In a reactionary political movement desperately trying to reestablish the racial and sexual hierarchies of the past, pervasive fear of Black history is not hard to fathom. The more accurate the history that Americans learn, especially about the centuries-long Black struggle against violent white supremacy, the more morally and politically indefensible is the cry of Make America Great Again.
MAGA politics, after all, is about the subtext: Great for whom? The emphasis on the word Again gives away the game. It won’t be great in the future for the people who didn’t have it great in the past. For me, that point was crystallized in an appropriately Trumpy manner in a 2016 focus group in Pennsylvania. A White woman was rhapsodizing over “such happy times” in the 1950s. Her view is not an outlier. About two thirds of Republicans say American culture and way of life have “mostly changed for the worse” since the 1950s. “So many less worries,” the Pennyslvania woman said.
As she spoke, she was seated next to a Black man who, in those same 1950s , would have been denied the franchise in much of America, and whose murder by a white man would have been sanctioned throughout the South — indeed, it would have been righteously justified provided the white killer had felt annoyed or, God forbid, mildly insulted.
“Such happy times.”
To obscure the violence undergirding MAGA nostalgia, and perpetuate the myths, Arkansas Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is driving an Advanced Placement African American Studies course out of Arkansas schools before any politically adverse learning can take hold. Her approach is similar to one in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is working to preserve a sunny, white-centric, version of American history in public schools.
Huckabee Sanders, who as Donald Trump’s White House press secretary was a brazen and documented liar, is not an especially subtle politician. In her state, students will be able to get credit for AP European History, but not for AP African American history. “And unlike with every other AP class on offer, the state would not cover the $90 cost of an end-of-year test that gives students the opportunity to qualify for college course credit,” the Arkansas Times reported.
The African American studies course, Huckabee Sanders told Fox News, is leftist “propaganda” that’s “teaching our kids to hate America.” She did not cite an actual example of propaganda or explain how learning about the horrific consequences of hate somehow teaches kids to reproduce it. (Lazy talking points are good enough for Fox.)
Of course, answering non-Fox questions requires a certain amount of confidence in your case. Confidence is not much in evidence so far. “Oddly, no one at the Arkansas Department of Education answered phone calls or returned emails about the decision Friday afternoon, nor could they be reached Saturday,” the Arkansas Times reported. “And because the phone calls about the last-minute change went directly to teachers — bypassing district administrators and even principals — there was no paper trail to follow to figure out what was going on.”
The duck-and-cover of Huckabee Sanders and DeSantis elicits little or no criticism from fellow conservatives. (One of the more honest addresses on race ever delivered by a conservative white politician was made, curiously, by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2015. It reads like a dispatch from another political world.) As in most things MAGA, the cowardice of leaders is at least partly an accommodation to the GOP base, whose members insist that white Christians, the people who dominate Congress, statehouses and the Fortune 500, are the true victims of discrimination in the U.S.
Divergent views of history, and their political uses, is the subject of a new report by Public Religion Research Institute, a public opinion research organization that frequently explores attitudes on race as well as religion. PRRI conducted 26 focus groups across 13 Southern states to mine opinions of 155 religiously affiliated white and Black Americans on Confederate statues and symbolism. (About 2,000 public Confederate monuments still stand.)
The focus groups, segregated by race, were consistent with larger studies. Southern whites were markedly less troubled by symbols of racial domination looming over public spaces than were Southern Blacks. There was, for example, a 42-point gap on whether the Confederate flag is a symbol of “Southern pride” rather than “racism,” with 58% of whites citing pride compared with only 16% of Blacks.
That the emblem of slavery, subjugation and treason is still deemed a matter open to cheerful misinterpretation is a useful gauge of how unready many conservatives are to grapple with actual American history, AP or otherwise. The racial terrorism of the past, both the distant and the very near, is not a subject that Republicans are willing to discuss honestly; too many GOP voters won’t like what they hear.
Arkansas perennially ranks near the bottom in educational success (and in child welfare more generally). Keeping knowledge away from high-school students will, of course, increase the already high price of underperforming schools. For politicians like Huckabee Sanders, however, public ignorance yields private power.