How Racism Gets Taught and Misrepresented in Our Schools

Teaching It Forward

The not-so-subtle purpose of compulsory schooling is to ensure a populace subservient to the status quo which primarily serves the ruling class. What we call education is derived from a Prussian model designed to reward individuals based on how well they stay in line and do as they’re told through the process of grading. It’s no mystery that those who conform the most by repeating verbatim the state-controlled curriculum they’re force fed receive the highest marks and are thus given the greatest opportunities for societal advancement. By discouraging individual thought and creativity while instead placing a premium on conformity, the powers that be ensures obedience instead of dissent from the people most likely to rise up against it. By controlling what is taught and holding educators responsible for their student’s test results, the ultimate goal of mass indoctrination is all but assured.

It’s this sort of forced institutionalization that has not only enabled but encouraged the racism that has plagued this country since the inception of government-mandated schooling. And there is no greater evidence of this than a brief perusal of a couple of the mostly southern school textbooks that were used to teach bigotry to young minds in the 1950s and 1960s.

An entire generation of Baby Boomers learned Alabama history from a textbook called Know Alabama. In a chapter called Plantation Life, fourth graders learned how living on a plantation was “one of the happiest ways of life.” The 1957 edition encouraged students to imagine themselves on their family plantation with the following Dickensonian prose:

“How’s it coming Sam,” your father asks one of the old Negroes.

“Fine, Marse Tom, ‘jes fine. We got most more cotton than we can pick.” Then Sam chuckles to himself and goes back to picking as fast as he can.

One of the little Negro boys is called Jig. He got that name because he dances so well when the Negroes play their banjos.

Jig comes up and says, “Let me play.”

And you say, “All right, but you be the captive Indian.”

“That will be fun,” Jig says, and he goes off gladly to be the Indian, to hide and then get himself captured.

Some fucking fun. Apparently mocking African American dialect was part of the learning process required in 1950s classrooms as well as comparing them to the original settlers of this country who needed to be captured and enslaved for their own good as well. But though most slaves worked hard and stayed in line, a few of them supposedly made life challenging for their masters.

No plantation had a model group of slaves, for planters had to buy whatever slaves they could get. Some slaves were very good workers and very obedient. Many took pride in what they did, and loved their cabins and the plantation as much as if they actually owned them. Others were lazy, disobedient, and sometimes vicious.

This version conveniently leaves out that in order to make the most money they could from their plantations, owners often used violence on their enslaved laborers. This included everyday whipping, lynching, rape and other grueling forms of torture for those accused of not working as hard as the owners wanted them to. This violent treatment is documented by people such as Robert Wedderburn and Frederick Douglas. There were slave codes established by individual states, which outlined guidelines for infractions and disobedience. For example, here’s a portion of South Carolina’s Negro Act of 1740:

  1. Slaves were forbidden to leave the owner’s property unless they obtained permission or were accompanied by a white person.
  2. Any slave attempting to run away and leave the colony received the death penalty.
  3. Any slave who evaded capture for 20 days or more was to be publicly whipped for the first offense; to be branded with the letter “R” on the right cheek for the second offense; to lose one ear if absent for 30 days for the third offense; and to be castrated for the fourth offense.
  4. Owners refusing to abide by the slave code were fined and forfeited ownership of their slaves.
  5. Slave homes were searched every two weeks for weapons or stolen goods. Punishment for violations included loss of ears, branding, nose-slitting, and death.
  6. No slave was allowed to work for pay; plant corn, peas, or rice; keep hogs, cattle, or horses; own or operate a boat; or buy, sell, or wear clothes finer than “Negro cloth.”

And these were the statutes imposed on the people who loved the plantation as if they were co-owners. I don’t know about you, but if I own a house, I’d rather not fear losing my gonads every time I go on vacation. And how about that wacky Civil War? Know Alabama had that covered as well.

The Southerners had a right under the law to own slaves, and the Southern states had a right under the law to leave the United States. Many Southerners did not want to leave the Union. But when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the South felt that they had to leave the Union to keep their rights.

You mean the right to enslave individuals against their will while simultaneously engaging in treason? The Southern aristocracy feared the impending election of Abraham Lincoln would ultimately bring about nationwide emancipation. He and his supporters were known, after all, as “black Republicans,” a term purposefully designed to conjure an image of radical abolitionism. Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” speech of 1858 only aggravated tensions, clarifying the divide between an abolitionist North and a slave-dependent South.

