In a controversial 7-to-5 vote in February, North Carolina’s State Board of Education affirmed a new standard requiring K-12 social studies teachers to discuss racism and discrimination in their classrooms. To pass, the word “systemic” had to be removed from “racism,” but opponents nevertheless charged the standard was “anti-American.”
This vote is emblematic of a wider reckoning in American education. One side, galvanized by the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, insists that teaching about systemic racism is un-American. Another argues that teaching children about how policies and practices embedded in American society and law have long disadvantaged people based on race is crucial to ameliorating their pernicious — and continuing — effects. While the phrase “systemic racism” has become controversial, the history of the 1920s teaches us that without such language we risk perpetuating the very laws, structures and legacies that have imposed such a burden on communities of color.
Against a backdrop of racial violence, Jim Crow laws and immigration restrictions, educators in the 1920s agitated for some of the first “antiprejudice” curriculums to serve the most diverse body of students enrolled in American schools to date. The national organization of the Junior Red Cross ensured that anti-prejudice lessons — most common in urban centers in the Northeast and West due to their large immigrant populations — reached more than 4 million students in every U.S. state and territory. As historian Diana Selig writes, “these efforts were a dynamic, widespread phenomenon” by the 1930s.
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