(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series that began in the runup to the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre this year.)
In the past few months, nearly half of all states have passed or proposed legislation that ban or restrict teaching critical race theory or concepts such as racial equity, historical racism, and white privilege. These attempts to whitewash history are only the latest effort to exercise a centuries-old privilege that has helped maintain systems of racial inequality in the United States. Exposing this privilege sheds a light not only on these systemic inequities, but how this privilege is used to warp our public discourse in order to perpetuate those inequities.
When we think of privilege we generally don’t think of the privilege of remaining ignorant. But this privilege of ignoring historical wrongs to avoid questioning one’s comforts and entitlements is merely the flip side of the privilege of rewriting history to favor one’s own viewpoint and ignore or denigrate those of others. Historically in the United States, such a privilege has been reserved for White Americans. For African Americans, for example, to ignore a county’s or town’s history of lynching could prove fatal. But the costs of this privilege – for all members of society – have been thrown into sharp relief by recent events. Historical ignorance is being wielded to further undermine the rights of people of color, including the right to vote. As the country marks 100 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre and celebrates the first federally recognized Juneteenth holiday, it must grapple with the threat posed to democracy by an ongoing – and carefully cultivated – ignorance of history.
Textbook Battles; Competing “Projects”
The fight to preserve a privileged ignorance has deep roots in U.S. history, but it has taken on a renewed urgency in the last year. Currently, we are witnessing a wave of myth-making that may be the greatest since the emergence of the “Lost Cause” narrative following the Civil War. The current iteration of this effort seeks to portray attempts to grapple with the nation’s history of genocide, slavery, and exploitation as unpatriotic or even ‘”racist” endeavors that must be combatted by restricting the teaching of history. In Texas, with the nation’s second largest student population, the legislature is considering laws limiting the ways Texas history can be taught. One bill would restrict teachers in explaining how racist thinking in the 19th century influenced the drafting of laws. Another Texas bill, “the 1836 Project,” purports to promote “patriotic education” on the state’s history, but glosses over the role of slavery and anti-Mexican violence in the state’s past.
These bills and other proposed legislation in states from New Hampshire to Louisiana take their lead from former President Trump’s 1776 Commission. The Commission’s self-described mission was “a restoration of American education … grounded on a history of [founding] principles that is ‘accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling.’” The Commission sought to “restor[e] patriotic education” to the nation’s schools while “caution[ing] against unrealistic hopes and … pressing partisan claims or utopian agendas too hard or too far.”
Trump’s 1776 Commission was itself a response to the “1619 Project” launched by the New York Times in August 2019 in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves at Fort Comfort, Virginia. In an ongoing series of articles and reports, the project’s aim was “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of [B]lack Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
The 1776 Commission was dissolved on Inauguration Day 2021. But the battles to shape America’s self-image – and to preserve the privilege of forgetting – have only accelerated.
Remembering – and Forgetting – Tulsa
It is in this context that we remember the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, an event that the NAACP’s Walter White – an expert on racial violence who visited Tulsa days after the Massacre occurred – described as one that “in sheer brutality and willful destruction of life and property stands without parallel in America.” Yet for generations, this incident was not mentioned in Oklahoma’s history books. This was not a case of accidental omission. Instead, the Massacre was deliberately omitted from the record by historians, teachers, and political leaders in order to avoid reckoning with its implications.
For example, key documents, including the front-page Tulsa Tribune story and editorial accused of inciting the Massacre, have been excised from the newspaper’s archives. Police and state militia records associated with the Massacre have vanished. Even Tulsa native Daniel Boorstin, a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian and former Librarian of Congress, never wrote a word about this consequential Tulsa event.
The Tulsa Race Massacre was far from the only instance of mass racial violence following World War I. And like Tulsa, many of these incidents have been deliberately forgotten, concealed, or misconstrued. Racial hostility reached new heights following World War I. As Black servicemen returned from serving abroad, where they had fought for the American ideals of liberty, democracy, and equality, they found these principles did not apply to them back home. Instead, they faced an ever-tightening web of Jim Crow laws and hostile White Americans.
There were major racial clashes in 1917 in East St. Louis where hundreds of Black Americans were killed by shootings, beatings, and arson. Two years later, deadly racial violence erupted in Chicago. Blacks had been driven out of the Oklahoma towns of Norman and Dewey in the years preceding the Tulsa Race Massacre. In Florida, Blacks were killed and the entire Black community burned for trying to vote in Ocoee in 1920. In the same year, four Blacks were taken from jail and lynched in Macclenny. In 1922, in Perry, Florida, several Blacks were lynched and the Black community was burned down. All of this turmoil preceded the murder of residents and destruction of Rosewood, Florida in 1923.
What distinguished many of these racial incidents from pre-World War I conflicts was the willingness of Blacks, especially Black veterans, to fight back against hostile Whites. This had the effect of enraging Whites, some of whom traveled great distances to suppress what was often depicted as Black uprisings. What remained the same was the general whitewashing of this violence in the history books.
For the past one hundred years, some survivors have resisted these attempts to whitewash history, fighting for justice and recognition of the violence. Yet so far, efforts by the victims of the state-supported racial violence in Tulsa to secure reparations have been unsuccessful. Today, only three known survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre are still with us; they are still fighting for reparations from the city of Tulsa and other entities for the theft of their property and for the physical and mental violence they endured.
In addition to compensation, monetary or otherwise, for direct harms, a key part of any reparations claim is a guarantee of non-recurrence – specific steps undertaken by authorities and others to ensure that the violation of human rights are not repeated. But like direct reparations, these guarantees of non-recurrence have not been forthcoming in Tulsa.
The resistance to a frank accounting of the Tulsa Race Massacre and similar incidents is a recognition of the unbearable power of truth. Only an honest record of events – including a school curriculum that reflects the true historical record – can lead to meaningful racial discourse and reconciliation. But such a dialogue would be anathema to maintaining a narrative of American exceptionalism. It would also expose the ignorance that has helped sustain racial inequities and justify the disenfranchisement of Black Americans.
Democracy and Memory
Thus, the privilege of rewriting history is more than a “culture war.” It is a reflection of the fragile nature of democracy. As much as racist thinking in the 19th century influenced the drafting of laws to subjugate and disenfranchise Black populations throughout the 20th century, current iterations of these racist ideas have shaped the drafting of voter suppression legislation in numerous states in the 21st century. Simultaneously, proponents of these new voting laws have supported efforts to limit the teaching of the history of both disenfranchisement and associated racist ideology.
Meanwhile, at the national level, Senate Republicans have blocked an extensive democracy reform and voting rights bill by claiming ignorance of the long history of racially discriminatory voter suppression and the recent flood of restrictive voting laws introduced in numerous states.
The demand that these connections be forgotten – that the history of voter suppression must itself be suppressed – demonstrates that forgetting or re-writing history is a key aspect of the battle against democracy. As efforts to prohibit the teaching of accurate history have gained steam, so too has the modern wave of voter suppression tactics. Ensuring continued ignorance of history enables the continuation of the anti-democratic project of white supremacy.
These anti-democratic efforts impose costs even beyond the toll they take on democratic legitimacy. They raise the specter of conflict, violence, and the degradation of the liberal ideals to which the United States aspires. If citizens cannot trust their fellow citizens to honor the result of elections or punish those who seek to subvert democracy, then conflict is the inevitable outcome.