Why We Need to Discuss How We Teach Kids About Racism in United States History

In the second part of my two-part blog post on Critical Race Theory (CRT), I said that it seems like the theory has gotten mixed in there with larger, yet important, discussions on how classrooms should navigate through topics of race and racism. I even conveyed in my post that such discussions are needed. This is an opinion I feel strongly about as someone who was a history major in college and is still a self-professed American history nerd.

However, what I didn’t go into in said post was why those discussions are needed.

So, why are these discussions necessary? Why can’t we just go on with history lesson plans that teach about America’s greatness, without even so much as questioning it?

Simply put, not teaching about the parts of America’s past and present that involve racism is not a complete teaching of American history.

How can you have a truthful teaching of American history without talking about how there were slaves for nearly the first 80 years of the history of the United States, and how those slaves counted as 3/5 of a person?[1] Or how it took a bloody civil war to end slavery?[2] Or how it took nearly a century beyond that for legalized racial segregation to become a thing of the past? Or how the “War on Drugs” in more recent times has jailed millions of African Americans, thereby taking away millions of African Americans’ right to vote?[3] All these things are a part of our history.

If we start talking about Native Americans, we run into a whole other element of American history that is inconvenient for some to teach about, yet would leave us with an incomplete picture of American history if we don’t teach it. This includes the killing of so many Native Americans, one of the most infamous examples being the Trail of Tears during the period in which Andrew Jackson was president.[4] It includes the largest mass execution in American history—38 Dakota warriors were hanged during the Sioux Uprising in 1862.[5] Policies were so brutal against many Native Americans that the idea of “kill the Indian and save the man” (an ideology which relates to Native Americans being taught at white boarding schools) was considered humanitarian reform.[6]

And then there is our history when it comes to many other groups of people not considered white during their times. Internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II,[7] the Chinese Exclusion Act (which specifically prohibited a group of people; in this case, Chinese people, from immigrating to the United States),[8] and the despise many Americans felt towards Irish escaping strife during the mid-19th century[9] are but a few notable examples of dark elements of America’s history when it comes to the treatment of people who aren’t or weren’t viewed as white. The treatment of people coming from Ireland in the mid-18th century, in particular, gives me a lot of pause, given the parallels I’ve seen between how those from Ireland were treated and the treatment of certain groups of refugees today (particularly refugees coming from places that are majority-Muslim).

All of these things need to be taught in American history, even though such parts of American history are unsavory, and even if such parts of American history may challenge certain beliefs some of us may hold about this country. In particular, teaching such parts of American history may challenge the idea that America is and always has been morally superior to other nations—an idea often associated with American exceptionalism. But sometimes, a truthful looking back at any history, whether it be with the United States or with one’s one family, contains some difficult aspects that we wish didn’t exist.

As to how to teach these elements of American history, I will not comment on that. I am not a teacher or professor, and therefore I do not have the sort of knowledge about teaching methods that are needed for me to give an intelligent opinion on how these things should be taught. However, what I do know is that these are things that should be taught if we are to give the students of today and tomorrow a more complete picture of American history than what some teachings of American history currently provide.


[1] https://www.britannica.com/topic/three-fifths-compromise

[2] https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendment/amendment-xv

[3] https://apnews.com/article/war-on-drugs-75e61c224de3a394235df80de7d70b70

[4] https://www.britannica.com/event/Trail-of-Tears

[5] https://www.britannica.com/topic/American-frontier/How-the-West-was-won#ref1262439

[6] https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3505#:~:text=Pratt’s%20motto%20was%20%22kill%20the%20Indian%20and%20save%20the%20man.%22&text=During%20the%20late%2019th%20century,reservations%2C%20and%20eradicate%20tribal%20organizations.

[7] https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/japanese-relocation

[8] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Chinese-Exclusion-Act

[9] It is also worth noting that the notion of whiteness has since expanded to include the Irish. The subject of what whiteness means is its own topic though, and beyond the purview of this blog post. https://www.history.com/news/when-america-despised-the-irish-the-19th-centurys-refugee-crisis

Native American History is Erased from School Curricula

One thing that many of us might not be aware of is that November is Native American History Month.

Another thing many of us may not be aware of is that Native American history is often barely present, absent, or extremely misleading in school curricula.

For example, the College Board’s curriculum for Advanced Placement (AP) United States History mentioned Native Americans only once in a post-1890 context: as a subdivision of a key concept which says students should learn about how “Latino, American Indian, and Asian American movements continued to demand social and economic equality and a redress of past injustices” (quote found on page 87 of this link). To which I think, “Umm…excuse me…what do you think happened with Native Americans between 1890 and the civil rights era?” I’m not sure if I’d get answers even if I asked the College Board.

My home state of New York is somewhat better about including Native Americans in its history curriculum. For example, New York includes Native American movements on the list of civil rights movements that need to be covered. Regarding the era of World War II, the curriculum says: “Students will examine the contributions of women, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican workers, and Mexican Americans to the war effort, as well as the discrimination that they experienced in the military and workforce.” The curriculum also makes room for key legislation on Native Americans, such as the Dawes Act, and forced assimilation efforts, such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. However, unless the quality of textbooks has changed since my younger brother went through United States History in New York two years ago, much of the information on these topics is misleading at best, and promoting falsehoods at worst.

And some of that misleading information is expressed when California talks about Native Americans and civil rights. At one point, the post-World War II chapter in their curriculum says: “American Indians also became more aware of the inequality of their treatment in many states where Indian tribes are located. American Indian veterans, returning from World War II were no longer willing to be denied the right to vote by the states, which controlled the voting sites or to be told their children could not attend state public schools” (in this link; search for my quote to find the link most easily). Say what? They just said that there was little awareness among Native Americans about their lack of rights before the 1940s? That comment left me puzzled, to say the least.

I can give more examples of how states poorly handle Native American issues beyond the 1870s or so, but I think that these three examples give enough of a picture. The bottom line is that Native Americans are often either erased or are depicted with misleading information in many portions of school curricula. That fact is shameful.

It is often said that “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Many high school curricula don’t even teach the history of Native Americans beyond the 1870s (let alone teach it properly), so if we are to avoid repeating mistakes, we must start to educate ourselves. I have much to educate myself on, and many of us have much to educate ourselves on, but we must educate ourselves so that we don’t repeat the mistakes and injustices committed against Native Americans in the past.