False narratives about the role of race in history hide inequitable outcomes and protect the status quo.
May 16, 2023
“History is a narrative; it’s a collection of stories sanctioned by the ruling power, and reinforced through words and images that suit them.” — Kent Monkman
History is a powerful tool to shape the future. We see its influence in the racist laws and policies that govern us today. How history is honored and shared — particularly the prevailing narrative in textbooks and classrooms — also has a deep impact on the values of the next generation.
That’s why opponents to racial and economic justice have rallied around attacks on critical race theory, a framework for understanding how white supremacy has molded American laws and institutions. In this engineered panic, critical race theory is a scapegoat for whatever conservatives want to decry. And they have won substantial gains. In 2022, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida passed laws to restrict how teachers discuss race, gender, and systemic biases in schools. Although the courts have halted Florida’s “Stop Woke” bill for now, currently 85 anti-critical race theory bills are pending in states across the country.
When our opponents foster false narratives about the role of race in history, they are trying to protect the status quo and hide that inequitable outcomes exist by design. As a mission-driven storyteller who spent over a decade in the newsroom, I take the integrity and accuracy of facts very seriously. Misinformation is free and rampant, while quality journalism is disappearing or behind a paywall. Controlling educational curriculum and censoring the truth set us up to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The Shriver Center on Poverty Law recently examined these issues in Rewriting History, Reversing Progress, the second part in our Civil Rights at a Crossroads series with the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute. University of Chicago history professor Adam Green moderated the conversation with panelists Molly Minta, a higher education reporter for Mississippi Today; Cydney Wallace, a board member of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and co-founder of Kol Or, JCUA’s Jews of Color Caucus; and Shriver Center’s President & CEO Audra Wilson, who recently wrote about how white fragility and fear fuels the fury over critical race theory.
Here are a few key takeaways from the May 4 discussion.
The whitewashing of history hampers progress and harms us all. When we conceal parts of America’s past, the irony is that we are actually rewriting the origin of white people as well. In today’s digital age, disinformation becomes easily amplified, which can ultimately lead to the targeting of almost any demographic. “When you don’t have context, you can shape the narrative the way you want it to be,” Cydney said. “The attacks right now are on marginalized groups, but it’s not hard to see how it could become union workers or our veterans.”
Racism is infrastructural and embedded in every system. How each of us choose to react will determine our future together. “People tend to attach some sense of guilt to conversations about racism and our racist history,” Audra said. “Yet we are all beneficiaries of things that we did not create. We all have privileges. The question is: how do we wield the privilege that we have?”
Truth telling is essential in the fight for racial and economic justice. Historically, the press, especially local news and advertisers, reflected the opinions of people with wealth and privilege. During eras like Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, white publications sought to protect white supremacy. Despite its complicated nature, the media remains one of the most effective ways to reach millions of people.
“Journalism has an important role to play in unpacking systemic and structural issues and explaining how those issues impact people and communities,” Molly said. Reporters can show the public how structural racism affects everyday life. “I think people are more likely to feel like they can have an impact on the system, if they understand why the world looks the way it does,” said Molly, whose article on Mississippi’s only critical race theory class went viral.
Movements are driven by the actions of everyday people. People forget or don’t know that Rosa Parks — whose bravery and arrest are enshrined in our collective memory — was propelled by a 13-month mass protest against the segregated bus system in Montgomery, Alabama. Citing a recent example, Audra noted the power of community-driven legal advocacy and that Illinois is set to become the first state to defund libraries and schools that ban books.
“Everyday activism is key,” Audra said. “The heroes of the civil rights movement wouldn’t have made history if it hadn’t been for the small and collective acts that many others, whose names you will never know, took.”
Small acts add up to collective impact. Vote every opportunity you get. Stand up for someone with less privilege than you. Speak up to journalists and make your voice heard. Show up at your local community meetings and ask questions.
“You deserve to know what’s going on,” Cydney said. “Don’t let anyone sidestep your question with a lot of jargon and run-on sentences. Anyone good at their job should be able to explain it to you in layman’s terms.”
The Civil Rights at a Crossroads series explores the parallels between the civil rights movement of the 1960s in which our founder, Sargent Shriver, played a key role, and the fight for racial justice today. Our next event, planned for this fall, will focus on community organizers and activists around the country working to end racism and poverty. Sign up to stay informed.