America's history wars get serious: Texas GOP wants to dump MLK, whitewash KKK

Republican attacks on history are part of a larger strategic plan: Control the past, and you control the future

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 23, 2021 5:50AM (EDT)

Ku Klux Klan Marching in Washington | American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ku Klux Klan Marching in Washington | American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney proclaimed that Black people have "no rights that the white man is bound to respect." Today's Jim Crow Republican Party, and the white right more broadly, have taken the spirit of those words and updated them for the 21st century, effectively by arguing that "white people are not bound to respect historical truth or established facts — at least not as they pertain to Black and brown people in America".

As the next step in their war against multiracial democracy, the Republican Party and its allies have launched a moral panic about "critical race theory." Of course, their version of "critical race theory" is a type of racial bogeyman or psychological projection, a function of white racial paranoia about the "browning of America" and the threat of "white genocide."

Facts do not matter in the right-wing echo chamber. It is of no importance that the white right's version of "critical race theory" has nothing to do with the scholarly paradigm of the same name.

As the truism holds, history is written by the victors. To that end, in dozens of states across the country, the white right is engaging in an Orwellian campaign of rewriting school curricula to prevent the teaching of "critical race theory" -- which in practice means stopping any serious engagement with America's real and often uncomfortable history of racism and white supremacy.

The white right's campaign against the teaching of real American history involves actual thoughtcrimes.

For example, in Florida, a law was recently passed mandating a survey of students and faculty in public colleges and universities to determine their political beliefs. Of course, Florida has also banned the teaching of "critical race theory."

Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, perhaps the single most influential voice on the white right, recently suggested that cameras should be placed in classrooms to ensure that no teachers will deploy "critical race theory" or other facts and arguments deemed to be "unpatriotic."

The Republican-controlled Texas Senate recently passed a bill eliminating a requirement that the history of the civil rights movement and other human rights struggles be taught in public schools. The bill also removed a condemnation of the Ku Klux Klan from course requirements as well.

As Yahoo News reports, the requirements removed from the state's curriculum include two speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., any mention of Latino labor organizers Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and any mention of Thomas Jefferson's long-term relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved teenage child who bore six of his children. The bill bars any use of the New York Times' 1619 Project and "prohibits teaching that slavery was part of the 'true' founding of the United States" and removes the requirement to study the "history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong."

This Republican legislation has been met with widespread outrage. But that reaction should just be the beginning. The next step involves doing the harder work of understanding why so many other (mostly white) Americans actually believe that "critical race theory" and the teaching of America's real history should be banned. Understanding these beliefs and motivations is essential to defeating American neofascism and its white supremacist social and political project.

Many Americans have been propagandized by their schools, news media, the internet, churches and other social institutions to believe in a large set of interlocking lies and myths about the country's past and present. To intervene against these lies often causes emotional pain and/or narcissistic injury to those who hold such beliefs.

This dynamic is especially powerful for those who are emotionally, psychologically, financially and politically invested in defending and protecting white privilege and white people's control over almost every aspect of American life. In that context, the personal truly is political: Whiteness, as a concept and a social force, has become linked at an individual level to the maintenance of white power.

How does this right-wing fantasy machine work? The Root has exhaustively documented how some of America's most widely used history textbooks misrepresent the real history of the color line and distort such topics as chattel slavery, the Civil War, the civil rights movement and social injustice more generally, through the use of what sociologist Joe Feagin has called the "white racial frame."

Michael Harriot offers this analysis:

So when Mitch McConnell and 38 Republican senators sent a letter to the secretary of education decrying the ghastly prospect of white students having to learn actual facts about slavery, it was not unexpected. For centuries, this country's schools have perpetuated a whitewashed version of history that either erases or reduces the story of Black America down to a B-plot in the American script. It's why they hate Critical Race Theory, The 1619 Project and anything factual — because the white-centric interpretation of our national past is so commonly accepted, white people have convinced themselves that anything that varies from the Caucasian interpretation must be a lie. …

This is why they oppose expanding the historiography of our national story. American schools have never taught a version of history that wasn't racialized. But, apparently, it's perfectly fine if the racial narrative skews toward whiteness. They can't be opposed to learning a different historical perspective because they never learned history; they were spoonfed fiction in bite-sized morsels.

To be fair, it's understandable why they are so adamant about what they believe in.

Imagine you are a white man. Now imagine what it's like going through 12 years of school, four years of college, graduate school and an entire career that made you one of the most powerful people on the planet. Now imagine a group of Black journalists, led by a Black woman, told you that you don't know shit.

To that point, the right-wing echo chamber consistently repeats neo-Confederate "Lost Cause" myths, such as the oft-repeated lie that the Civil War was fought over "states' rights" rather than white-on-Black chattel slavery.

