think critically, to analyze historical events, to appreciate the value of differing perspectives and to participate in creating an America that lives up to its ideals.
So, what facts based upon historical evidence have been omitted or distorted that is necessary for us to understand our American society today? What historical legacy do we continue to deal with as a society? The facts presented in this article are not new concepts or a remake of US history but facts based on actual historical documents.1 Let’s get started.
1. What honest and accurate history of the early days of the American colonies have been omitted from our history books? Was racism always present in the colonies?
“Primary sources provide evidence of the status of the first ‘slaves’ to arrive on American soil: they were European, not African. The tenor of their experiences, however, set the tone for the future enslavement of Africans.” Honest and accurate history would reveal the achievements and class status of free Africans. Most crucially, however, is the historical evidence that there existed harmonious multiracial relationships and class alliances among the indentured class. For more than fifty years, European and African indentured servants worked, lived, married, had families and ultimately rebelled together. It was fears of increasing multiracial revolt as occurred after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 that provoked the creation of a hierarchy of race based on skin color. “For purely economic reasons, whiteness and racism were introduced more than fifty years after Africans arrived in Virginia. This decision, created for the purpose of maintaining the power and greed of the ruling class, changed the social structure of the colony from a class-based to a race-based society.
2. Why couldn’t this honest and accurate history of the beginning of whiteness and racism in the colonies be taught?
The fact that Europeans with white skin were the first to be enslaved on American soil refutes the entire mythology of white superiority and the myth of innate black inferiority as the rationale for race-based enslavement of blacks. Perhaps, if this truth of the creation of “whiteness” had been told, the mythology of white supremacy may not have taken hold in the collective white mind, and America may have become an honest beacon of freedom.
3. How was and has the social construction of “whiteness” been used to influence white minds?
A “whiteness” conditioning process occurred to make European indentured think of themselves as “white” people. Segregation and privilege were introduced to entice Europeans into becoming “white” and thus believing they were superior to Africans, who were black. It successfully delegated African Americans to the bottom of the social hierarchy. The imposition of “whiteness,” which was very much more psychological than economic or political, kept the minds of what the ruling class termed “common” whites focused on a new sense of superiority and privilege. What they did not perceive was that they were being used as pawns by the ruling class. Rather than a consciousness of their common reality as an oppressed class - the same as blacks - they aligned themselves with the interests of the ruling class. The legacy created by the creation of “whiteness” has continued for almost four hundred years. Racism as a tool of social control has prevented awareness and acceptance of the true class difference between wealthy and poor whites and the unification and alliance of exploited workers both white and black.
The ultimate lesson
Racism is not a natural or normal phenomenon. It is created and taught generation by generation through the use of stereotypical images, language, and laws that reinforce the inferiority of blacks and the superiority of whites. The unfortunate racial reckoning hastened by the murder of George Floyd before a group of young bystanders should move us to take action to protect our children of all skin tones from the scourge of racism. America does not have to remain a nation governed and ruled by racist beliefs. She can through the work of individuals as conscious change agents begin sharing the truth about how racism was invented, reinforced and perpetuated.
As you read these facts based on historical evidence about the beginning of racism in America what are your thoughts? Your feelings? Are you shocked? Disappointed? Angry? Disillusioned? Why do you believe it crucial that not another generation of American children be lulled into the mythology of white supremacy? What moral and ethical responsibility do each of us as Americans have to correct the missing and distorted history that has been taught? What, especially as parents, must we require of our schools in teaching the honest and accurate history of our nation?
1 The narrative presented is taken from Chapters I and II of A Time for Change: How White Supremacy Ideology Harms All Americans, released June 9, 2021, by Rowman and Littlefield.