Some Students Want to Erase Race from U.S. History Black History Is U.S. History, but Some Students Think I Should Be Fired If I Try to Teach It to Them, Explains Professor Donald Earl Collins

By Collins, Donald Earl | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), February 25, 2018 | Go to article overview

Some Students Want to Erase Race from U.S. History Black History Is U.S. History, but Some Students Think I Should Be Fired If I Try to Teach It to Them, Explains Professor Donald Earl Collins


Collins, Donald Earl, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


It's happened ever since I began teaching as a graduate student in 1991. Most semesters in which I have taught a course related to U.S. history, the complaint appears at least once on my students' course evaluations: "too much time on race."

Whether at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, George Washington or the University of Maryland, the refrain from this small but vocal minority has been the same. And a few students have gone further than just registering their complaints. In two of my upper-level courses on U.S. history since 1945 - which covers the civil rights movement, white flight and the neoconservative movement - I got the typical handful of complaints in my evaluations that I spent "too much time on race." But two of those students also wrote that the University of Maryland should fire me for it. This isn't unusual, for me and many male and female faculty of color.

A small but persistent minority of my students seems to want its U.S. history a certain way - the story of Europeans escaping political persecution and religious oppression for the pristine wilderness of the New World, of people building the greatest nation that has dominated the world with its military, its capitalism and its brand of democracy.

It's not only possible to teach a U.S. history course like this, it's normal. In many schools, teaching American history often means ignoring racism. A recent Southern Poverty Law Center report shows that few K-12 teachers have the textbooks, understanding and comfort with the material necessary to teach about slavery. This also explains the lack of classroom time spent on the history of Native Americans. Although the civil rights movement is a standard in most U.S. history classes, Reconstruction and black migration aren't.

On the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 18 percent to 27 percent of 29,000 eighth-graders tested "proficient" in American history, geography and civics. A 2015 McClatchy-Marist Poll conducted in connection with the 150th anniversary since the end of the Civil War showed Americans split on slavery's importance in teaching U.S. history and ignorant of it as the leading cause of the Civil War. In a more recent survey, only 8 percent of high school seniors identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War.

It isn't a surprise, then, when some of my students don't know about slavery, migration or the connections between these central American constructions and how the U.S. developed over time. It doesn't shock me that most of my students are baffled when I tell them not all whites were "white" when they immigrated to the United States, that the term was once restricted to Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

American history is the history of modern racism. Native Americans numbered 10 million to 15 million in what would become British North America at the time of the Jamestown settlement in 1607. …

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