The right obsessively depicts the Democrats as "the party of the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow and slavery". This is a deliberate distortion of history because the pro-slavery, pro-segregation faction of the Democratic Party became solid Republicans after the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

Right-wing propagandists also love to claim that Martin Luther King Jr. was a "Republican," or at least espoused Republican values. This is a ludicrous allegation: In contemporary terms King was a democratic socialist or  progressive who opposed racism, poverty, military adventurism and injustice of all kinds. King would have viewed the modern-day conservative movement as a great force for evil in American society and the world.

Black conservative propagandists play an important role in the right-wing echo chamber, validating racist fantasies that slavery was a "gift" to Black people because it brought them to America. In this twisted perception of history, chattel slavery is understood as a "necessary evil" because it gave Black people Christianity and taught them the value of "hard work".

These same Black conservatives love to repeat the vicious lie that the Democratic Party is a type of "plantation." In reality, the plantations of the antebellum South were prison camps, charnel houses and places of torture, rape, suffering and death. Black conservative propagandists frequently announce that they are special and uniquely capable of "thinking for themselves," as compared to the vast majority of Black people who support the Democratic Party and are therefore deemed to be ignorant or uninformed.

The campaign against "critical race theory" — and against teaching America's real history — must be understood as part of a larger fascist strategy of attacking public schools and other institutions of learning with the aim of creating compliant followers and a public that is not equipped to participate in democracy — or to defend it.

This plan involves placing white supremacists, QAnon conspiracists, Trump supporters and other right-wing extremists  — to the degree those categories of people can be separated — on local school boards and library advisory councils, banning "controversial" books, and the surveillance or intimidation of teachers deemed too "liberal" or suspected of "politicizing" the classroom, i.e., by refusing to teach right-wing dogma and other lies.

The fascist assault on education and critical thinking also involves think tanks, right-wing activists and advocacy groups, along with a network of wealthy funders committed to remaking American society to fit their racist, theocratic and plutocratic vision.   

The Texas Republicans' attempt to literally whitewash the Ku Klux Klan out of American history is so ridiculous that it approaches parody. That doesn't make such historical erasure and distortion any less dangerous. Those dangers are further amplified by the crisis of democracy caused by the Jim Crow Republicans and ascendant neofascist movement.

As historian Timothy Snyder warned in a recent essay in the New York Times:

Democracy requires individual responsibility, which is impossible without critical history. It thrives in a spirit of self-awareness and self-correction. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, is infantilizing: We should not have to feel any negative emotions; difficult subjects should be kept from us. Our memory laws amount to therapy, a talking cure. In the laws' portrayal of the world, the words of white people have the magic power to dissolve the historical consequences of slavery, lynchings and voter suppression. Racism is over when white people say so.

We start by saying we are not racists. Yes, that felt nice. And now we should make sure that no one says anything that might upset us. The fight against racism becomes the search for a language that makes white people feel good. The laws themselves model the desired rhetoric. We are just trying to be fair. We behave neutrally. We are innocent.

When viewed in the aggregate, these attacks on "critical race theory" and the teaching of America's real history echo some of the worst aspects of the country's past. In his book "Trouble in Mind", historian Leon Litwack details how history was taught during the Jim Crow reign of terror:

The history to which Black children were exposed in the classroom and the primers made a virtual gospel of the superiority of Anglo-Saxon institutions and ways of thinking and acting…. What little they learned of their own history consisted often of disparaging caricatures of Black people as the least civilized of the races — irresponsible, thoughtless, foolish, childlike people, satisfied with their lowly place in American life, incapable of self-control and self-direction. The history of Black people was a history of submission gladly endured and of services faithfully rendered. Transported from the darkness of heathen Africa to the civilized and Christian New World, grateful slaves found contentment and happiness…. The treatment of emancipation depicted Blacks passively waiting for Massa' Lincoln to strike off their shackles. And Reconstruction saw the enthronement of Black ignorance and inexperience, with the Ku Klux Klan in some account redeeming Anglo-Saxon civilization from alien rule. The history lessons taught in public schools were calculated to produce patriotic citizens, albeit with a distinctive southern bias.

The Jim Crow Republicans and the white right view this approach to American history as admirable, something to be resuscitated from the dustbin of the country's past.

In the self-serving stories told by the Ku Klux Klan, that terrorist organization had noble origins, represented "Christian values," did charity work and helped the poor, served the community by dealing with drunks and other miscreants, and protected "white families" as well as the "good Blacks". This is the fake history that the Jim Crow Republicans want to see taught to America's young people.

The neofascist movement understands that if it wins the battle over the teaching of the past, it can in turn control the future. In total, the right wing's moral panic over "critical race theory" resembles the kind of hearts-and-minds indoctrination favored by the great villains of history. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler and Goebbels would be proud to see their legacy continued.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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