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What Happens When American Children Learn About Racism?

Americans have spent over 150 years arguing about what kind of history we should teach to our children. In “Schoolbook Nation,” a book that examines the history of conflicts over American curricula, historian Joseph Moreau noted that a variety of Americans have worried about the sky falling if the “wrong” versions of history were taught in our schools. Americans, as Moreau documented, were concerned about this in the 1870s, again in the 1920s and, as we’ve seen recently, they are still concerned today

One present source of tension is the question of whether and how we should teach children about racism, as well as other less rosy aspects of the nation’s history. Politicians, parents and other influential actors have strong and divided views about this. One side assumes that teaching a more critical version of history would be beneficial to our children and thus argue for adding more lessons critical of American history to curricula; the other side assumes that such lessons would be harmful and therefore argue that critical content should be banned from the classroom.

This, though, raises an important empirical question: What actually happens when we teach students critical lessons about American history? Or, put another way, what happens when American children learn about racism?

Social scientists have studied this question for years and found that, overall, there is a lot to be gained from schools teaching students about more challenging aspects of American history. For instance, in one field experiment conducted in high schools across the Chicago metropolitan area, University of Chicago political scientist Matthew Nelsen randomly assigned nearly 700 high schoolers to read different versions of history textbook segments and then measured what effect they had on students from different racial backgrounds. 

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Some students were assigned to read excerpts adapted from a widely-circulated history book that presents a relatively typical retelling of American history. Other students were assigned to read excerpts from a more critical history book that foregrounded “marginalized groups, systemic injustice and grassroots political action.” What happened to the students that read these different versions of history?

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

Political scientists are not the only ones finding results like this. Nelsen’s findings are consistent with a larger body of research conducted by a team of psychologists from Northwestern University, the University of Georgia and the University of Vermont. In their recent review of the literature on this topic, psychologist Sylvia Perry and her colleagues noted 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 point to studies showing, for example, that when white children learn about racism they are more likely to value racial fairness and show more positive attitudes and empathy toward Black people.

It’s hard not to look at these results and think — great! — if only our schools taught more critical histories of the U.S., it could improve how different racial groups interact with each other. But that’s not what’s happened in the last few years. In fact, there is currently an active push to restrict how race and racism are taught in schools: Between January 2021 and April 2022, almost 200 bills were introduced across the U.S. to ban the teaching of critical perspectives on the history of the United States.

Given the benefits of teaching a more critical version of American history, one might wonder why there is such active resistance to it. But perhaps, unsurprisingly, the answer to that lies within the very same findings I already presented. 

One way to summarize the research I’ve cited is that when American children are taught more challenging lessons about history, young people of color are inspired to become civically and politically engaged, and young white people gain greater appreciation for their fellow citizens 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 could end up feeling greater moral obligations to work together and help one another and, as such, become less tolerant of the social systems that maintain and reinforce inequality.

If you believe in the virtues of a multiracial 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 greater equity and justice in society might be heartwarming. But if you have a different set of beliefs, ones that are more oriented toward social dominance or a preference for hierarchy and inequality, then findings like the ones I’ve described might be the very kind of evidence that terrifies you.

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Consider that in a recent longitudinal study that followed over 2,600 white Americans over three years, New York University and University of Massachusetts Amherst psychologists Eric Knowles, Linda Tropp and Mao Mogami found that compared to white Democrats, white Republicans believed more strongly that minority groups would collude against white people, which could threaten their standing in society if white people did not band together to defend their ingroup interests.

To be sure, 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 paper that they have long been at the heart of debates about what history schools should teach. White Americans, for instance, have worried for some time now that teaching more critical history in our schools — lessons about racism and other forms of oppression — might cause the nation to lose some of its traditions, and could even lead to “reverse discrimination” against white Americans

In other words, one reason why so many white Americans, especially white Republicans, might be concerned about the effects of teaching children about racism — and are actively trying to ban such lessons from schools — is a fear about what this type of education might mean for their own power in society. Teaching about racism could lead to greater cross-race coalition building and the expansion of rights and opportunities for racial minorities to participate in key decision-making systems, but that idea is interpreted by some Americans as an existential threat.

This is the fear that’s lurking beneath the surface of debates about how to teach our nation’s history. Both sides of the debate seem to have beliefs that are aligned with the evidence: They believe, for instance, that teaching critical lessons about our nation’s history might change power dynamics in the U.S. For some, this is a good thing and something they want children to be taught. But for others, such lessons evoke a sense that they are, to use the language of University of Pennsylvania political communication scientist Diana Mutz, under siege by engines of change

Additional research from Nicholas Norton at the Cornell Law Library.

Neil Lewis Jr. is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University and the Division of General Internal Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.


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