This is the reason black people’s problems aren’t taken seriously:
A class of middle-schoolers in Charlotte, North Carolina, was asked to cite “four reasons why Africans made good slaves.” Nine third-grade teachers in suburban Atlanta assigned math word problems about slavery and beatings. A high school in the Los Angeles-area reenacted a slave ship—with students’ lying on the dark classroom floor, wrists taped, as staff play the role of slave ship captains. And for a lesson on Colonial America, fifth-graders at a school in northern New Jersey had to create posters advertising slave auctions.
School assignments on slavery routinely draw national headlines and scorn. Yet beyond the outraged parents and school-district apologies lies a complex and entrenched set of education challenges. A new report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project points to the widespread failure to accurately teach the hard, and nuanced, history of American slavery and enslaved people. Collectively, the report finds that slavery is mistaught, mischaracterized, sanitized, and sentimentalized—leaving students poorly educated, and contemporary issues of race and racism misunderstood.
It’s worse than I thought:
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.
8 percent! And people have no concept this ever happened:
As noted earlier on this blog, Dylann Roof explained that he learned how to be racist from history classes.
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.”
Examining the teachers’ survey results might help explain why students struggled to answer questions on American enslavement: Educators are struggling themselves. While teachers overwhelmingly (92 percent) claim they are “comfortable discussing slavery” in their classroom, their teaching practices reveal profound lapses. Only slightly more than half (52 percent) teach their students about slavery’s legal roots in the nation’s founding documents, while just 53 percent emphasize the extent of slavery outside of the antebellum South. And 54 percent teach the continuing legacy of slavery in today’s society.
Additionally, dozens of teachers rely on “simulations”—role-playing and games—to teach slavery, a method that Teaching Tolerance has warned against on the grounds that it can lead to stereotypes and oversimplification. Meanwhile, a large majority—73 percent—use “slaves” when talking about slavery in the classroom instead of “enslaved persons” (49 percent), the latter term of which has gained favor for emphasizing the humanity of those forced into bondage.
The overwhelming majority of teachers who participated in the survey (90 percent) are somehow affiliated with Teaching Tolerance and its learning materials. Costello said this suggests the problems revealed in the survey results could be much more pervasive than the findings suggest.
It’s almost like they made it the way it is on purpose!
Taken together, the study exposes a number of unsettling facts about slavery education in U.S. classrooms: Slavery is taught without context, prioritizing “feel good” stories over harsh realities; slavery is taught as an exclusively southern institution, masking the complicity of northern institutions and citizens in America’s slave-based economy; slavery is rarely connected to white supremacy—the ideology that justified its perpetuation; and slavery is seldom connected to the present, drawing the arc from enslavement to Jim Crow, the civil-rights movement, and the persistence of structural racism.
In trying to make people understand, you have to work against the entire school system.