For about a week now, the nation has been howling about the new standards the Texas Board of Education passed for social studies (including history, economics, civics) education. Because Texas controls so much of the textbook market, the standards Texas’ Board of Ed sets have near national influence. I do not want to go into a full critique of the standards. You can find that in many places (e.g. revisionaries , and the Examiner has a brief list). All of the changes promote conservatism by suggesting the US was founded as a Christian nation, claiming the superiority of capitalism, and teaching conservative politics positively (for example, one member explicitly states that his second criterion for history books is whether they sufficiently praise Ronald Reagan).
I believe a good portion of the conservatives’ curriculum battle is part of the larger white effort to rescue “the racist generation.” The racist generation is that generation of whites who were adults and/or came of age during the Black Civil Rights Movement (peaking 1950-1970). I call them the racist generation, not because that generation is/was any more racist than the generations of whites before or after them. That generation, born 1925-1955, is “the racist generation,” because that is how subsequent generations of whites have tacitly characterized them.
The argument goes like this: Whites who came of age after the CRM are desperate to present themselves as “non-racists.” They claim colorblindness and are terrified by the notion of being labeled racist. These whites admit that pre-CRM America was racist. Slavery and Jim Crow are obviously racist, and today’s whites cannot always shake their connection (ancestrally or as inheritors of the nation the “founding fathers” gave them) to pre-CRM white generations. But, young whites do not want to subject those previous generations to the ugly epithet of being racist. Therefore, they defend distant white generations (i.e. 1607 – 1925) as good people who were products of their time. “Ancient” whites weren’t “bad” (i.e. energetically racist) people; they were just born at a time when racism was the social norm. Therefore, ancient whites’ racism is excused. Similarly, post-CRM whites (born 1955-present) came of age too late to be responsible for fighting against the CRM. Post-CRM whites claim to be the vanguard of the post-racial era. They have no sins from which to be saved.
But “the racist generation” remains. Pictures of whites angrily initiating lynchings (warning: graphic), police dogs, anti-busing campaigns, anti-school integration, and assassinations testify to the consciousness and viciousness of the racist generation’s racism. Although post-CRM whites diminish the severity and frequency of pre-CRM racism, they cannot completely deny the history because acknowledging the racist past is essential to their claims of racial progression.
Necessary as it is to young whites’ self image, maintaining the racist generation is very painful to whites for several reasons. First, to paraphrase, the racist generation represents “Jim Crow unwilling to die.” Whites explain continuing findings of anti-black attitudes and discriminatory practices among whites by referencing a small collection of klan-like racists and the presence of an old racist generation. Whites claim that white racism will decline and eventually die as the elderly (i.e. the racist generation) passes away. In the meantime, old whites’ pre-CRM, non-colorblind language and attitudes bring these “ugly” things close to home. The racist generation also serves as a way for anti-racist people of color to defeat the claim that racism was too long ago to be relevant. The perpetrators are still alive.
But whites now want to rescue the racist generation from the racism critique. Now age 85-55, the racist generation is aging and passing away at increased rates. The post-CRM children of the racist generation wants to send their parents and grandparents off well and remember them as kind and loving, not vitriolic racists.
Consequently, a new project is underfoot to recast the racist generation as something…anything else. We saw a first effort when Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) tried to rescue arch-white supremacist, Strom Thurmond (R-SC) at a birthday celebration. But Thurmond (b. 1902) was too old and had too public a record of racism to be successfully redeemed by Lott. Now, the Texas Board of Education is attempting to rescue the racist generation by recasting history in a way that legitimates the racist generations’ racist perceptions and actions.
One of the most important changes the Texas Board of Ed made is inclusion of black militants’ rhetoric in history textbooks along side that of MLK. The obvious idea being that MLK’s nonviolence and soaring rhetoric cast the racist generation as unnecessarily violent and motivated only by aggressive racism. Including black militants is supposed to intimate that black civil rights activists were dangerous; the racist generations’ angry response was a reasonable reaction to the extremist threat. Related, the Board’s decision to defend McCarthyism by demanding that texts include findings documenting the presence of communists in the United States during the 1940s and 50s, many of whom were civil rights activists further legitimates the fears of the racist generation. The implication is that the racist generation really was under violent attack from clear enemies of America. Though unpopular, aggressive attempts to root them out, such as the methods McCarthy used, may be necessary. Finally, the Board’s requirement that textbooks thoroughly teach the conservative resurgence of the 1980s-2000s–including the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation, Ronald Reagan, and contract with America–represents the restoration of the racist generation to the mainstream. Only now, it is sanitized of racism. Despite the fact that every part of the conservative resurgence had clear racist roots and purposes, which innumerable volumes document, the leaders of conservativism pioneered and popularized the currently dominant technique of doing racist actions via seemingly race neutral language and policies. Consequently, when whites define a racist as a person who uses explicitly racist words and has a public discrimination policy, the racist generation will no longer fit the description.
The Texas Board of Education is attempting to redeem the racist generation by redefining racism, recasting the black CRM as a dangerous movement, justifying the racist generations’ viciousness and legitimating its fears, and linking that generation to more familiar entities (e.g. Ronald Reagan, the Heritage Foundation, the Christian Right) who are unquestionably not racist in very young whites’ minds. In the end, the Texas Board of Ed not only redeems the racist generation, the Board resurrects it by restoring the racist generation to the larger narrative of progressive white goodness. The Board famously cut Thomas Jefferson from the approved list of 18th century visionaries because he coined the phrase “separation of church and state.” The Board argues that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, whose white and Christian leadership has steadily guided the nation toward national and international success. Each generation of white whites has progressively built on the morality and superiority of previous generations.
But the racist generation was a problem for the narrative of white goodness and benevolent supremacy. The emergence of an evil, racist generation in the middle of the nation’s history challenged the idea of steady progress. It also begged the questions: “Where did this racist generation come from? Did our founders lay the seeds for that generation the same as they laid for the good generations? And worst, if the narrative of benevolent, progressive white goodness/supremacy is not true, what kind of heritage is that for contemporary whites and what is their moral basis for racial domination (in outcome)?
By reshaping history in this particular way, the Texas Board of Ed undermines the racial critiques of the racial generation, puts the racist generation and future white generations back into the narrative of progressive white goodness, and permanently redeems the racist generation by ensuring that future generations will have no charges to levy at them. In the memory and spirit of the late Howard Zinn, we must recognize this moment and do all we can to tell the people’s true history.