I don’t remember the first time I was taught that the Civil War was not fought because of slavery. I am a white Texan, so this idea was simply in the ether, as were myths about “good slave owners” and the “Lost Cause.” I knew that America had a racist history, but when I was a child, the details of what that meant were blurry and vague.
This experience is common. There is objective truth to our nation’s history, based in research and primary sources. But as Clint Smith describes in his book “How the Word Is Passed,” in America we too often tell a slanted version of our history to protect the feelings of white people. Smith highlights how an intentional disinformation campaign, which began shortly after the end of the Civil War, has altered the way much of America narrates our racial past. He looks at the convenient lies that white people often rely on to belittle the horrors of the past, the way we exclude stories that might trouble or challenge us.
In an interview, Smith discussed how a statement of fact such as “The Confederacy was a treasonous army predicated on maintaining and expanding the institution of slavery” is recast as a biased ideological statement. “Part of what racism tries to do is turn empirical evidence,” Smith said, into statements that “are ostensibly reflective of someone’s opinion and reflective of a political sensibility or disposition, rather than one that is honest about this country’s history.”
We’re struggling now as a society with how to tell the truth about how white supremacy has shaped our history and institutions. Several states have recently passed laws against teaching “critical race theory.” The imprecise language of these laws provides “cover for those who are not comfortable hearing or telling the truth about the history and state of race relations in the United States,” as Rashawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons point out in a Brookings Institution paper.
These laws, for instance, have been used by advocacy groups to try to prohibit the teaching of Ruby Bridges’s autobiography for children. Other efforts seek to investigate or ban books in schools that would, in the words of one Texas lawmaker, “make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” But the actual historical facts of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow and racial inequality are likely to make white Americans with even a hint of compassion feel uncomfortable.
The question before us as a nation is simple: Are we willing to tell the truth about our history or not?