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SHAH: Unfortunate history must still be acknowledged

SHAH: Unfortunate history must still be acknowledged

People do not really talk about education. Education is something widely discussed only in the realm of teachers’ unions and public policy, but beyond that, the fact is this: education just is not sexy enough for a headline. There just is not enough scandal or intrigue. Well, perhaps it is time to rethink this notion. 

As white nationalist rallies still recur within America’s “modern” political landscape and Steve Bannon, who is a known white supremacist, stands next to the president of the United States, it is hard to refute the fact that the Civil Rights Movement failed to solve all of the fault lines between Black people and white people. What seems more frightening than this dreadful reality is that in the public schools of 16 states across this country, civil rights history — this incredibly prolific part of history where Black Americans revolutionized the history of their race as well as the country — is not required to be taught at all. In 19 other states, instruction about the movement is so minimal it barely counts. 

The civil rights movement is not only a movement that benefitted Black Americans but also a love letter to American democratic values and how citizens can fight for these values. Learning about it allows us to see America as a place where change can happen with a group of bold people who are willing to resist in order to obtain for justice. 

Yet, even where education of the movement is required, when only key historical figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and his legendary utterance, "I have a dream …” are talked about, we truly fail ourselves and the thousands who took on a battle against institutional oppression. When learning more about the civil rights movement myself, I was terrified to learn that I had no knowledge of Beulah Mae Donald, a woman who sued and consequently bankrupted one of the most notorious Ku Klux Klan groups after their murder of her son. I had no knowledge of Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman or Emmett Till

What else was missing from my curriculum that was a vital part of history? 

This problem does not stop with the civil rights history education. 

According to a 2011 Pew Research poll, 48 percent of Americans believed that the Civil War was mainly about states’ rights while 38 percent believed that it was mainly about slavery. Sure, the Confederacy fought for states’ rights when it meant preserving slavery, but when Northern states created legislation to protect runaway slaves, they blatantly opposed their states’ rights. In fact, most state charters explicitly stated that the cause of the war was slavery. Georgia’s Declaration of Causes of Seceding States remarks that there were “serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” Regionally, the Civil War is taught differently as a way to sanitize history, turning the war’s main cause, “racism,” into something more mild and palatable like “states’ rights.” 

Yet, while the fact is that the Civil War revolved around slavery, Confederate soldiers are still glorified in monuments across the country, controversy arising each time one is considered taken down. While many argue that the monuments are simply a tribute to America’s history, citing examples of their ancestors who fought for “states’ rights,” interestingly and disturbingly enough, a majority of Confederate monuments were not built immediately after the Civil War as a tribute to the lives lost. In fact, a surge of the building of these monuments occurred during the early 1900s and the 50s-60s, when white Americans felt the need to exert power over Black Americans during times of possible rebellion against institutional racism. I get it — it is easier to remember our however-many-great grandfathers as noble men who fought for their rights rather than men who fought to take away the rights of Black men and women. But, this is only the aftermath of miseducation about the dark, brutal truths regarding the Confederacy. 

Because states leave educational standards to school districts, a relevant and entirely accurate social studies curriculum when it comes to such a controversial topic in United States where there is a moral “winner” and “loser” is bound to impossible. When a state with a large textbook market, such as Texas, has no problem “rectifying” a textbook’s facts after a Houston mother complained her son was being taught that African slaves were “workers” and “immigrants,” a million or so students are miseducated due to a complete sanitation of the hard truth that African slaves, who were once workers and immigrants, were later reduced to just property. 

In order to create a generally more equitable society, we must first treat Black Americans as more than just the classic oppressed race in America and teach more about their deeply profound and colorful history to create a more meaningful portrait of minority Americans. 

There is nothing easy about remembering that your ancestor may have fought for the right to preserve the ownership of an entire race of people. But, history is not supposed to be easy. It is supposed to be a reminder of the mistakes and blunders we have made as a people but also the brave triumphs we have had over injustices. The more we sanitize our history into a fun, family-friendly movie, the more likely we are to repeat the same sordid mistakes. Break the cycle and, despite how painfully guilt-inducing it may be, learn the many facets of our oppressive, progressive history. How else can we be productive and progressive citizens of the free world? 

Anjali Shah is a Rutgers Business School first-year, double majoring in finance and political science. Her column, “Wait, Was that Racist?”, runs on alternate Fridays.


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