Home » The Next Generation of Students Might Be Ignorant of U.S. Racial History

The Next Generation of Students Might Be Ignorant of U.S. Racial History

If we want a democracy, all American students need to learn our racial history.

And yet, almost half of the country’s 22 million American public school children live in states where they will be miseducated about the realities of racism, according to a study out of the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) earlier this year.

You may have heard about curriculum laws that ban accurate information about U.S. history and race; if you live in a blue state, you may believe it doesn’t affect you or your children.

That’s not so. If these laws stay in place, all our children will come of age in a country where nearly half their generation will be ignorant about the society they will inherit.

And that matters. Today’s students are tomorrow’s decision-makers. If our fellow citizens are ill-educated, they are more likely to make terrible decisions that will harm our shared future—including decisions about who should be entrusted with political power.

A miseducated generation is more vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues, extremist groups, and others who seek to divide, frighten, and enrage people based on race.

People talk before the start of a rally against “critical race theory” being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

We’ve seen some of that already in the past few years, with attacks on the U.S. Capitol and voting rights, as well as hate crimes like the recent murder of three Black people by a white supremacist in Jacksonville, Florida. If the coming generation is actively misled, as these laws mandate, our future could look even worse.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider that Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, and Georgia already have so-called “Critical Race Theory” bans.

These policies are a mere symptom of a great disease—the backlash against racial progress.

Between Jan. 1, 2021 and Dec. 31, 2022, congressional, state, and local government officials proposed 563 policies—nearly half of which have been adopted—that ban teaching “divisive concepts”—a euphemism for conservative extremists to hide behind when they really mean teaching “about America’s history of racism.” They claim they’re trying to protect students—presumably white ones—from feeling guilty about things like racism or sexism. The cost of this “protection,” is a generation made ignorant of their own country.

Under the guise of “parental rights,” 392 bills have been introduced in state legislatures that would make it easier for parents to interfere with the decisions of educators, administrators, and librarians, according to PEN America. While these policies wouldn’t ban what can be taught, they may be worse. Teachers and administrators may fear for their livelihoods if they even approach teaching about the history or effects of discrimination, race, gender, or any other topic that might go against a community member’s ideology, no matter how accurate that information might be.

Naturally, those efforts have included bans on books, which are increasing in number and frequency. To date, more than 870 titles have been pulled from school courses and libraries based on such challenges. Of those, 30 percent touched on race, racism, or featured characters of color, according to PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans.

The push to miseducate young Americans isn’t stopping in public schools. Conservative extremists are targeting higher education as well. Nine states have enacted “educational gag orders,” policies restricting what can be taught in colleges and universities. Another 36 states have such policies actively under consideration. Once again, most of those either explicitly or implicitly target any teaching about racism.

And when the anti-CRT brigades do allow for discussions of America’s racist legacy, their curricula are often inaccurate or biased. For instance, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing new education standards which include a claim that enslaved Africans “benefited” from their enslavement. Under DeSantis, Florida has even approved the screening of videos created for kids by Prager University, a radical conservative media company that likewise tries to downplay the horrors of slavery. (One of the lessons even falsely claims that the U.S. was one of the first nations to abolish slavery.)

Most Americans do not support this extremist agenda.

Great Oak High School students hold signs during a protest of the districts ban of critical race theory curriculum at Patricia H. Birdsall Sports Park in Temecula.

Great Oak High School students hold signs during a protest of the districts ban of critical race theory curriculum at Patricia H. Birdsall Sports Park in Temecula, California on Dec. 16, 2022.

MediaNews Group/The Riverside Press-Enterprise via Getty Images

More than three in four Americans support curricula that teach students about how racism affects society today (76 percent), according to Gallup. Four in five support curricula that include teaching about the history of racism in the U.S. (81 percent). In fact, states that enact such rules may be alienating their own student base; per Gallup, 74 percent of currently enrolled college students say such policies would make them want to transfer out of their schools, preferring to get their education in states without such restrictions.

These policies are a mere symptom of a great disease—the backlash against racial progress. They aim to not only undo the progress that has been made, but to take away any tool that made that progress possible. This includes education about racism.

As James Baldwin wrote, “ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

Ignorant people are easier to divide, manipulate, and control. Whether we live in a state that believes in accurate education or not, we need fellow citizens all across the country who have learned about our shared reality.

That quite urgently includes understanding the history of racism, how racism affects the world today, and what we can do to end it. Otherwise, division and violence will increase, demagogues and extremist groups will triumph, and today’s students will one day live in a society that resembles our worst nightmares, rather than the American dream. To protect the progress we’ve made and ensure the future we all need, students must be free to learn.

Right now, the forces of regression are defining the debate, further hindering progress. But the majority of us who want students to learn the truth about racism need to take control of the conversation. We can speak up about the urgency of teaching students about racism. And we can work with policymakers, educators, administrators, and librarians to make that happen.

We can also support those—like PEN America and United Against Book Bans—who are working to prevent a generation of miseducation. People all over the country are organizing against these draconian attacks on education freedom and reality-based facts. Together, we can ensure all students get the education they need, so they can become the decision-makers America needs.


October 2023