America is plagued by a chronic misunderstanding of slavery and white supremacy

A recent study from the Southern Poverty Law Center traces our ignorance to our schools, and provides a path to solving this problem.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Several years ago, a group of students at Texas Tech University fanned out across their Lubbock campus and asked classmates three simple questions: “Who won the Civil War?,” “Who is our Vice President?,” and “Who did we gain our independence from?”

Like a skit on a late-night show, the college students’ answers were stunningly uninformed, spanning from “the South” in response to the first question to “I have no idea” as an answer to all of the questions.

To be perfectly blunt about it, far too many Americans are shockingly ignorant of history, a fact that is exacerbated by an unwillingness to learn the true story of how white supremacy shaped the founding and development of the nation.


Earlier this year, in an effort to address and correct the miseducation of U.S. schoolchildren, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), released a year-long study that will hopefully point the way toward better informing future generations of students about American history.

The study’s report, Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, found that many school kids don’t know the history of slavery in America because it’s either not been taught to them in school — or, when it is taught, it’s inaccurately portrayed to support false narratives which glorify white Americans’ views of themselves. The consequence of this type of miseducation has been to produce generation after generation of students who graduate with a fundamental misunderstanding of how and why racial disparities and antagonisms exist today. As the report’s executive summary makes clear:

Slavery’s long reach continues into the present day. The persistent and wide socioeconomic and legal disparities that African Americans face today and the backlash that seems to follow every African-American advancement trace their roots to slavery and its aftermath. If we are to understand the world today, we must understand slavery’s history and continuing impact.

For its report, the SPLC surveyed U.S. high school seniors and social studies teachers during the 2017 academic year, reviewed a selection of state history-content standards, and reviewed 10 popular U.S. history textbooks. The study found:

  • High school seniors struggle to answer the most basic questions about slavery: only 8 percent could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War; fewer than one in four could correctly identify how provisions in the Constitution advantaged slaveowners.
  • While teachers are serious about teaching slavery, they don’t know enough themselves to adequately address the subject in the classroom. Fifty-eight percent of teachers said their textbooks were inadequate on the subject.
  • Popular textbooks fail to provide comprehensive coverage. The best textbook achieved a score of 70 percent against what the SPLC deemed should be taught; the average textbook score was 46 percent.
  • States don’t set high expectations for teaching about slavery. “In a word, the standards are timid,” the report stated, noting that of the 15 state standards analyzed, none addressed how the ideology of white supremacy justified slavery.

Hasan Kwame Jefferies, an associate history professor at Ohio State University and chair of the advisory board to the study, wrote in the introduction to the report that understanding slavery is critical to comprehending racial inequality in 2018. “The formal and informal barriers to equal rights erected after emancipation, which defined the parameters of the color line for more than a century, were built on a foundation constructed during slavery,” he wrote.


In an interview, Jefferies told me schools that fail to accurately and comprehensively teach slavery by weaving them into history lessons at every grade level, are “committing educational malpractice.”

“They’re sending young people out into the world without the tools and education they need to survive,” Jefferies said.

For that reason, black and white Americans often struggle to make sense of the maddening onslaught of racist outrages contained within the average parade of news and social media postings; and they fail to imagine the straight-line path from our nation’s slave-owning past to contemporary racial challenges such as persistent housing discrimination, unjustified surveillance and arrests of black shoppers, and the sort of senseless, near-daily indignities faced by black people in America — such as the recent police interrogation to which napping black student at Yale University was needlessly subjected.

To be sure, the frequency with which these disturbing stories come and — just as quickly — evaporate, makes it easy for people to dismiss the often hyperbolic headlines they engender, chalking them up as one-off occurrences which are certainly not representative of the larger pattern of American life.

But Jefferies says that the average American’s ignorance of the history of slavery and white supremacy is what make these misunderstandings a part of their everyday life.


“It’s important to recognize that one of the legacies, if not the chief legacy, of slavery is the believe in white superiority,” he told me. “Stringent policing, white fears of black criminality and reacting with trepidation, and the misguided notions that black people are out of their place – that’s white supremacy, and we have slavery to thank for that.”

The report, however, did more than criticize current practices. It also offered a practical roadmap for educators, policy makers, political leaders and, even, students and their parents to follow that promises to improve the nation’s knowledge of its history. A panel of scholars and education experts developed an outline of what every graduating high school senior should know about slavery. Among the panel’s suggestions:

  • Improve instruction about American slavery and fully integrate it into U.S. history curricula.
  • Use original historical documents to teach the issue, instead of relying on the usual narratives.
  • Improve textbooks so that they convey the realities of slavery throughout the colonies and make clear the connections — good and bad —to contemporary issues, showing the enduring contributions of slaves to U.S. culture as well as the lasting impact of racial oppression.
  • Strengthen curriculum by urging state education boards to demand greater accountability of local school districts to improve history education.

So just how much do you know about slavery? Think you can do better than the college students in Texas? The SPLC report contains a 45-question test to challenge Americans about their historical knowledge. Try it, but odds are you’ll be dismayed by how few of the answers you get correct.