Review of ‘Teaching White Supremacy’ by Donald Yacovone


In “Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity,” Donald Yacovone makes it clear that the deliberate creation of white supremacy has kept inequity alive for Black people in America. Tracing the development of this repressive system from before the Civil War to the present day, he chronologically lays out the systemic assembly of structural racism. White supremacy was, he shows, baked into history, as available as water and as consistent as cries for liberty.

In 1701, during America’s embryonic state, John Saffin was a prominent Massachusetts judge. Saffin claimed, Yacovone writes, that “God had set ‘different Orders and Degrees of Men in the World’ and that any idea of universal equality would ‘invert the order that God had set.’” This pronouncement immediately preceded the introduction of representative government and slavery in Virginia. According to Yacovone, this idea of “different orders and degrees for men in the world” would solidify the American ideology of racial inferiority and define who would be welcomed into citizenship.

As Yacovone shows, while slavery and racism are largely attributable to the South, the North also played a critical role in both institutions, albeit via a different channel. While the South’s treatment of Blacks was obvious, the North’s subtle dismissiveness of Blacks as inferior also had lasting effects. Indeed, this dismissiveness and “enduring cultural binding force” of white supremacy would outlast the overt treatment of Blacks via slavery in the United States.

Yacovone outlines how the principles of white supremacy played a foundational role in the development of educational standards. Samuel Train Dutton, one of the most notable educators at the foundation of public education and the author of one of the originally circulated textbooks, the “Morse Speller,” wrote, “To the Caucasian race by reason of its physical and mental superiority, has been assigned the task of civilizing and enlightening the world.” This groundwork was laid and passed on by way of belief and bias to educators at all levels through textbooks and teacher preparation.

Yacovone further documents how the White South’s unwavering resistance to Reconstruction after the Civil War proved too heavy a burden for the North’s timid embrace of Emancipation. This, too, had educational ramifications: The ideas of white supremacy, seeded by the works of John H. Van Evrie, further influenced textbooks, contributing to the effort to promote a “vision of permanent national reunification.” The North’s quiet reception of notions of white supremacy set the stage for the tale to be told throughout schools, public documents and history.

Although there were opportunities before Reconstruction for Black students to learn about their own background, that story was too often treated not as American history generally but just a history of their people. Authors such as Elisha Mulford, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Hezekiah Butterworth and Charles Carelton Coffin were considered progressive because of their inclusion and depiction of enslaved Blacks. But their humanist presentation of people whom many had come to know as objects was ultimately drowned out by white-supremacy narratives in U.S. history and textbooks. “Lost Cause” dogma characterized Black Americans as lazy heathens, and those attitudes would dominate in textbooks — when Blacks weren’t left out of the telling of American history altogether.

The post-Reconstruction era allowed authors like John W. Burgess and William A. Dunning to once again present the stories and contributions of Blacks to America. The work of these scholars began shaping generations of students at all levels regarding race and history in the United States. Despite pervasive Jim Crow discrimination, Blacks in the early 1900s began to achieve some social and economic progress. With the support of prominent Black thinkers such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as the establishment of Black colleges and flourishing churches, Blacks gained an ability like never before to tell their stories, according to Yacovone.

Nevertheless, in the first half of the 20th century, textbooks, many of them written by abolitionists — who focused on what was wrong with America — were dismissed as dangerous agitation by many White Americans. In an anticipatory echo of more recent anger about critical race theory, the idea was that histories that sympathized with the enslaved would erase national memory of American achievements. Sadly, the generation born during this time are the people who taught and led many of today’s Americans.

Making your way through Yacovone’s history can be challenging. Reading page after page of documentation of the ideas that have demeaned and marginalized my existence proved exhausting for me. I found myself foolishly hoping for the part where Blacks are affirmed and our story matters, but it never came. Yet if all of this is hard to read, imagine how hard it is to live it.

As an educator today, I know that the proverbial knee of American white supremacy is on the neck of teachers across the country. In the final pages of the book, Yacovone offers some information for educators who want to teach diverse perspectives and embrace teaching the hard truths of America. I pray that the facts he lays out will be consumed by educators across the country and recycled into instruction for all.

Cecilia Robinson-Woods is the superintendent of Millwood Public Schools in Oklahoma City.

America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity

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