Memory  /  Comment

From Inclusive Public Schools to Divisive Concepts

Some personal reflections from American Historical Association president James H. Sweet on the recent wave of "divisive concepts" laws.

Over the past two years, more than half of American states have introduced legislation or taken other steps that would restrict teaching the history of racism in public schools. Lawmakers and parents argue that teaching these “divisive concepts” provokes guilt and trauma in young learners, especially white children. Often lost in these debates is the stark demographic reality that whatever is being taught to white students is in public schools where, on average, teachers are almost exclusively white and more than two-thirds of their classmates are white. How could white students feel traumatized in such racially homogenous social environments?

Teaching the histories of racism, sexism, and homophobia is not divisive; it is unifying, especially in a time when we are becoming ever more segregated. Those trafficking in white fear conveniently ignore that the country systematically excluded Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos for most of its history. For African Americans, these exclusions took various legal forms, from slavery to disfranchisement, Jim Crow to redlining. These were not divisive “concepts” that hurt students’ feelings at school. They were legal boundaries that prevented African Americans from enjoying full citizenship. The resegregation of public schools in places like Charlotte was a continuation of that legal tradition of exclusion.

Ironically, critics of “divisive concepts” fail to recognize the implicit embrace of the nation in frameworks like critical race theory. To criticize the political and legal history of the nation as racist is an overture for change. It is not a prelude to treason or secession. As vibrant and raucous as ethnic studies have been over the past 50 years, they have been nothing if not loyal to the promise of the nation. The stubborn insistence on minority inclusion in the face of systematic exclusion is a testament to an extraordinary, if wary, patriotism.

To be clear, some scholars have called for separate concepts, methods, and modes of analysis. Long before the 1619 Project, African American historians including Sterling Stuckey, Colin Palmer, and Michael Gomez outlined new chronological watersheds and topical approaches that focused on the history of African Americans as a people, rather than as members of a nation-state. The logic of such approaches is entirely sound. The history of a people defined as property, denied basic human rights, and excluded from full citizenship could never be a duplicate history of the nation and those who controlled it. African Americans were more than mere supporting actors in the making of “colonial,” “revolutionary,” and “antebellum” US histories. They were agents of their own internal histories and politics. Understanding these histories is fundamental not only to African Americans as an “identity group” but also to our conceptions of the nation.