Whitewashing American History

February 4th, 2011, byJUDY LUBIN


It was two years ago at a Black History Month celebration that Attorney General Eric Holder observed that we live in a “nation of cowards” unwilling to have an honest conversation about race. Holder’s remarks sparked a firestorm of criticism from conservatives who felt his comments painted America in a negative light. But was Holder right?
In recent months, we have been reminded that American history is all too often the subject of revisionist interpretations that whitewash the nation’s past to score political points. These insults on our historical consciousness are far too easy to cite.
Take for instance a January speech by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) to Iowans for Tax Relief, during which she declared that America was always a resting place for people of all colors. “It didn’t matter the color of their skin, it didn’t matter their language, it didn’t matter their economic status,” she said.

Ignoring the plight of black slaves who first arrived in 1619 — more than 100 years prior to the founding of America — and the enduring fight for racial justice, Bachmann went on to say that the nation’s founding fathers were ardent abolitionists. “The very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States,” said Bachmann. While the founding fathers professed that “all men are created equal,” that sentiment did not apply to the slaves many of them owned.

Interestingly, when the Republican leadership decided that members of the House of Representatives would read the Constitution as the first major act of the new Congress, the sections on slavery, including the one that indicated slaves were only three-fifths of a man, were conveniently left out of the reading.
And in December, presidential hopeful and current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour in an interview with The Weekly Standard praised his hometown’s White Citizen Council for their support of integration. This is the same White Citizens Council movement that has long been on record as a white supremacist organization and known for launching campaigns throughout the South to intimidate blacks who were active in the civil rights movement. Barbour, in the same interview, appeared to not comprehend the injustices that led to the struggle for equality. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said.

There has been no shortage of examples of the cowardice that Attorney General Holder referred to a few years ago. But these convenient errors and omissions should not be taken lightly. It may be easier and far less uncomfortable for some to rewrite history than deal with the reality that the nation has struggled with living up to its ideals. But we do ourselves and future generations no favors when we pretend that an entire segment of our population was never denied basic human rights or the chance to fully participate in society.

As Holder noted in his speech, “if we’re going to ever make progress, we have to be honest with each other.”

Judy Lubin is a writer, communications strategist and Ph.D. student in sociology. She writes about the intersection of race, class and gender in the media and in politics on her blog and on The Huffington Post.

  • DKH

    But who is going to lead the discussion? It will certainly not be lead by the president who side steps the discussion. And let’s face it, many progressives fail to call out racism or discuss it. But I agree, we will never be a great country until we are able to have the discussion again and again.And yes, whitewashing history is not helpful.

  • Helen Parks

    Yes, this is so true. They may not want to decuss it. however it is still very real (slavery) in this day and time. It is covered by affimative actions and the freedom of speech. You see growing up in the south, I constantly witness work place slavery and it’s always written in, this is a right to work state. So complaining will get you termed from a job that so many fight to keep. Most people of color are hanging on by a thread, that same thread that makes or breaks a family, financially and mentally. We want more than the next person to be treated equal. But until they identify the abuser’s in congress, it will remain the same. All for us (upperclass) and none for them.

  • Z’na

    The Whitewashing of America, it is appalling and fraudulent to say the least. Again, we are confronted with the importance of words and the ethical issue of truth telling. Words are powerful, both written and spoken. Words are used to enlighten, embellish, eradicate, to build and or destroy. Truth as I understand it involves stating facts as opposed to interpreting events. An educated person comprehends this treasured aspect. Words, help shape our lives and world. I used to think whitewashing occurred only when the WASP was at the helm; now, I’m finding if one can foresee and attain personal gain, the testimony changes from I overcame to it really wasn’t that bad. I see this as a blatant disrespect of blood, sweat, tears and work put in by civil rights advocates and abolitionist.
    While I am not a conspiracy theory person, I do believe whitewashing was ushered in during the era of political correctness with a political agenda. Someone, somewhere has contemplated and derived at the idiotic idea that a construction of a mythical history is warranted, that the melting pot, the color-blind society is less costly and advantageous to society at large. So rather than discuss race, some would rather take the question of race and race matters off the table. Why must liberty for some come at the price of living a lie? Language nor historical facts are changed when dealing with people of Jewish decent. Pretending something never existed is a moral outrage. Why are African Americans required to tear out pages from their history books? The venomous bite, can prove to be just as painful if not more deadly than the poison. Both I’m told are toxic and can immobilize. Therefore, if one is lead to believe one’s history was not that horrific, then certainly, the victim can easily and unknowingly becomes complicit in transgressions against humanity. Progress requires courage and honesty. As painful as it may be, we must embrace our history, discuss what’s painful so that we may heal and make America as good as its promise.
    As for the question, who will lead the discussion? Every day people should lead such discussions. Lead it because humans deserve better.
    I enjoyed the blog. Thank you.

  • michael smith

    I completely agree with this article and its sad that our schools don’t even teach the kids about america’s real past . Whats the most frustrating to me is we have a black prez know and i haven’t herd him say one thing on the topic of inequality i think we all know it would be a career ending speech for him if he gave it but leaders lead no matter the consequences …

  • cara w.

    As a young person 23 years in age growing up in America, Los Angeles, Ca in particular my perspective on who and what I am is everything but equal to my white counterpart. Its very obvious that society in this day and time overlooks what is in plain sight the injustices done to people of color. Its almost a joke. I mean really you have got to be kidding me.

  • D.s.

    I do believe there is still racism and injustices being done to us (blacks), but other races of color (red, yellow, brown) as well. We need to stop focusing on just us (blacks) and include other races in discussions of racism. We are the biggest minority group. There are minority groups that make up less than 1% of the population. Are we that selfish? I think that black community helps breed racism. Just look at Halle Berry’s recent statement about apologizing for marrying outside her race. That is just an irresponsible statement from someone having that much influence. Obama should talk about racism, but he, just like every other politician, only cares about getting reelected. He promised many things when he was running for president, now has not come through on many – although he has seem some promises through. But, all those promises he made were made to get him in office. And, he wants to stay in office, so for the next 2 years while he campaigns, he won’t do anything too controversial if it will jeopardize his presidency. Come on, do good for the nation, not just yourself.
    Sidenote: I refer to us as blacks, not African-American, to include those from africa, caribbean, and black-hispanics, etc. It’s racist to just call all blacks African-american… so many blacks are left out in that category.

  • torrance stephens

    Well said scholar, we have gone from From Buckley to Bachmann

  • Dino

    Truth as I understand it involves stating facts as opposed to interpreting events.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 10:48 am