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Trump blames protests on "radical" lessons about slavery, racism

Justin Sink and Josh Wingrove
Bloomberg

President Donald Trump on Thursday denounced school curricula that emphasize the impact of slavery and racism on American history and blamed “left-wing indoctrination” for nationwide protests against police brutality.

“Patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country,” Trump said in a speech at the National Archives in Washington.

The president claimed U.S. schoolchildren are taught that the U.S. was “founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom” and that they should “feel ashamed of their own history,” a curriculum he called “radical.”

President Donald Trump speaks to the White House conference on American History at the National Archives museum, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Washington.

The event is the latest effort by Trump to rally his core supporters, who are disproportionately white, ahead of the November election. He trails Democrat Joe Biden in polls, and he has tried to make his demands for “law and order” amid sometimes violent national protests over racism and police brutality a central issue in the campaign.

The president on Thursday criticized as “toxic propaganda” the “1619 Project,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning public school curriculum developed by the New York Times that orients American history from the date that the first slave ship arrived in what later became the U.S. He equated certain racial teachings with “child abuse” and argued that the focus on historical sins threatened “to impose a new segregation.”

President Donald Trump speaks to the White House conference on American History at the National Archives museum, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Washington. Trump denounced school curricula that emphasize the impact of slavery and racism on American history and blamed “left-wing indoctrination” for nationwide protests against police brutality.

Trump announced he would soon create a “1776 Commission” in an apparent effort to rebut the 1619 Project. The commission will “promote patriotic education,” Trump said.

Earlier this month, Trump tweeted that the Department of Education would cut off federal funding to California schools if they adopted the 1619 curriculum. Trump has repeatedly said that what he considers political correctness shouldn’t obscure acknowledgment of American exceptionalism.

The president announced during his speech – part of the first-ever White House Conference on American History – that he would include a statue of Declaration of Independence signatory Caesar Rodney in his planned “National Garden of American Heroes.”

He announced the garden in July amid national controversies over the removal of Confederate statues in cities across America. The statue of Rodney, a Delaware slaveholder, was removed from a park in Biden’s hometown of Wilmington.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson smiles as President Donald Trump speaks to the White House conference on American History at the National Archives Museum, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Washington.

Academic Movement

Trump also assailed critical race theory, an academic movement that gained a foothold in the 1980s and suggests that unequal outcomes for racial groups are the result of racist power structures. U.S. racial divisions and how they are addressed by politicians and the government have come under new scrutiny since the May killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by Minneapolis police. His death prompted months of demonstrations around the country.

The administration issued a memo Sept. 4 banning federal agencies from conducting racial sensitivity training that considers “critical race theory, white privilege, or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”

Trump and other top administration officials have said they don’t believe that systemic racism exists, and have argued that curricula like the 1619 Project provide an unduly dark vision of America’s founding.

“They want you to believe that America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said during a July speech in Washington.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, who developed the 1619 project, said earlier this week that she rejected criticism that her effort was divisive. The president’s criticism was heightening awareness that slavery began so early in the American colonies, she said.

“That has been treated as an obscure date that most Americans never learn,” Hannah-Jones said at the Texas Tribune Festival. “Ultimately, I wanted us to force an acknowledgment of the presence of slavery as early as 1619.”

She also noted on Twitter ahead of the president’s speech that no Black historians were participating in Thursday’s White House conference. Trump’s Housing and Urban Development secretary – former neurosurgeon Ben Carson – appeared to be the only person of color on a panel that included a number of white conservative scholars and activists.

University Plans

Universities have announced their own plans to encourage scholarship on race and support Black students and faculty.

Arizona State University said this month it is creating 25 initiatives, including adding a new bachelor of arts degree in race, culture and democracy. The University of Chicago’s English Department in the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle is accepting only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies.

“We understand Black Studies to be a capacious intellectual project that spans a variety of methodological approaches, fields, geographical areas, languages, and time periods,” the English Department said on its website.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris accused the president of “spending full time in a different reality,” in an interview with CNN earlier this month.

“I don’t think that most reasonable people who are paying attention to the facts would dispute that there are racial disparities and a system that has engaged in racism in terms of how the laws have been enforced,” Harris said. “It does us no good to deny that.”