As a student in high school, I couldn’t help but notice that my social studies classes seemed to skim over the American slavery portion of the curriculum. Enslaved Africans were sometimes referred to as “unpaid workers,” and the notion that not all enslavers were abusive to enslaved people somehow always crept into the lecture. A new report suggests that my experience may be more common than I realized. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of high school students who are accurately taught about slavery is incredibly low, due to sub-par textbooks and state education standards. These findings are troubling because today’s high school seniors will be in positions of responsibility in just a few short years — f they don’t understand America’s racist history, it’s unlikely that they will understand how institutionalized racism still impacts the United States in the present.
"It's hard to discuss violence, it's hard to discuss and teach white supremacy. It's hard to learn about the shortcomings of our American icons," said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate history professor at Ohio State University who spoke during a press briefing on the report. "So rather than charging head-on and trying to make sense of something that was so central to the American experience, we have tended to shy away."
The report, which was published earlier this year, used original survey data, the text of 10 popular textbooks, and state content standards to find that states fail to set high standards regarding teaching students about slavery and textbooks don’t provide comprehensive coverage of the institution of slavery or enslaved people. And because of this, students aren’t getting the education they deserve.
According to this report, only eight percent of high school seniors can identify slavery as the main cause for the Civil War. There’s a popular myth out there stating that the Civil War was caused over the battle of states’ rights, but that’s not the case. The “rights” some states were fighting for was the right to own enslaved Africans.
In addition to not knowing that the battle over slavery caused the Civil War, 68 percent of students didn’t know it took a constitutional amendment to formally end slavery, and less than 22 percent of students could point to how provisions in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders. The Constitution contained the Fugitive Slave Clause, which gave slaveholders the right to recover runaway slaves who escaped to free states, and the Three-Fifths Compromise, a provision that recognized enslaved Africans as three-fifths human, gave slaveholders more representation in the House of Representatives and Electoral College.
Not being able to see how discrimination against Black people is rooted so deeply in this country's history can enable students to perpetuate discriminatory behaviors, such as blaming Black people for their economic and social status in this country without realizing that it’s incredibly difficult for groups of people to overcome centuries of oppression.
While 97 percent of teachers surveyed expressed that teaching slavery is essential, only 58 percent felt adequately equipped to teach those hard lessons. “I dislike making this history come alive for my Black students," one Texas teacher told SPLC. "I feel helpless to explain why its repercussions are still with us today.”
But proper education about American slavery isn’t just for Black students. Maureen Costello, the director of SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project, said during the briefing, "We know that white nationalists particularly are targeting teenage, white youth.” She noted that she’s seen white teens "making racial slurs [...] and racist videos.” Understanding that slavery was the product of racist, white supremacist ideology may make the difference in steering teens away from joining white nationalist or other hate groups.
While this report shows that students are unaware of some basic facts about American slavery, it’s not their fault. In order to better educate young folks about this country’s racist past, states need to enforce higher standards for what's taught in school, and textbook publishers must meet or exceed those standards.