But the authors of this valiant textbook weren’t finished taking formative minds down the racist rabbit hole just quite yet. This is how they described the White Knights who bravely stepped in to save the day – the Ku Klux Klan.

The loyal white men of Alabama saw they could not depend on the laws or the state government to protect their families. They knew they had to do something to bring back law and order, to get the government back in the hands of honest men who knew how to run it.

They (the Klan) held their courts in the dark forests at night; they passed sentence on the criminals and they carried out the sentence. Sometimes the sentence would be to leave the state.

After a while the Klan struck fear in the hearts of the carpetbaggers and other lawless men who had taken control of the state…The Negroes who had been fooled by the false promises of the carpetbaggers decided to get themselves jobs and settle down to make an honest living.

Many of the Negroes in the South remained loyal to the white Southerners. Even though they had lately been freed from slavery, even though they had no education, they knew who their friends were.

Thank God the Negroes had the KKK on their side to pass down sentences on those they deemed criminals. Had it not been for that, they probably wouldn’t have been forced to endure the following:

  • The 1951 Christmas Eve bombing of the home of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(NAACP) activists Harry and Harriette Moore in Mims, Florida, resulting in their deaths.
  • The 1957 murder of Willie Edwards Jr., who was forced by Klansmen to jump to his death from a bridge into the Alabama River.
  • The 1963 assassination of NAACP organizer Medgar Evers in Mississippi. In 1994, former Ku Klux Klansman Byron De La Beckwithwas convicted.
  • The 16th Street Baptist Church bombingin September 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four African-American girls and injured 22 people. The perpetrators were Klan members Robert Chambliss, convicted in 1977, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, convicted in 2001 and 2002. The fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died before he was indicted.
  • The 1964 murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, three civil rights workers, in Mississippi. In June 2005, Klan member Edgar Ray Killenwas convicted of manslaughter.
  • The 1964 murder of two black teenagers, Henry HezekiahDee and Charles Eddie Moore in Mississippi. In August 2007, based on the confession of Klansman Charles Marcus Edwards, James Ford Seale, a reputed Ku Klux Klansman, was convicted. Seale was sentenced to serve three life sentences. Seale was a former Mississippi policeman and sheriff’s deputy.
  • The 1965 Alabama murder of Viola Liuzzo.She was a Southern-raised Detroit mother of five who was visiting the state in order to attend a civil rights march. At the time of her murder, Liuzzo was transporting Civil Rights marchers related to the Selma to Montgomery March.
  • The 1966 firebombing death of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, Sr., 58, in Mississippi. In 1998 former Ku Klux Klan wizard Samuel Bowerswas convicted of his murder and sentenced to life. Two other Klan members were indicted with Bowers, but one died before trial, and the other’s indictment was dismissed.
  • In July 1966, in Bogalusa, Louisiana,a stronghold of Klan activity, Clarence Triggs was found murdered.
  • The 1967 multiple bombings in Jackson, Mississippi of the residence of a Methodist activist, Robert Kochtitzky, the synagogue and the residence of RabbiPerry Nussbaum. These were carried out by Klan member Thomas Albert Tarrants III, who was convicted in 1968. Another Klan bombing was averted in Meridian the same year.

But the fun doesn’t end there. Another textbook literary masterpiece was penned in 1961 by dubious historian Charles Grayson Summersell. Titled Alabama History for Schools, it was the forerunner to what the modern day right wing constantly accuses legitimate critiques of itself as being fake news. In it, Summersell describes a reality where benevolent Alabama slave owners treated slaves better than “Northern slave traders,” slaves received “the very best medical care,” were covered by an early version of Social Security, secession was forced on the South by the “vocal minority of abolitionists” in the North, and those Southern secessionists were merely upholding their rights under the US Constitution.

Summersell describes how fortunate slaves were and the benefits they received:

A few slaves were lucky enough to get castoff clothes from the big house. In clothing, as in food and housing, the slave enjoyed little or no luxury but suffered little or no want.

In one respect, the slave was almost always better off than free laborers, white or black, of the same period. The slave received the best medical care which the times could offer. There are plantation records which show large sums spent on doctors’ bills for the care of slaves. The ill health of the slave meant a loss of working time to the master, and the death of a slave was a great economic loss.

With all the drawbacks of slavery, it should be noted that slavery was the earliest form of social security in the United States. It was the legal responsibility of the master to take care of aged workers. It is true that the average ages to which slaves lived were less than those of the whites. But the difference was not great, and a similar difference exists between the races today.

