My suburban Houston middle school held an annual Civil War Day. White eighth-grade-girls lolled about the cafeteria in dresses with hoop skirts and a principal, a self-professed Civil War buff, gave an animated presentation casting Confederate soldiers as misunderstood underdogs. 

Perhaps because my parents were transplants to Texas, my mother had the wherewithal to recognize Civil War Day for the inappropriate celebration of plantation culture that it was. She let my sisters and me know how warped she found it all, and that the Civil War was foremost about slavery — a fact that was routinely whitewashed in Texas schools right up to 2019.

Union troops attack in a reenactment of the Battle of Vicksburg during Civil War Days at Lakewood Forest Preserve in Wauconda, Ill.

Union troops attack in a reenactment of the Battle of Vicksburg during Civil War Days at Lakewood Forest Preserve in Wauconda, Ill.
Joe Lewnard, Daily Herald via AP

I can only imagine what the few Black families at the school thought of the event, but lately I’ve been trying. Because over the past few weeks, as numerous states and Republican lawmakers have taken steps to block schools from teaching the enduring legacy of slavery in the U.S., it has become clear that my school’s sanitized approach to the Civil War was not the quirky brainchild of one principal gone rogue. Rather, it falls neatly in line with a larger philosophy that educating kids about the outsized role racism holds in American history and policy is unpatriotic, “divisive nonsense,” as Sen. Mitch McConnell called it. 

As one who grew up with an education McConnell would probably deem patriotic, I am here to point out the ridiculousness of such thinking. What divides us is not teaching the truth, but leaving kids to fill in the blanks for the vast inequalities they see around them. What divides us is allowing those kids to grow up into ignorant leaders.

Missing history

At the public Texas schools I attended in the ’80s, we learned that freed slaves were allotted 40 acres of land and a mule. What we did not learn was that the federal government quickly overturned that agreement, returning those acres to their previous white owners.

We were told that America is a land of opportunity for anyone willing to work long and hard enough. We were not told that for decades many unions excluded Black Americans, thwarting them from the opportunities, pay and work protections offered their white counterparts.

And of course we never studied how banks and government made purchasing homes and property an impossibility for many Black families, foiling them from accruing wealth that would have appreciated over years and generations.

But is rehashing these hard truths really useful, some ask? Can’t we just vow to do better moving forward? The field of cognitive science provides a ready answer: The rehashing can help. A lot.

In a field of tall grass, shots ring out and puffs of smoke rise as soldiers re-enact the Battle of Gettysburg and America begins to mark the 150th anniversary of that turning part in the Civil War.
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Studies suggest that when people aren’t provided the reasons for differences in their worlds – such as why the net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times that of a Black family – we routinely default to what Andrei Cimpian, a psychology professor at New York University, calls “shortcut” explanations attributing “inherent” qualities to groups of people.

Bad teaching: Bans on critical race theory in schools narrow reality and sell out kids

In 1982, the year I entered middle school, for instance, a jaw-dropping 57% of Houstonians in a Kinder Institute survey said that the main reason Black Americans had, on average, worse jobs, income and housing than white Americans, was because most Black people don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves out of poverty.

Research suggests that kids are especially prone to favoring these kinds of stereotyping explanations, which make it more likely for kids to regard inequities as natural rather than offenses to fix. For targeted children, shortcut explanations may become self-fulfilling, limiting what children believe they can accomplish. 

The antidote to all this? Education. Provide kids with the full, historical context for the differences they see.

Children fill in the blanks

Cimpian points to a published study he co-authored in which children learned about a fictional planet which has two groups of residents, with one group being far wealthier than the other. When researchers asked kids why that was, most guessed it had to do with something about the residents, like the wealthier ones were smarter. Kids who explained things in these terms generally considered the disparities fair. 

Kendra Hurley in Brooklyn, New York, in July 2020.

Kendra Hurley in Brooklyn, New York, in July 2020.
Family handout

When researchers told children what they claimed was the true explanation for why life was so different for the two groups, a remarkable divergence occurred. Kids who received explanations regarding qualities of the residents mostly continued to accept the status quo as inevitable and acceptable. But children given historical explanations – like that gold had been discovered by one group long ago – were more likely to say the disparities were unjust and needed to be fixed.

This past year, the Black Lives Matter movement has provided many white Americans with a crash course in the longstanding injustices inflicted on Black Americans. An annual survey conducted by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research suggests that in the town where I grew up, that’s having an impact.

The wrong priorities: Asian American students have a target on their backs thanks to critical race theory

Between 2019 and 2021, the share of white Houstonians who agreed that “Black people in the U.S. are still a long way from having the same chance in life that white people have,” increased by more than 20%, the biggest increase seen since the Institute began asking the question in 2013. More Houston residents than ever before believe that poor people are “poor because of circumstances they can’t control” (80%) and that “government has a responsibility to help reduce the inequalities,” the researchers wrote.

Thankfully, my old middle school no longer does Civil War Day. Since my days there, we’ve accumulated ample evidence that the kind of biased history education I received, and that others are fighting to preserve, is actually a recipe for preserving inequities.

We now know that a clear-eyed understanding of how things became unequal is a key first step to creating a more just world. The question for parents, schools and policymakers, then, is no longer how to level the playing field. It’s whether we are willing.

Kendra Hurley is an independent journalist writing about kids, policy and equity. Previously she was senior editor of the families and poverty project at an applied policy research institute at The New School. 

3:52 pm UTC Jun. 5, 2021

8:49 pm UTC Jun. 5, 2021

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