What Happens When American Children Learn About Racism?

Americans have spent over 150 years arguing about what kind of history we should teach our children. In the “Textbook Nation‘, a book examining the history of conflicts over American curriculum, historian Joseph Moreau noted that multitudes of Americans have worried about the heavens falling when the ‘wrong’ versions of history are taught in our schools will. Americans, as Moreau documented, were concerned about this in the 1870s, again in the 1920s and, as we recently sawthey are still concerned today.

A current focus of tension is whether and how we should educate children about racism and other less rosy aspects of the nation’s history. Politicians, parents and other influential actors have strong and divided views on this. One side assumes that learning a more critical version of history would be beneficial for our children and therefore supports it add more lessons criticism of American history versus curriculum; The other side assumes that such lessons would be harmful and therefore argues Critical content should be banned from the classroom.

However, this raises an important empirical question: what actually happens when we teach students critical lessons about American history? In other words, what happens when American children learn about racism?

Social scientists have pondered this question for years and have found that, overall, there is much to be gained by teaching students about more sophisticated aspects of American history in schools. For example in one field trial at high schools in the Chicago area, the political scientist Matthew Nelsen of the University of Chicago randomly assigned nearly 700 high school students to read different versions of sections from history textbooks and then measured the effect they had on students from different racial backgrounds.

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A few students were assigned to read excerpts from a widely read history book that is a relatively typical retelling of American history. Other students were assigned to read excerpts from a more critical history book that highlighted “marginalized groups, systemic injustice, and grassroots political action.” What happened to the students who read these different versions of the story?

First of all, Nelsen found that students of all races benefit from reading the more critical text compared to students who read the more traditional history text. For example, Latino and Black youth reported a greater willingness to participate in acts of political engagement and were also more willing to voice their views on a variety of issues. In another work, Nelsen also found that white students reported greater appreciation for the contributions Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans have made to American society.

Not only political scientists come to such conclusions. Nelsen’s findings are consistent with a larger research group conducted by a team of psychologists from Northwestern University, the University of Georgia and the University of Vermont. In your current literature review on this topic, psychologist Sylvia Perry and her colleagues found that teaching children about racism can actually increase the empathy they have for members of other groups, as well as their concerns about systemic racism. They refer, for example, to studies that prove this when white kids learn about racism They tend to value racial justice and show more positive attitudes and empathy towards black people.

It’s hard not to look at these results and think – great! – If only our schools taught more critical stories about America, it could improve the way different racial groups interact with each other. But that hasn’t happened in recent years. In fact, there is currently an active push to restrict the way race and racism are taught in schools: Between January 2021 and April 2022, nearly 200 bills were introduced in the US to increase the teaching of critical perspectives on US history to forbid.

Given the benefits of teaching a more critical version of American history, one might wonder why there is such active opposition to it. But perhaps, unsurprisingly, the answer lies in the same insights I’ve already presented.

A way to summarize the research I have quoted that as American children receive more sophisticated lessons about history, young people of color are inspired to become civic and politically active, and young whites gain a greater appreciation for their fellow people of color. According to Columbia University psychologists Ariel Mosley and Larisa Heiphetz, There may be an expansion of “moral circles” across different racial groups – that is, young people from different walks of life may end up feeling more morally committed to working together and helping one another, and as such become less tolerant of the social systems that perpetuate and reinforce inequality.

If you believe in the virtues of multi-ethnic democracy, then the thought of a diverse coalition of young people coming together to help one another and push for the expansion of rights and more equality and justice in society could be heartwarming. But if you have other beliefs, ones that are more aligned with that social dominance or a preference for hierarchy and inequality, then findings like the ones I’ve described might be just the kind of evidence that chills you.

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Consider that in an actual Longitudinal study that followed over 2,600 white Americans Over a three-year period, New York University and University of Massachusetts Amherst psychologists Eric Knowles, Linda Tropp, and Mao Mogami found that white Republicans, compared to white Democrats, were more convinced that minority groups would conspire against whites, which they did reputation in society could be jeopardized if whites did not band together to defend their in-group interests.

Of course, these concerns about which racial groups might hold power in society are not new. Nelsen, the political scientist I mentioned earlier, noted in a recent publication that they have long been at the center of debates about what history schools should teach. White Americans, for example, have worried for some time that more critical history teaching in our schools — teaching about racism and other forms of oppression — could cause the nation to lose some of its traditions and even lead to “reverse discrimination.” against white Americans.

In other words, one reason so many white Americans, particularly white Republicans, might be concerned about the impact of teaching children about racism — and actively seek to ban such lessons from schools — is fear of what that kind of of education could mean for their own power in society. Teaching about racism could lead to greater interracial coalition building and expanded rights and opportunities for racial minorities to participate in important decision-making systems, but the idea is interpreted by some Americans as an existential threat.

This is the fear that lurks beneath the surface of debates about how to teach our nation’s history. Both sides of the debate appear to have beliefs that are consistent with the evidence: For example, they believe that teaching critical lessons about our nation’s history could change the power dynamics in the US. For some, this is a good thing and something they want children to be taught. But for others, such lessons make it feel like they are, to use the language of University of Pennsylvania political communications scholar Diana Mutz, under siege by engines of change.

More research from Nicholas Norton from the Cornell Law Library.

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