Column: Why doesn’t Trump want kids taught that this country was built on the backs of enslaved Black people?

Student Zaniya Joe wears tape with the slogan 'Black lives matter' over her mouth at a Penn State protest in 2014.
Student Zaniya Joe protests at Penn State after the 2014 shooting of teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer.
(Nabil K. Mark / Associated Press)

You may not have heard the academic phrase “critical race theory,” but it’s playing an increasingly large role in the Republican campaign against Democrats this season.

To greatly simplify, critical race theory offers an intellectual framework for examining the way white supremacy is baked into all aspects of American life.

It’s a concept worth examining, especially at a moment when the country is in the grip of a pandemic that is disproportionately killing people of color and a convulsive reckoning over race and equal justice under the law.


As you might imagine, though, President Trump and his allies see the reassessment of American’s founding ideals as an affront, as well as a way to agitate white voters and improve his chance of remaining in office for another term.

Last week, Trump threatened to defund schools that use the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, named for the year enslaved Black Africans first landed on American shores, in their curriculum. The project is a deep dive into how this country was not just built on the backs of the enslaved, but also on a foundational premise —“all men are created equal”— that was, on its face, a lie.

“Department of Education is looking at this,” Trump tweeted. “If so, they will not be funded!”

(Not that it matters to Trump, but he doesn’t control school funding.)

The Office of Management and Budget got into the act last week, too, deciding that this was the right moment to condemn racial sensitivity training for federal workers.

Its director, Russell Vought, announced, via tweet, that “the days of taxpayer funded indoctrination trainings that sow division and racism are over.” He added, “Under the direction of @POTUS, we are directing agencies to halt critical race theory trainings immediately.”

In a memo, Vought elaborated: “It has come to the president’s attention that executive branch agencies have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to date ‘training’ government workers to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda…. [A]ccording to press reports, employees across the executive branch have been required to attend trainings where they are told that ‘virtually all white people contribute to racism’ or where they are required to say that they ‘benefit from racism.’”

Gosh, press reports? If you were running the government, don’t you think you’d be able to get firsthand information about these training sessions and not force yourself to rely on what — just guessing here — Fox News is telling you?

For the record, if you are a white American and can’t admit that you have benefited from structural racism, or the privilege automatically accorded to your skin color, then you really do need that training, as painful as it may be.


Exploiting white fear and resentment is the great American political trick, used over time by Republicans and Democrats alike.

As former Vice President Joe Biden continues to lead Trump in critical swing state polls, the president is increasingly desperate to reconnect with the white voters, especially women, who supported him in 2016 but have since lost their enthusiasm.

Pundit after pundit has pointed out that undecided voters represent a small but significant sliver of the electorate — but voter turnout will be just as important as persuading the undecided.

In 2016, Black voters stayed home in droves, as they say, probably costing Hillary Clinton the election, as her vaunted “blue wall” crumbled. There was a notable lack of enthusiasm, and an effort by the Trump campaign, via Facebook, to turn Black voters off to Clinton by replaying her infamous 1996 slur about “super-predators.” After a Black voter confronted her at a campaign appearance, she apologized.

In Michigan alone, the margin of Trump’s victory was a mere 10,704 votes, or 0.23% of the total number cast. In Wayne County, where Detroit is located and the population is nearly 40% Black, Obama received 595,846 votes in 2012. Four years later, Clinton received 519,000 votes.

And Michigan was not an anomaly.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2016, the Black voter turnout declined for the first time in 20 years. It dropped to 59.6% after reaching a record high of 66.6% in 2012, the year of President Obama’s reelection.

It remains to be seen whether the presence of California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is biracial, on the Democratic ticket will reenergize Black voters, without whom no Biden victory is possible.

And it also remains to be seen whether Trump’s blatantly racist appeals — to, say, those mythical “suburban housewives” he vows to protect — will win over the white voters he needs.

(It is generally predicted that, just as in 2016, Trump will not win the popular vote, an outrage for another column.)

In the meantime, there is no lack of racist appeals by Republicans on the national stage.

Over the summer, even as protests against the police killing of George Floyd were taking place around the world, Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton introduced the “Saving American History Act,” a blatant attack on the press, the 1619 Project, and the idea that schoolchildren deserve more than a whitewashed version of American racial history.

“The 1619 Project,” the act says, “is a racially divisive and revisionist account of history that threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the true principles on which it was founded.”

Just last week, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz joined the anti-1619 Project mob, launching a multi-tweet rampage against the 1619 Project, calling out a controversy over whether the paper had erred when it said the American Revolution was motivated in part by the desire to preserve slavery.

“It is filled with serious errors,” claimed Cruz, “which have been called out by top historians — but the NYT doesn’t care. You’re not after the truth.”

Actually, historians differ about the role slavery played in the Revolution, and the New York Times has forthrightly addressed the controversy, even adding a clarification.

Why? Because unlike Trump, Cotton and Cruz, newspapers care about both fairness and truth.