Hell, according to Summersell the majority of the current homeless population of Los Angeles were born in the wrong era and would’ve had a standard of living increase had they instead been fortunate enough to populate the world of pre-Civil War slavery. However, he conveniently fails to mention that Southern medicine of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was harsh, ineffective, and experimental by nature. Physicians’ memoirs, medical journals, and planters’ records all reveal that enslaved black Americans bore the worst abuses of these crudely empirical practices, which encouraged a hazardous degree of experimentation in medications, dosages, and even spontaneous surgical experiments in the daily practice among slaves.

Physicians were active participants in the exploitation of African American bodies. The records reveal that slaves were both medically neglected and abused because they were powerless and legally invisible; the courts were almost completely uninterested in the safety and health rights of the enslaved. Because professional attention was expensive, most owners dosed their own slaves as long as they could before calling in physicians, who usually saw slaves only as a last resort. In clinical notes, medical journals, and memoirs, physicians consistently decried the planters’ tendency to rely upon the cheaper ministrations of overseers, slaves, and mistresses in order to save expense. Physicians’ records also expressed disgust at the conditions in which enslaved workers were kept. Historian Richard Shryock observed in 1936, “Of all critics, the Southern physician was perhaps in the best position to report on the physical and moral treatment of the slaves. When he stated, as he sometimes did, that Negroes were overworked and underfed, he can hardly be suspected of antislavery bias since he was the friend of the planter who employed him. As a matter of fact, he usually approved of the institution.” Planters’ own records and slave narratives corroborate physicians’ complaints that planters provided professional medical care only when they deemed it necessary to save the slave’s life – often too late. Some fucking Social Security.

For his heroic penmanship, the University of Alabama awarded Summersell its award for Most Distinguished Undergraduate History Student. Apparently his masters were proud.

The consequences of this sort of revisionist textbook indoctrination continue to reverberate throughout our society to this very day. As recently as 2011, Tennessee tea party activists presented state legislators with a list of “demands” for the 2011 legislative session, including “educating students the truth about America.” “Neglect and outright ill will have distorted the teaching of the history and character of the United States,” according to a document the activists distributed to reporters. “We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government.” At a press conference, the activists said they wanted a focus on the “progress” the Founders and “the majority of citizens” made, to the exclusion of supposedly “made-up criticism” about slavery and the treatment of Indigenous peoples:

The material called for lawmakers to amend state laws governing school curriculums, and for textbook selection criteria to say that “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.

Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody?—?not all equally instantly?—?and it was their progress that we need to look at,” said Rounds.

So what’s all the uproar about a little enslavement and torture of people based solely on their skin color as well as the displacement and genocide of indigenous individuals between a select group of white social revolutionaries, anyway? Everything would be fine if all these nonwhite peoples would just learn to stay in their place!

The current times and our collective humanity requires that we do better. A 2017 report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project pointed to the widespread failure to accurately teach the hard and complicated history of American slavery. Collectively, the report found that slavery is mistaught, mischaracterized, sanitized, and sentimentalized – leaving students poorly educated and contemporary issues of race and racism misunderstood. Among 12th-graders, only 8 percent could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War. Fewer than one-third (32 percent) correctly named the 13th Amendment as the formal end of U.S. slavery, with a slightly higher share (35 percent) choosing the Emancipation Proclamation. And fewer than half (46 percent) identified the “Middle Passage” as the transport of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to North America.

The student results, which the report labels “dismal,” extend beyond factual errors to a failure to grasp key concepts underpinning the nature and legacy of slavery. Fewer than one-quarter (22 percent) of participating high-school seniors knew that “protections for slavery were embedded in [America’s] founding documents” – that rather than a “peculiar institution” of the South, slavery was a Constitutionally enshrined right. And fewer than four in 10 students surveyed (39 percent) understood how slavery “shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness.”

When it comes to white privilege, compulsory schooling is indeed fulfilling its promise. Until we hold our universities accountable for the sort of graduates they churn out parading teaching certificates, we can expect little change in the watered-down, disingenuous and whitewashed way the current and future generations of America will learn about the history of our racial history and identity. Approximately 7% of educators today are black. With a profession that’s characteristically white, female, and middle class – and with students of color and children in poverty rapidly making up the majority of the public-school population – it’s become a necessity to have teachers equipped and willing to talk about race and racism openly, honestly and most importantly – factually.

Inaction is often just as lethal as the wrong action. As always, the future is up to us.

Terry Everton is a cartoonist and “wage slave.” Read other articles by Terry, or visit Terry's website.