Don’t whitewash history at our children’s expense

This month, the New Hampshire Department of Education under Commissioner Frank Edelblut released four 3-minute videos which, it claimed, “provide a robust and complete story of American history and the Black American experience.” The taxpayer-funded videos were created in partnership with “1776 Unites,” a collection of essays in the conservative Washington Examiner whose stated goal is to “debunk the myth that present-day problems are related to our past.” If only it were so.

As parents of young children who have experienced racial bias in New Hampshire, we are concerned by Commissioner Edelblut’s attempts to whitewash American history and block discussion of systemic racism, which continues in our state to this day. Viewing the videos and accompanying lesson plans for New Hampshire public schools, we could not help noticing they are anything but “robust” and “complete.” Instead, they tell a flimsy, feel-good tale of individual success unaccompanied by any acknowledgment of institutionalized injustice. 

The first video celebrates the so-called “Rosenwald Schools,” a network of segregated schoolhouses named for Julius Rosenwald, the white Chicago millionaire who supported Booker T. Washington’s educational endeavors. Although the video is purportedly about Washington, it shows Rosenwald being lauded by African American schoolchildren and implicitly credits him with granting such luminaries as Maya Angelou and Congressman John Lewis the opportunity to learn. 

Absent is any discussion of systemic racism in American education, which resulted in just one in fiveAfrican American teenagers being able to attend school in the Jim Crow South and a seven-to-one per-pupil spending gap in favor of “white” students at the time, based on available data. Nor do the videos acknowledge the continuing racial disparities in public education, which mean “overwhelmingly white school districts receive $23 billion more than predominantly nonwhite school districts in state and local funding” while serving the same number of students. Instead of prompting a nuanced discussion of how local zoning ordinances, regressive property tax regimes, and the like often contribute to de facto segregation and the racial resource gap in New Hampshire, the accompanying lesson plan merely romanticized a relic of our troubled past.

The other videos make passing reference to discrimination and enslavement of African Americans while showing the same bucolic renderings of southern plantations (forced-labor camps) popularized by pro-slavery advocates before and after the Civil War. In one, the extraordinary 19th-century African American entrepreneur Bridget Mason is lauded for outwitting her enslaver and building up real estate holdings in Los Angeles, but no mention is made of the decades-long government redlining that prevented most African Americans from owning their own homes through much of the 20th century. 

Another video lauds the Canadian-born inventor Elijah McCoy for his ingenuity but fails to acknowledge how deep-seated racial inequities prevent African Americans from participating on an equal footing in the American economy today. In fact, a recent report by Citigroup pegs the cost of racial discrimination on economic growth at $16 trillion in lost GDP over the past 20 years – proof that racism harms us all. Just imagine how many more Washingtons, Masons, and McCoys – past and present – there could be if not for our country’s system of racial apartheid that holds millions of people back.

The message of these videos and “1776 Unites” is clear: In a land of “endless opportunity” the only thing that stands in the way of success is yourself. Put differently, if you are a person of African descent and you fail to match the extraordinary achievements of Booker T. Washington, Bridget Mason, or Elijah McCoy – or even your “white” peers – it must be because of your own shortcomings. No matter if children of African descent are born with one-tenth the family wealth of children of European descent and, as teens, are six times as likely to be punished and even jailed for the same offenses in New Hampshire.

“Stories of Courage,” as the three-minute videos are called, are good; whitewashing American history at taxpayer expense is not. Indeed, while these videos marked a first for the DOE, it was hardly Commissioner Edelblut’s first attempt to define what our children should and should not learn about race in America. Writing in The Union Leader last June, Edelblut praised New Hampshire’s new “divisive concepts” law, which forbids teaching about systemic racism in our public schools and state agencies, and claimed against the evidence that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would endorse his so-called “colorblind“ ideal. He went on to suggest and then testify that bestselling books by acclaimed historian Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and local educator Tiffany Jewell would be banned from our schools as a result.

Backing up the commissioner’s warning, the DOE released its official guidance on the “divisive concepts” law, which stipulated that any New Hampshire educator caught teaching that individuals or groups exhibit inherent, unconscious racism or sexism can be terminated by the State Board of Education and stripped of their teaching license (and livelihood). Then the DOE launched a website for members of the public to report any New Hampshire instructor they deem in violation of the act, which inspired a national right-wing group to offer a $500 “bounty” to the first person who “catches” a public school teacher. The law is being defended at taxpayer expense against multiple lawsuits challenging its constitutionality.

Now, state legislators are seeking to extend the ban to higher education and expand New Hampshire’s Cold-War era “teacher loyalty” law by making it illegal to “advocate any doctrine or theory promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America.” As one New Hampshire social studies teacher told ABC News, “It’s a form of psychological warfare against educators.” We might also add that it violates “parents’ rights” to have our children learn the truth, good and bad alike, so they can face the world as it is and make it even better. 

One of us has known Commissioner Edelblut for years, since before his rise to power as a Republican gubernatorial candidate and statewide official. We admire his dogged pursuit of his goals and share many aspects of his personal faith, as well as his belief in the power of individual initiative. We also believe him to be a well-meaning family man who did not set out to harm our kids, or any other schoolchildren for that matter. Yet intentions are not all that matter. 

When we sought to convey our concerns to Edelblut privately about his department’s actions on race and how they affect our family, he did not respond. We therefore feel we have little choice but to speak out against his seeming embrace, as New Hampshire’s top education official, of the ascendant politics of “white grievance” against the mounting calls for racial justice. For the sake of all our kids, we pray that Edelblut and the other members of his party will seek a truer, braver account of where we’ve been so that we may yet become “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

This article was published in New Hampshire Bulletin on February 22, 2022 and other papers.

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