“Patriotic” American History Only Celebrates Whiteness

This op-ed argues that patriotic American history taught in schools erases students of color.
Davy Crockett statue at memorial to the Alamo in San Antonio Texas
Robert Alexander

The year I turned seven, I became a great admirer of Davy Crockett.

My first-grade class had spent days learning about the Battle of the Alamo, the famous conflict in Texas’ fight for independence from Mexico, and our assignment was to give a presentation on our favorite soldier from the battle. I was a comic nerd and Crockett, clad in a coonskin cap with a rifle slung over his shoulder, reminded me of a superhero. Like Superman, Crockett seemed to represent everything good about America. He was brave, principled, and stood up for what he believed. When I gave my presentation to the class, I proudly reported he had continued fighting in the face of death, even when surrounded by the Mexican army.

I resented the Mexicans for selfishly fighting to keep Texas for themselves. I hated them for their cruelty to the Texans, who only wanted freedom for their families. I hated the Mexicans, even though while flipping through the pages of my textbook I saw that their faces looked just like mine. And so I was shocked when one of my white classmates accused my people of murdering Davy Crockett and stealing the Alamo. I couldn’t make sense of it: I was Mexican, yes, but didn’t my classmate know I was on his side? Hadn’t we all learned that the “settlers” were justified in their fight for independence? And that the Mexicans were the villains?

His jab stuck with me for days. The story of the Alamo was meant to make me proud of Texas, but instead, it left me feeling confused, invisible. I wondered if there was anything about my history worth being proud of — or was patriotism only about celebrating whiteness?

As students head back to school, many are entering classrooms with new mandates on patriotic education. Nearly a year after former President Trump created the short-lived 1776 Commission to promote a “pro-American” curriculum, at least eight states have passed laws that ban lessons exploring the United States’ history of systemic racism and oppression, with some conservatives claiming they indoctrinate children with anti-American sentiments. In total, 22 states have either passed laws or plan to consider similar legislation. Many lawmakers have taken aim at school lessons involving critical race theory, an academic framework that acknowledges the central role of systemic racism in U.S. history and which educators have pointed out is not being taught in K-12 schools. The common theme of these new laws and bans is the erasure of history that reports truthfully on the racist origins of the United States.

In Texas, conservative leaders went a step further this summer in crafting the 1836 Project, an advisory committee designed to promote patriotic education in public spaces such as parks and government buildings. State leaders from across the country have decided it’s better that young people maintain a fairy-tale image of American history rather than engage with its foundation in the enslavement of African people and genocide against Indigenous populations. One example: Figures like my one-time hero Davy Crockett were motivated, in part, to fight for independence from Mexico to preserve the institution of slavery in Texas.

As I discovered when I was a child, patriotic education is about celebrating whiteness at the expense of students of color, whose stories of resistance to white supremacy are often left out of textbooks and classroom lessons. What this creates, explains Lilliana Saldaña, associate professor and Mexican American studies program coordinator at the University of Texas at San Antonio, are generations of students who have been traumatized by their education. “It's a form of cultural and epistemic violence,” notes Dr. Saldaña. “[It] sends a message to Black and brown youth that their histories don't matter — and worse, that they don’t have a history.”

Throughout my schooling, I struggled to find spaces that celebrated Latinx culture. Token gestures like Hispanic Heritage Month felt like a pitiful consolation prize in a game I wasn’t even aware I’d been playing. By high school, I could still recount in detail the story of the Alamo, but I couldn’t name a single fact about the farmworkers’ movement In California, or journalist Jovita Idár, who, in the newspaper El Progreso, chronicled the violence perpetrated by the Texas Rangers against ethnic Mexicans.

My story isn’t unique. Generations of students have experienced traumatizing miseducation in the service of patriotism. After the Civil War, schoolhouses across the South propagated lessons about “the Lost Cause,” false narratives designed to inspire Confederate pride. These lessons taught that enslaved people were treated kindly by their masters and that the infringement of states’ rights by the federal government, rather than slavery, was the primary cause of the war. Saldaña explains that this kind of systemic miseducation is not coincidental. Lawmakers want schooling that will “maintain their power status quo,” she says. “They want a system that reproduces white supremacy in every social realm.” Beyond inflicting trauma and historical illiteracy, patriotic education ensures that oppressed communities do not gain knowledge of their political power or their ancestors’ stories of resistance to racial and socio-economic subjugation.

I wanted a hero when I discovered Davy Crockett. I wanted to know that there was someone who could deliver me from all that was unjust in the world. The stories students are told of Crockett — like those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the nation’s other founders — would have them believe deliverance lies in the hands of their oppressors.

Students shouldn’t have to wait until they grow up to discover, as I did, that liberation is already a part of us — in our ancestors and in our histories.

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