Some 250 years after the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal,” and almost 60 years after Martin Luther King dreamed that his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” the federal government announced it wants to teach American children that they are not equal, and that skin color does matter.
Under the misleading name of “anti-racism,” the Department of Education has proposed to direct federal funds to the teaching of racial discrimination in America’s elementary and secondary school systems—to encourage students to identify and to treat others differently according to race.
The Department of Education’s newly proposed rule is meant to reframe the teaching of American history around oppression and encourage students to see each other first as members of racial groups. The proposed rule instructs teachers to “take into account systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history.” Rather than teaching good history—history that is accurate and honest, perhaps even unifying and inspiring—it proposes making history an ideological tool for a political narrative: your country is hopelessly racist.
This inaccurate account of American history can be disproven by the facts. The events of U.S. history and the writings, sentiments and actions of America’s Founders are well recorded and easily accessible. Our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, asserts that human equality is fundamentally about freedom from oppression, not its perpetuation. Yes, the framers of the Constitution made practical compromises concerning the existence of slavery, but they did so because they saw the Constitution—informed by the Declaration—as the best vehicle for ending it.
American history has great flaws, and the brutal inhumanity of slavery is its worst, but the American story is driven by its principles—not its imperfections. That is why the proposition that all men are created equal, which planted the seeds of emancipation in America, is the foundation of our republic.
The work of the 1776 Commission, established by the Trump administration, was to remind Americans of this story. A new print edition of the 1776 Report includes extensive footnotes and endnotes referring to historical documents and scholarship that corroborate this history and show its general and widespread acceptance among mainstream historians.
There is another reason that the proposed DOE rule is wrong: it teaches students to view themselves and each other according to race. The proposed rule tells teachers to “Support the creation of learning environments that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, and experiences of all students.” This might sound innocuous, but it is deeply harmful in practice. It places students’ race at the center of the classroom, and the forefront of their minds.
Is this not the very definition of racism—to judge and treat people according to the color of their skin? Rather than teaching American students that they are endowed equally with rights—and united as citizens by a common dedication to the great principle of equality—we are going to teach them that they are members of oppressed or oppressor classes inherently in conflict with each other. And this is going to improve America’s education system?
The 1776 Commission submitted a comment objecting to the Department of Education’s proposed rule and, after its meeting last week, issued a statement condemning racism in classroom content and called for “a genuine civics education that will rebuild our common bonds, our mutual friendship, and our civic devotion.”
Those bonds, and that friendship and devotion, will come from teaching our young citizens the truth upon which American is founded—human equality—not racist ideologies that divide us as a people and encourage discrimination and hatred.
Matthew Spalding served as executive director of the 1776 Commission and is Hillsdale College’s Dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government and Vice President for its Washington, D.C. Operations at the Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship. He is author of We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.