President Joe Biden went to Tulsa, Okla., this week to honor the victims of the 1921 massacre on “Black Wall Street” and, as important, to acknowledge that it happened. It was a nice presidential visit (albeit one devoid of any policy proposals for redress of the wrongs committed) that fulfilled what should be a bare minimum requirement in a country able to tell the truth about itself.
Near as I can tell, this historic acknowledgement of one of the single worst acts of white American violence against Black Americans was brought about by the HBO series Watchmen. I wish I were making that up. But it seems to me that most white people (and quite a few Black people) did not know about Tulsa, Black Wall Street, or the air strikes carried out against a thriving Black community until the moment was popularized by a television show about ineffectual superheroes. This is the equivalent of Ronald Reagan giving a speech honoring the historic defense of the Alamo only after watching Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
The reason most people didn’t know about the massacre (I was well into my 30s before I learned about it, thanks to a random open-bar conversation I had with a Black person at a law conference) is because they don’t teach about this history in schools. They don’t even teach about it in schools in Tulsa, just like they didn’t teach about the draft riots in New York—at least they didn’t until Martin Scorsese pathetically whitewashed the whole thing in his film Gangs of New York.
I didn’t know about Tulsa until I was grown or the draft riots until college, but I’ve been able to spew troves of useless trivia about New Amsterdam and Peter freaking Stuyvesant since I could dress myself. That’s because I’m a product of the American educational system. The United States doesn’t rely only on Hollywood or the media to tell the story of white people in the New World. This country also employs a different institution, the public school system, to spread the myth of white exceptionalism and whitewash the episodes of white terrorism against others.
An essential project of that education system is to absolve present-day white people of any need to reckon with the horrors that made their world possible—and still make their world possible—by assuring them that whatever sins this country committed were redeemed or corrected by the efforts of previous Americans. As often as not, those sins and horrors are covered up to protect young white minds from ever knowing the truth about our country. This project is designed to leave white Americans feeling that they have nothing to atone for, so they can blithely continue doing the work of white supremacy and reaping the rewards of white privilege with a clear conscience. All historical tragedies, the ones that are mentioned at least, are framed through the eyes of some American (usually white) who fought against evil forces. Children are supposed to believe, as most kids are inclined to do anyway, that the forces of good eventually triumphed.
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The founding of the country, for instance, is taught through the eyes of Thomas Jefferson, not Sally Hemmings. The fight for women’s rights is introduced only through the efforts of noted suffragist and racist Susan B. Anthony, not Sojourner Truth or Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Westward expansion is explored purely as the story of Lewis and Clark—and their helpful assistant Sacagawea. Slavery is addressed primarily through the redeeming narrative of “the Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln. And, of course, students learn that any issue of racial oppression that Lincoln didn’t quite get around to solving was “fixed” by Martin Luther King Jr. and the anodyne, docile caricature of nonviolence white people have created around him. To be educated in American schools is to be taught that this country has been on some kind of linear journey toward justice and equality, culminating in the nation the (brutal slaver and colonist) founders always really wanted us to be.
How quickly and how completely one rejects this false historiography of America is, as much as anything, the dividing line between white conservatives and white liberals. I might spend a lot of time arguing with white liberals on how best to solve the racial and social inequities endemic to our country, but we more or less agree that those inequities exist and are, in fact, problems. I waste almost none of my time arguing with white conservatives (or the Black ones who have accepted the false narrative) who think that these problems don’t exist or, in the case of a Trump voter, embrace these inequities as a feature instead of a bug.
Of course, conservative forces are never satisfied with merely promoting the white narrative of US history. They also feel the need to attack other narratives that take a less forgiving view of white contributions to the continents bizarrely named for people who got lost. And that is why conservative white people have lately descended upon “critical race theory” as their new casus belli.
It’s a fake controversy, ginned up in some Republican laboratory studying which combination of words makes white people frightened enough to watch a MyPillow® ad. Critical race theory is a college-level discipline that, at core, shows people how racism, bigotry, and sexism are endemic to the institutions and social structures in use right now. It’s just a different way of thinking about why things that we can objectively see happening are happening. Adam Smith might have one answer; Karl Marx might have a different one; Derrick Bell might offer yet another perspective. Worrying about it is like worrying that a high school physics teacher is sharing “dangerous” ideas about how quantum entanglement could be used to send messages to the future when really their class is still struggling to understand why an apple falls out of a tree.
But it works as a wedge issue for Republicans because teaching anybody, anywhere, that white people might still be complicit in the ongoing acts of violence and oppression against others goes against the conservative orthodoxy that white people are the best people and any mistakes committed were either benevolent, justified, or corrected long ago.
What’s important to understand is that conservatives are always trying to do this. They’re always trying to keep some aspect of American history, some reckoning with the way this country has treated Black and brown people, or women, or LGBTQ people, or Indigenous people, out of schools. It is always important to them that white children are kept ignorant about the details of how white people came to enjoy such power and wealth in a land they ain’t even from. Keeping white kids dumb is as American as apple pie.
Keeping nonwhite kids dumb is also something conservatives are always trying to accomplish, but most parents of color know that going in. Every person of color from this country has at least been exposed—by a parent, elder, or the community writ large—to an extracurricular crash course on what America is really about. Whether the lesson was appreciated is different for all of us, but somebody tried to teach. The first lesson I got about redlining, the practice of banks defining and delimiting the neighborhoods where Black people would be allowed to buy homes, was not in school. Come on, they don’t teach about white plans to ghettoize entire communities of color in Home Ec. No, my first exposure to that policy came from recording artist Busta Rhymes.
He didn’t call it “redlining,” but Mr. Rhymes lived in my neighborhood and bought me a candy bar once. When I asked him why he still lived in “the ’hood” when he had enough money to live in one of the “nice” parts of town, he answered with what seemed to me to be crazy theories about why Black people lived where we lived on Long Island, and why he wanted to build up those communities instead of moving to a white community. Little did I know that I was learning, at 10 years old, a lesson about why the world looks the way it does that most of my white peers wouldn’t pick up on until graduate school, if at all. And I got a free Milky Way in the bargain.
I understand why white ignorance makes the conservative political project easier. It is, for instance, a lot easier to get white people to vote for continued housing discrimination if they don’t even understand how housing discrimination works. But I can’t help from chuckling a bit at how so much time and conservative energy is invested in keeping their children dumber than mine. My kids will simply know more things than white conservative kids, yet their parents will call that a victory. I understand that conservative parents are counting on continued white supremacy to favor their kids over my more knowledgeable offspring, and I know that they’ll succeed, but damn. Hobbling your own children with ignorance to maintain cultural dominance is a hell of a choice.
But it’s a choice this country constantly makes. White people are forever emerging, Miranda-like, to discover a brave new world that they’ve been living in this whole time. And even then, the new knowledge is rarely backed up with any policy prescription or commitment to right the wrongs of the past, or even the wrongs still happening. Most of the white people who only recently found out about Tulsa are not endeavoring to learn what else they might not know, and most of them will not be committed to the kinds of policies that will roll back the centuries of white supremacy, or even make living victims of that supremacy whole. Instead, they’ll just wait for Jordan Peele or Ryan Coogler or Ava DuVernay to teach them something “new.”
It’s sad, but it’s also one of the reasons I’m thankful for being Black. I’m not more intelligent than white folks; I just know more than most of them. My education was never limited to what white people were willing to admit to themselves on HBO.