Forty Years on From the Launch of Banned Books Week, Censorship is Once Again on the Rise, Los Angeles, California, United States – 22 Sep 2022

Whitewashing History

June 28, 2021

Aug 10, 2023

Photo Credit: Jim Ruymen (UPI)

Human dignity is central to the rule of law and, like all other aspects of our endangered democracy, must be vigilantly protected.

An increasingly dangerous authoritarian movement is sweeping our country, undermining public education, and harming children by denying them an honest analysis of America’s past and open conversations about the present.

As of last fall, 25 states had passed 64 laws altering what students can learn. These laws whitewash history by limiting what educators are permitted to teach about race, racism, and American history. Laws also restrict teachers from discussing gender identity, sexuality, and LGBTQ issues. In addition, individual school districts are passing policies to restrict education and ban books on these topics.

A current example of how this effort denies children an honest education is Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act,” which effectively prevents students from learning about brutal periods in America’s past. The law prohibits teaching that causes students – by implication, White students – to feel “personal responsibility…guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress.” 

Laws that require educators to teach distorted versions of history and refrain from open and factual dialogues endanger democracy and ignore the “interconnectedness” between human dignity and the rule of law. This connection was affirmed by the American Bar Association in 2019 by a Resolution urging:  

“governments to ensure that ‘dignity rights’ – the principle that human dignity is fundamental to all areas of law and policy — be reflected in the exercise of their legislative, executive, and judicial functions.” 

Yet, in implementing the “Stop WOKE Act,” Florida’s Department of Education updated its Standards in ways that promote false narratives that have no place in the education of America’s next generation. For example, the DOE diminishes the barbaric consequences of slavery and perpetuates a historical fiction by requiring schools to teach about “the various duties and trades performed by slaves,” including “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”  

This immorally suggests a world where skills learned while one is legally another’s property, providing forced labor at the hands of a whip, could be comparable to skills taught through education and a paycheck. It also ignores the many developed skills of the individuals abducted from their homes and stuffed into ships as part of the slave trade. 

The Florida DOE’s Standards are replete with a “there were fine people on both sides” approach to teaching. The scant reference to the Ku Klux Klan says nothing about its pervasive and brutal role, nor do the Standards mention lynching as an instrument of terror. 

In clarifying what should be included in teaching about the Reconstruction period, the Standards state that instruction should include “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans,” listing such examples as the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, and the 1923 Rosewood Massacre, all instances of brutal aggression against Black communities. 

The Standards, however, leave teachers without any guidance as to the amount of detail they are allowed to present without running afoul of the law and risking their jobs. Will they be admonished for stepping over the line in teaching about the ruthlessness of White leaders who conspired to “maintain the social order” and “advance the cause of white supremacy” by murdering Black people and torching their homes and businesses?

Will educators fear “distressing” students by teaching how White leaders disenfranchised Blacks, propagated stories about alleged assaults on White women, and fomented fears of crime by Black men, prompting White mobs to attack? Will they describe self-defense against a massacre as acts of violence “by African Americans”?

This movement by state governments to promote fictitious history, prohibit the teaching of historical facts, and prevent open dialogue on sensitive issues invalidates the experiences of others and repudiates their dignity and value. It also denies the role of the structural impact of racism and state sponsored violence in shaping the historical development of the United States, which continues to permeate many of today’s institutions. 

LDAD’s call-to-action today draws inspiration from Eleanor Roosevelt’s seminal words about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home…[w]here every man, woman and child seek equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Human dignity is central to the rule of law, and like all other aspects of our endangered democracy, must be vigilantly protected.

Please confirm your commitment to equal justice, equal opportunity, and equal dignity by joining LDAD in asking our leaders at the federal, state, and local levels to reject authoritarianism and to affirm these principles:

  1. Education and truthfulness are fundamental values of our democracy.
  2. The deliberate distortion of history undermines the essential role of education in our society.
  3. We must teach about the horrors and cruelties that have been inflicted on our citizenry to ensure they never happen again.
  4. Book bans that diminish the lived experiences of others trample the principle of human dignity.
  5. Each of us has an obligation to speak out when the government misuses its power to revise history.  
Stay Informed —

Be the first to know about LDAD news by following us on LinkedIn or signing up for our newsletter.

featured press