Our Comment on the Department of Education’s Proposed Priorities in American History and Civics Education

1776 Unites – a Black-led alliance of writers, thinkers, and activists – strongly objects to the adoption of the Department of Education’s “Proposed Priority 1: Projects That Incorporate Racially, Ethnically, Culturally, and Linguistically Diverse Perspectives into Teaching and Learning.” While well-intended on the surface, this new rule would prioritize funding for curricula founded on misleading history and divisive ideology. Prioritizing the classroom content and practices that this regulation seeks to normalize will only result in deepening contempt for our nation, its founding, and its institutions; lower standards and a diminishing sense of agency among Black students specifically; and an America plagued by the worst racial animosity in decades. It will help undo the very progress it pretends to celebrate.

The proposed priority states that “American History and Civics Education programs can play an important role” in supporting “teaching and learning that reflects the breadth and depth of our Nation’s diverse history and the vital role of diversity in our Nation’s democracy.” We couldn’t agree more. The work of our 1776 Unites scholars and activists, the public discussions our movement has organized, and our developing K-12 curriculum all seek to advance these goals. Every student should know the stories of, for example, African American entrepreneurs and philanthropists like Paul Cuffe and Biddy Mason, icons of Black patriotism like Crispus Attucks and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, and transformative educational projects like the nearly 5,000 Rosenwald Schools, brainchild of Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington.

Unfortunately, the examples cited as models for more inclusive history and civics education in the proposed priority actually undermine its own admirable goals: “For example, there is growing acknowledgement of the importance of including, in the teaching and learning of our country’s history, both the consequences of slavery, and the significant contributions of Black Americans to our society.” This is certainly true – serious efforts to grapple with the legacy of slavery and to highlight the decisive contributions of Black people to American life have been underway across the country since at least the 1990s, if not earlier.

But to say that “thisacknowledgement is reflected, for example, in the New York Times’ landmark ‘1619 Project’ and in the resources of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History,” is an appeal to contemporary intellectual fads and fashions, not serious scholarship or pedagogy. Key arguments of the “1619 Project” have been so thoroughly refuted at this point that to see the project receive such unqualified praise in an official document is shocking. And while the NMAAHC makes a vital contribution to preserving and disseminating knowledge of both the horrors of slavery and the heights of Black American achievement, its public messaging has also been marred by pseudo-scholarship proclaiming universal values of objectivity, literacy, and self-reliance as aspects of “whiteness.” Ideas like this do incalculable damage to the cause of actually combatting racism and instilling a sense of agency in Black American youth.

In a further gesture of fealty to virtue-signaling nonsense at the expense of genuine learning, the priority quotes writer Ibram X. Kendi: “[a]n antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group. Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.” Such falsehoods cannot be the basis for our children’s education. Kendi willfully ignores overwhelming evidence that many racial inequalities are not driven by racist policies, any more than income disparities within racial groups are somehow only the result of willful discrimination based on class. These disparities do have proven solutions – the 40-year history of our parent organization, the Woodson Center, demonstrates this beautifully – but to insist that every gap in achievement must be blamed on racism only advances the interests of self-proclaimed race experts and tells young Black Americans that their success depends upon white peoples’ behavior or attitudes.

1776 Unites was launched last year by Civil Rights Movement veteran Robert L. Woodson, Sr., and a number of black leaders who acknowledge America’s history of racial discrimination, yet recognize the pathways taken by millions of black people past and present who are not bound by a defeatist ideology. Like parents throughout the United States, many of our families in low-income communities may have faced racial discrimination and other challenges in their own lives and are concerned that their children might as well. But they know that a great education can make a huge difference. Because of America’s legacy of Black excellence and resilience in the face of slavery and discrimination, hundreds of doors are now open. And young people of all races have the power to open their own doors if they are prepared to seize the opportunity.

Today, almost 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education ushered in the Civil Rights Movement, there is an urgent need to reaffirm and advance its core principles. To insist on our common humanity. To demand that we are each entitled to equal treatment under the law. To bring about a world in which we are all judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin.

It’s important that our kids know they live in a good country that strives for greatness, one that is not hostile to their dreams. Millions of kids of all races have embraced founding ideals around family, faith, hard work, entrepreneurship, and education to move from persecution to prosperity. It should be these ideals, and not trendy books or celebrity intellectuals, which guide the Department of Education’s funding priorities.

Read the Department of Education’s proposed priorities in American History and Civics Education here.