Slavery wasn’t so bad; white men are the real victims’: these are the messages that appear to stem from the right-wing war on history. It’s part of a bigger picture rooted in the politics of fear.
By Sonali Kolhatkar
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is waging a war on history. The GOP’s aspiring presidential candidate saw how effectively Donald Trump tapped into white conservatives’ fears of demographic change and seems to want to use that same tactic to catapult himself into the White House. In 2021 and 2022, DeSantis championed the smugly named “Stop WOKE Act,” to undermine—try not to laugh—“woke indoctrination” and a “Marxist-inspired curriculum” in schools. To top that, the Florida Board of Education this summer released new standards for teaching history in middle schools that whitewash slavery and uplift white supremacist patriarchy.
Florida students will now potentially be exposed to instruction that claims, “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” The standards also emphasize that “trading in slaves developed in African lands,” to remind students that it was not an American invention. Further, it covers “the practice of the Barbary Pirates in kidnapping Europeans and selling them into slavery in Muslim countries,” as well as, “how slavery was utilized in Asian cultures,” and “how slavery among indigenous peoples of the Americas was utilized prior to and after European colonization.”
In other words, American students of history will now be taught that slavery was so widespread that they surely can’t blame white American enslavers for engaging in what the rest of the world was doing, and that whites too, were victimized by the institution.
It’s an increasingly popular idea among conservative whites that they have historically been the victims, not the perpetrators of racial oppression.
The Florida Board of Education also approved the use of videos created by PragerU, an outfit named after its co-creator, the Christian fundamentalist talk show host Dennis Prager. It is instructive to note that Prager once said, “If you see the n-word on a dormitory building, the odds are overwhelming that a Black student actually did that,” because they are engaging in “race hoaxes… to show how racist the country is.”
Again, a popular idea among conservative whites is that racism is so nonexistent in the U.S. today that overt acts of racism are surely hoaxes meant to defame white Americans—the real victims.
One of the Florida board’s spokespeople justified approval of PragerU’s videos for use in schools, saying that “the material aligns to [sic] Florida’s revised civics and government standards.” PragerU describes its tools as “pro-American,” which is code for pro-white, pro-fundamentalist, pro-patriarchy.
In its videos, PragerU overtly promotes “Judeo-Christian values,” encourages women and girls to “embrace… [their] femininity,” and teaches boys to “embrace… [their] masculinity.” It upholds revisionist history claiming Thanksgiving arose from Indigenous Americans working in harmony with white settlers, puts words into the mouth of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass to claim that slavery had to continue in order to “achieve something great: the making of the United States,” and spouts pro-police propaganda that attempts to discredit the racial justice uprisings of 2020.
When Florida’s Lieutenant-Governor Jeanette Núñez defended her state’s “Stop WOKE Act,” she claimed that it was about, “prioritizing education[,] not indoctrination.” But in a speech to the hate group Moms for Liberty, Prager said, “We bring doctrines to children. That’s a very fair statement… But what is the bad of our indoctrination?”
The effort to clamp down on education is spreading. Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who made a name for herself as Trump’s press secretary, has decided to use the DeSantis playbook in attacking the teaching of accurate history. Her state has decided that students will no longer receive credit for taking the AP African American history course because it violates the Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking, and Safety (LEARNS) Act, which she promoted and signed into law earlier this year.
In defiance, every public school in the Little Rock school district announced it would continue to teach the AP course.
There is a harmful narrative that frames right-wing conservative thought, and it goes like this: “Intrepid white settlers discovered America, fought for its independence, and created the most powerful nation on earth. Now, uppity Black folks are asking for special treatment, illegals are cutting in line, and women and gays are threatening the natural order. We have to fight to preserve the sanctity of America against these predators.”
It’s a dangerous and powerful story, one that is rooted in the politics of fear. And it is an effective tool to rally voters to back regressive policies, laws, and candidates in the face of popular ideas of collectivism, of policies promoting equity to undo the damage of past and current racial and gender-based harms, of realizing the ideal of a multiracial democracy.
This fear-based story is the overarching framework for a reactionary backlash to the teaching of accurate history—precisely because such education has been so effective.
In my new book, Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023), I cite the example of Brittany Murphree, a white Republican college student who took a Critical Race Theory (CRT) course at the University of Mississippi School of Law. When Republican lawmakers in her state passed a bill banning the teaching of such history in K-12 schools, she wrote to her representatives, “To date, this course has been the most impactful and enlightening course I have taken throughout my entire undergraduate career and graduate education at the State of Mississippi’s flagship university.”
Murphree added, “The prohibition of courses and teachings such as these is taking away the opportunity for people from every background and race to come together and discuss very important topics which would otherwise go undiscussed.”
It’s no wonder that the far right has taken aim at CRT, ethnic studies, and the teaching of accurate history saying they promote biased thinking and indoctrination. Indeed, such curricula are biased—toward truth, justice, and pluralism, and they have the potential to change the way young Americans think about race.
Murphree and the eye-opening education she benefitted from represent the worst nightmare of Prager, DeSantis, and Trump. Her education offers a powerful de-programming of archaic ideology and promotes a promise of a pluralistic future—one where white men like them no longer have a monopoly on power.
Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.