Last Friday, September 4, the President issued a memorandum, a directive, through the Executive Office of the President. Worded with some care to obscure its purpose, the memorandum instructs “…Federal agencies [to] cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund these divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions…related to any training on ‘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.” The memo indicated that “more detailed guidance” will be coming. The memorandum was issued on Friday afternoon with the intent to bury it in the deluge of weekend news over Labor Day.
Then, three days later at a news conference on Labor Day, Trump threatened to withhold federal education money from states that use The 1619 Project as part of their U.S. history curriculum. The 1619 Project, published last year in the New York Times Magazine, marks the 400th anniversary of arrival of the first enslaved Africans in at Point Comfort, Virginia, and traces the intertwining of slavery in the history of the following four centuries. It is a fascinating and enlightening read that filled in a huge gap in my historical understanding.
The two events taken together, the release of the Friday Memorandum attempting to root out diversity training from federal agencies coupled with Trump’s funding threat focused on The 1619 Project three days later, are Trump’s (and Steven Miller’s?) gross attempt to take control of the narrative, to re-write history in a form more to their liking. Precisely when many Americans are awakening to a clearer understanding of past injustices and to our need to live up to the lofty promises of our founding documents, precisely when peaceful Americans have taken to the streets to protest the systemic oppression of people of color, precisely now, Trump chooses to ring racist alarm bells by wielding the power of his executive office to turn back the clock, assailing our growing and more honest understanding of our past.
This is a Trump theme: when Trump doesn’t like something he doesn’t argument against it, he attacks the very fundamentals on which it rests in an effort to turn back the clock to a time he must feel is friendlier to his understanding. Disagree about global warming? Remove funding for the agencies that make the measurements that keep us informed. Disagree about systemic racism? Attack the basic understanding of our history.
Our perceptions of history do not change overnight; they are the product of decades of concerted effort, study, fact-finding, and reanalysis. It took decades of fundraising, planning, and cajoling for southern socialites to establish the narrative of The Lost Cause and embed it as the history of the Civil War taught in U.S. schools for more than a century. Similarly, it has taken decades of research, writing, and development to reach the current that Trump now calls “propaganda.”
Case in point: the development of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), a part of the Smithsonian Institution. NMAAHC opened on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2016. The idea for this museum can be traced to a group of African-American veterans of the Union Army who met in D.C. in 1915. Three quarters of century later, in 1988, U. S. Reps. John Lewis and Mickey Leland first introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress to go forward with the development and building of such a free standing museum as part of the Smithsonian Institution. Fourteen years later, in 2001, after multiple re-introductions, the bill was passed with bipartisan support by Congress and signed into law by George W. Bush. The 2001 law set in motion the efforts that culminated in the opening of the museum in 2016. (For more on this extraordinary example of persistence I recommend reading the “History” section of the wikipedia article on NMAAHC.) It would be hard for me to overstate the power of the narrative presented in this museum. The story is told through artifacts interwoven with written materials, video, and accounts of individual people. The tour of African American history starts four stories below ground level with a presentation of culture on the African continent as it existed four hundred years ago. Rising through those four hundred years of history took me two days.
I don’t believe Mr. Trump would give the museum five minutes. An in-depth visit would challenge his fixed ideas of social order. It should surprise no one that last July Mr. Trump did not attend the funeral of John Lewis, civil rights leader, supporter of the museum, and Representative from Georgia’s 5th District for 33 years. To have attended would have been a nod to all the good that John Lewis stood for.
Trump, likely aided by Steven Miller, attempted over Labor Day weekend to turn back the evolving understanding of African-American history that rests on more than a hundred years of scholarship, scholarship Trump and Miller wish to deny by excising it as “propaganda.” Of all the things that happened over Labor Day weekend Trump’s effort to turn back this clock was the most fundamental and most disturbing.
As we try to move forward toward a better America we would do well to remember that voting in our current politics is like driving a car: Select D for Democrat to go forward, R for Republican to go backward.
I hope I live long enough to look back at the Trump presidency as a mere dent in Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe.
Keep to the high ground,