Opinion

W.E.B. Du Bois Would Have Seen Right Through the C.R.T. Backlash

Since January 2021, according to an analysis by Education Week, Republican lawmakers in 37 states have introduced dozens of bills to restrict teaching on the subject of race and racism under the guise of opposition to “critical race theory.” In 14 states, restrictions have either passed into law or been imposed through either executive action or on the authority of a state education commission. One such law, passed in Texas, prohibits teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”

One predictable outcome of this frenzy — which includes state lawmakers scrutinizing K-12 and college curriculums for “indoctrination” — is a chilling effect in classrooms, as any attempt to teach an accurate history of racism in the United States is placed under hostile scrutiny. Educators accused of indoctrinating students with “critical race theory” have reported threats and physical harassment, and some schools — in Alabama, for example — are now defending their Black History Month programs from similar accusations of subversion.

Last fall, around the same time that Republican lawmakers in several states were drafting and championing these bills, the Library of America — a nonprofit publisher of significant works in American writing and literature — released its edition of W.E.B. Du Bois’s groundbreaking “Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880.” There is no direct connection between the book’s republication and the wave of educational gag orders around race and racism. Nonetheless, there is something fortuitous in how Du Bois, writing from 1935, comments on and critiques the politics of history in 2022.

The concluding chapter of “Black Reconstruction,” “The Propaganda of History,” is a polemical essay on the uses and abuses of historical narrative as well as a heated attack on the mainstream of American history writing as it existed in the 1920s and ’30s, when Du Bois’s book was conceived, researched and written.

Du Bois excoriates those historians for acting less as “scientists” in search of something like objective truth and more as propagandists for a social and economic order of segregation, violence and exploitation:

Du Bois, by his own account, is “astonished” by the idea that the evil of history must be “forgotten, distorted, skimmed over.”

“We must forget,” he writes, “that George Washington was a slave owner, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children … and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring.” The difficulty with this approach, he continues, “is that history loses its value and incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.”

Du Bois, who studied at the University of Berlin with some of the most acclaimed scholars of his day and who was the first Black American to receive a doctorate from Harvard, believed that history should aspire to be something like a science. And if that was to be the case, “if the record of human action is going to be set down with that accuracy and faithfulness of detail which will allow its use as a measuring rod and guidepost for the future of nations,” then in his view, “there must be set some standards of ethics in research and interpretation.”

Du Bois’s view was that, when it came to Reconstruction and the “American Negro,” American historians had fallen far short of that ideal. Instead, they produced — for the consumption of both students and the general public — a history that cast Reconstruction as a “disgraceful attempt to subject white people to ignorant Negro rule.” Rather than treat history as “a science or as an art using the results of science,” they had used it as a tool of “pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego, and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment.” This history, wrote Du Bois, existed only to “influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish,” where “we” meant the existing power structure.

It is not hard to see how this critique applies to present circumstances. Spurred by a wave of youth protest that revealed (and then underscored) the extent to which the conservative movement had failed to inculcate, in the next generation, its view of what America is, this effort to gag any discussion of the United States that doesn’t affirm a triumphant narrative of national innocence is a clear and obvious attempt to make up for lost time.

I am not so Whiggish in my thinking as to believe that this effort to censor American history for students is doomed to failure. But I do think that the urgency with which it has been fought is a sign of something important. The ferocity of the drive to keep serious discussions of race and racism out of America’s classrooms is an admission, however tacit, that something has changed, and conservatives are on the losing end of that transformation. Where once they were an establishment — such that Du Bois was a voice in the wilderness — now they are on the defensive.

Put simply, the people and institutions behind the bans on “critical race theory” are fighting a rear-guard action, and they know it.

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