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President Trump last week said his administration would be taking action to promote a “pro-American curriculum” in U.S. schools in an effort to counteract what he called “left-wing indoctrination” in education.
Speaking at the National Archives Museum, Trump said he intends to sign an executive order to create the “1776 Commission” to encourage schools to teach a positive view of American history. The commission’s name appears to be a dig at the 1619 Project, a series of essays published last summer by the New York Times Magazine that argue slavery and racism are foundational elements of American history. Trump also took aim at critical race theory, an academic discipline focused on systemic racism.
In his speech, Trump called these views an “ideological poison” that threatened to erase the “miracle of American history” from U.S. education. The 1619 Project offers a free curriculum that has been utilized by some schools. Earlier this month, Trump threatened to defund schools that do so. Federal agencies were also recently barred from holding diversity trainings that rely on critical race theory.
Why there’s debate
Trump isn’t alone in his criticism of efforts to center race in U.S. history. Many conservatives have taken aim at the 1619 Project and critical race theory for what they see as an overemphasis on slavery that paints America’s founding principles in a negative light. This focus will further the racial divide in the country, they say.
Trump’s critics say he is looking to paper over American history to prevent the country from reckoning with the darker parts of its past, which ultimately serves to keep systemic racism in place. "What he's arguing for is to indoctrinate our children in a [government] approved, patriotic history that actually obscures the role of slavery," said Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the 1619 Project. Trump’s declaration was also seen by some critics as the same sort of propaganda that authoritarian regimes practice.
Others say Trump’s intentions are less about influencing what’s taught in history classes and more of about a larger political effort to stoke racial grievance among his base ahead of the election and push back against racial justice efforts. In his speech, Trump attempted to draw a direct line between race education and the unrest that has taken place in cities across the country over the past several months. While there’s no evidence the two are related, both fit into Trump’s election strategy of presenting himself as a president who will preserve the patriotic view of America many of his supporters hold, some political experts say.
Trump didn’t provide details of what would be in his executive order or when he might sign it. His ability to influence what’s taught in America’s schools is limited. The federal government has no authority over state and local school curriculums.
Patriotic education allows white people to avoid reckoning with our nation’s dark past
“We’re discussing the legacy and persistence of racism more now than in decades. And Trump understands that all this talk about institutional racism and white privilege makes many white people feel attacked and defensive, as though they’re being personally accused of sins they feel they haven’t committed. So in response he gives them permission to stop feeling bad.” — Paul Waldman, Washington Post
Critical race theory tries to blot out the triumphs of American history
“It’s a disease borne from the hateful halls of leftwing academia -- Critical Race Theory undermines the positive core beliefs of America by redefining the nation as an engine of oppression. This leads to discord in schools, families, and now work.” — Greg Gutfeld, Fox News
Trump needs to fire up white voters to win reelection
“Trump has long fanned the nation’s culture wars, including defending the display of the Confederate battle flag and monuments of Civil War rebels from protesters seeking their removal. His speech ... suggested his rhetoric could become even more pointed in the final weeks before the election, given that his path to a second term relies largely on energizing culturally conservative white voters.” — Aamer Madhani and Deb Riechmann, Associated Press
Critical race theory causes division by overemphasizing race
“Critical race theory is inherently divisive. It splits American society into racial groups and insists that the tension between them cannot disappear until we've eliminated all existing social structures. ...Critical race theory is also inherently anti-American.” — Bruce Abramson and Jeff Ballabon, Newsweek
Trump’s goal is to make efforts to root out systemic racism politically divisive
“The mischaracterization of critical race theory ... as anti-white propaganda is more than a caricature: It is a ploy intended to gin up the idea that anti-racist work is itself racist — against whites.” — Cheryl Harris, The Nation
Trump wants schools to teach propaganda
“Trump himself has shown that he is willing to take actions to constructively censor those whose views of history conflict with those of the administration. That’s not teaching history, that is shaping national propaganda.” — Seth Cohen, Forbes
Critical race theory works to achieve the goals laid out in the Constitution
“Critical race theory is not racial demonization. Far from being anti-American, as Trump's administration alleges, critical race theory aspires to the ideal of equality represented in our post-Civil War Constitution, an ideal we are far from achieving even 150 years later.” — UCLA Critical Race Studies program director Laura E. Gómez, NBC News
The debate highlights a fundamental difference between Trump and Joe Biden
“The most revealing difference between Joe Biden and Donald Trump may be that Biden believes America is systemically racist, while President Trump does not. ... This election will turn in part on how receptive Americans are to 1619-style claims that racism is built into America’s cultural DNA.” — Stanley Kurtz, National Review
Debates over how to view history are common during periods of struggle
“The teaching of U.S. History in public schools has always been political, and such concerns about whether curricula are ‘anti-American’ are par for the course in moments of turmoil.” — Olivia B. Waxman, Time
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