The United States of America is a country that exists today in large part because of the genocide of roughly 55 million people indigenous to this continent, as well as the enslavement of at least 4.4 million kidnapped or trafficked Africans.
The Constitution authored by a few dozen white enslavers counted Black people as 3/5ths of a human being, did not allow women to vote or hold political office, and, truly, only enumerated rights for white property-owning men.
The DNA of these real historic facts is woven into the fabric of our society, our laws, and indeed our founding documents. This is our reality, and, like it or not, if we don’t tell the truth about our country’s origin, we can never truly right the wrongs of the past and advance the project of forming a more perfect Union.
As the national conversation around teaching racism in school rages on, perpetuated by opportunistic right-wing talk show hosts and slimy, cynical political operatives, we should remember that we in Colorado already had this debate, and the outcome was decisive.
In 2015, an enormous number of Jefferson County School students and parents relentlessly protested and then recalled, by an unprecedented two-to-one margin, the conservative school board majority over their whitewashing of advanced placement United States History curriculum.
Julie Williams, one of the conservative board members who was recalled, proposed a syllabus that “promoted American Exceptionalism and discouraged social strife.” Students and parents rallied on every inch of Wadsworth Boulevard holding signs that said “US history, not BS history,” and “our public schools, not your national agenda.” #JeffcoSchoolBoardHistory went viral, with people across the country posting parodies of famous historical events, and the rest is, well, history.
That debate was the canary in the coal mine for the conversation we’re having about teaching the truth about American history today. But now, vastly white parents hopped up on a steady diet of Tucker Carlson and Facebook memes are actually demanding that school boards whitewash history. How things have changed.
So why are so many people so scared of telling the truth about our history that they would fill the airwaves, social media feeds, and the inches of [The Denver Post] with lies and exaggerations about something they’re calling “Critical Race Theory,” which is not taught in history classes in Colorado public schools?
Is it really because they don’t want white school kids to feel bad about the many sins committed by the founding fathers of this nation? Or is it something more sinister?
This attempt to prevent the teaching of real, true history and its consequences exposes the fact that the country is still racist and sexist. We have certainly come a long way, but there is so obviously much more work to do.
Slavery in the Americas lasted from 1619 until the end of the Civil War in 1865. That’s 246 years. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, which was only 57 years ago. It’s going to take a lot longer to reverse and erase the stains of racism than one-quarter of the time human beings were enslaved and sold like livestock on this continent.
Thomas Jefferson, who enslaved over 600 human beings, said the Constitution needed a Bill of Rights in addition to its original enumerations. He famously advocated, “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.” Except for women, and Black people.
This is the central American paradox. How can a country so obviously and demonstrably founded on racism, sexism, oppression, enslavement, murder, rape and theft have any credibility when discussing freedom, equality, liberty and justice for all? Does this immeasurable hypocrisy mean that America is irredeemably bigoted and that we are destined to live out our citizenship in the shadow of insincere, sanctimonious pretense?
No. In fact, acknowledging, discussing, and learning the truth about this nation’s founding is a challenge we should all accept as Americans in the 21st Century. Learning from our true history is the only way to truly, eventually, actually secure liberty and justice for all. We must work every day to achieve the vision laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and to not rest until it is done, despite the fact that the authors of those documents did not live up to their own principles.
To pretend that we have achieved legal and social equality for all Americans is to continue to perpetuate the hypocrisy of our founders, and desecrate the memories of the civil rights heroes who sacrificed life, limb, and liberty to get us this far. Which, to be clear, is a big improvement from where we started in 1776.
We were not all equal under the law at the time of the country’s founding, nor are we now, despite the fact that things have gotten significantly better for a large and increasing number of people.
The passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery has an exception, still, to this day for, “punishment for crime.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, but, in practice, white people in this country still enjoy advantages, opportunities, and yes, privilege, not conferred onto people of color.
Men still enjoy demonstrably more economic and entrepreneurial opportunities than women. Heterosexual and cisgender people have it easier than queer and transgender or nonbinary people, especially as the right-wing continues, for political expediency, to target LGBTQ folks who want to play sports, use restrooms, get married, adopt children, or just live their lives like the rest of us.
Conversations about racism aren’t designed to hurt anyone’s feelings or make anyone feel guilty for things they didn’t do. But refusing to discuss racism damns us to continue perpetuating it. Any patriotic American teacher, student, or parent who truly wants to undo racism’s terrible legacy in the United States would do well to act more like those who kicked out the Jeffco School Board majority in 2015 than the unmasked and unvaccinated throngs storming school board meetings demanding ignorance, insisting that students be taught lies, and manufacturing a fairytale of America’s founding today.
Ours is a complicated country with a terrible past, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to live up to the principles and vision of our founders, even if they were incapable of doing so themselves.
Ian Silverii is the founder of The Bighorn Company, a dad, a husband, and the former director of ProgressNow Colorado. Follow him on Twitter @iansilverii.
This opinion originally appeared in The Denver Post.