Donald Yacovone makes it clear that the deliberate creation of white supremacy has kept injustice for Black people in America alive in “Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity.” He chronologically sets out the systemic assembly of structural racism by tracing its development from before the American Civil War to the present. He demonstrates how white supremacy was ingrained in history and was as common as water and consistent as calls for freedom.
John Saffin was a well-known Massachusetts judge in 1701, when America was still in its infancy. According to Yacovone, Saffin argued that any notion of universal equality would “invert the order that God had set” because “God had set ‘different Orders and Degrees of Men in the World.’ ” This pronouncement immediately preceded the introduction of representative government and slavery in Virginia. According to Yacovone, this idea of “different orders and degrees for men in the world” would solidify the American ideology of racial inferiority and define who would be welcomed into citizenship in America.
Yacovone demonstrates that although the South is primarily responsible for slavery and racism, the North also contributed significantly to both systems, albeit through different means. While the North’s subtly dismissing Blacks as inferior had long-lasting effects, the South’s treatment of Blacks was obvious. In fact, white supremacy’s dismissiveness and “enduring cultural binding force” would endure longer than how Black people were treated openly during slavery in the United States.
Yacovone describes how the development of educational standards was fundamentally influenced by the ideas of white supremacy. Samuel Train Dutton, one of the most notable educators at the foundation of public education and author of one of the originally circulated textbooks, the “Morse Speller,” wrote, “To the Caucasian race by reason of its physical and mental superiority, has been assigned the task of civilizing and enlightening the world.” This groundwork was laid and intentionally passed on by way of belief and bias to educators at all levels through textbooks and teacher preparation.
Yacovone also describes how the White South’s steadfast opposition to Reconstruction following the Civil War proved to be too much for the North’s cautious acceptance of Emancipation. This also had educational repercussions because John H. Van Evrie’s writings, which promoted white supremacy, also had an impact on textbooks. This helped advance the cause of “a vision of permanent national reunification.” The quiet acceptance of white supremacy in the North laid the groundwork for the story to be told in textbooks, official documents, and history.
Although Black students had the opportunity to learn about their own history prior to Reconstruction, this history was far too frequently treated as the history of their own people rather than as American history as a whole. Because they included and depicted Black people who were in slavery, writers like Elisha Mulford, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Hezekiah Butterworth, and Charles Carelton Coffin were regarded as progressive. But the prevalence of white supremacy narratives in American history and textbooks ultimately overshadowed their humanist portrayal of people who many had come to know as objects. When Blacks weren’t completely excluded from the telling of American history, “Lost Cause” dogma’s portrayal of Black Americans as lazy heathens would rule American textbooks.
Authors like John W. Burgess and William A. Dunning were able to once more share the histories and contributions of Black people to America during the post-Reconstruction era. The contributions of these academics started influencing generations of students at all grade levels regarding race and American history. Blacks started to make some social and economic progress in the early 1900s despite the pervasive Jim Crow discrimination. According to Yacovone, the establishment of Black colleges and thriving churches, as well as the support of notable Black intellectuals like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, gave Blacks a greater ability than ever before to tell their stories.
However, in the first half of the 20th century, many White Americans dismissed abolitionist textbooks that focused on what was wrong with America as dangerous and violent agitation. In an anticipatory echo of more recent anger about critical race theory, the idea was that histories that sympathized with the enslaved would erase national memory of American achievements. Sadly, the generation born in America during this time are the people who taught and led many of today’s Americans.