History and Racial Identity in an Urban High School

Terrie Epstein, December 2001

Many readers remember the culture wars of the 1990s as a time when professors and politicians debated how concepts like democracy and racial diversity should be represented in public school history curricula and classrooms. At the time, most commentators paid little attention to how teachers and students in public schools thought about the nation's legacies of citizenship rights and race relations. Although the culture wars have subsided, millions of teachers and students continue to go to school each day, carrying into and out of classrooms their own perspectives on the meanings and significance of democracy and racial diversity in national history. Educational researchers are beginning to investigate how children, adolescents, and teachers interpret the nation's history, as well as to explore how markers of social identities like race, gender, or nationality influence young people's perspectives on the past.

Between 1993 and 1999, several graduate students and I conducted a study on the effects of young people's racialized identities and teachers' pedagogies on fifth, eighth, and eleventh graders' interpretations of U.S. history. The urban deindustrialized Midwestern community in which we conducted the research had a 53 percent European American ("white") and 45 percent African American ("black") student population. We interviewed the teacher, five black and five white students in each of two fifth-grade, two eighth-grade, and two eleventh-grade classrooms, for a total of 60 students and 6 teachers (all of whom were white) across three grade levels.

To elicit young people's historical perspectives, we gave each eighth and eleventh grader 50 pictures of historical actors and events and asked the student to select and explain the 20 most important (we asked fifth graders to explain a set of 15 historical actors and events). The selections included traditional actors and events (George Washington, the Civil War), those related to social and technological change (immigration, inventions), and those related to African American history (slave rebellions, African Americans in World War II). The collection enabled students to construct a range of interpretations and by having them complete the task at the beginning and end of the year, we were able to assess the effects of instruction on students' perspectives.

In previous articles on the 11th graders, I have shown that at the beginning and end of the year, white and black students constructed competing perspectives on race relations and citizenship rights in U.S. history.1 White students interpreted the American past as a place in which white people explored and settled new lands, expropriated Native Americans, created a democratic nation, freed enslaved African Americans, welcomed and were enriched by immigrants and initiated scientific and technological discoveries. They also attributed the impact of events on some or all whites as universally applicable or as the only significant effect. For example, in explaining the significance of 19th-century Native American tribes, students noted that "whites" or "the government" unjustly removed Native Americans from their lands. The same students, however, never associated Native American dispossession with the westward migration of European Americans, a process that they explained as having opened up opportunities for "people" or "Americans."

White students' interpretations of the experiences of African Americans reflected to an even greater degree a specific historical perspective. Most referred to African Americans only within the contexts of enslavement and the Civil Rights movement and depicted blacks as historical subjects only in relation to the Civil Rights movement. Slavery was a time when "black people were slaves" or "black people had to do the work for other people." The Civil Rights movement represented an era when "black people wanted or stood up for their rights," the effects of which led to the desegregation of public facilities and to the equality which blacks enjoy today. In addition, white students rarely mentioned whites or racism as obstacles to black freedom and equality and considered only "Southerners" to have been the dominant actors in racial oppression.

White students also painted a picture of a progressive nation-state in which government actors or actions more frequently dismantled rather than maintained racist policies and practices. The American Revolution represented the beginning of a nation that granted freedom and equal rights, the Bill of Rights guaranteed individual rights to Americans past and present, Abraham Lincoln and whites in the North freed enslaved African Americans, the melting pot metaphor symbolized late 19th-century immigration, and only segregated southern states denied black rights. White students also identified personally with a positive national identity. Several, for example, defined the Bill of Rights as having "given us our rights," the American Revolution as a war in which "we became our own country," and/or world wars as conflicts in which "we fought the Germans."

Black 11th graders constructed a historical narrative in which white people explored and settled new lands; kidnapped, enslaved, and beat Africans and their descendants; established a democratic nation for whites only; expanded slavery; exploited Native Americans; segregated emancipated African Americans; bestowed freedom and jobs upon immigrants at the expense of blacks; and resisted or participated in the Civil Rights movement. Africans of different ethnicities were taken from their homelands and forced into slavery; they and their descendants worked for whites without payment, suffered abuse and rebelled against slavery, fought in wars and made discoveries without recognition, and migrated from the South to the North for greater opportunity. Black people stood up for themselves during the Civil Rights movement, the effects of which led to greater black power and pride. About half of the black students said that they constructed national narratives organized almost exclusively around the experiences of blacks because history teachers and textbooks marginalized black history and credited whites for the discoveries that black people had made.

Black students also interpreted the nation-state as an entity that more frequently created and perpetuated rather than dismantled racist policies and practices. The evolving nation guaranteed freedom for whites only, expropriated and killed millions of Native Americans, enslaved and segregated African Americans, drafted but did not recognize black servicemen, and generally found ways to "keep black people down." The students identified with black leaders and experiences rather than with a larger democratically inspired national identity. This was especially evident in explanations of the Bill of Rights and the Civil Rights movement. As one young woman explained, "the Bill of Rights sounds good when you read it, but it didn't relate to black people." Similarly, several black students explained the Civil Rights movement as a time when "black people wouldn't let white people walk all over us."

The two white teachers who taught the 11th graders had little effect on their students' perspectives on the past. Although the teachers had different pedagogical styles-one relied on lectures and recitation and the other on discussion and inquiry-they both taught history from a revisionist perspective, similar to that of the National Standards in United States History.2 At the end of the year, white students included more content related to African American experiences than they had at the beginning of the year and black students included more references to nation-building events. But the perspectives of neither group of students changed substantively by the end of the year. White students still imagined a historical community in which mostly white people populated a nation that progressively extended economic opportunities and political rights to the entire populace. Black students still perceived a place characterized by a majority white population that terrorized nonwhites and a government that maintained racial hierarchies up to and through the present.

Racial group differences also extended to the adolescents' views of the credibility of secondary historical sources. When asked to rank order the credibility of a range of sources, white students selected history textbooks, history teachers,
and library books as the three most reputable. They said that history teachers and textbook authors were credible because they had gone to college and studied the subject. Black students selected family members, black teachers, and documentaries/videos by or about black people. They thought that traditional teachers and textbooks represented "white people's history" and the only time that they included blacks was when black people had something to do with white people's history. Family members and other black adults were trustworthy because elders and others passed down "what really happened" in the past.

Although research based on data from two high school classes can't be generalized to other classrooms or communities, there are numerous historical and social scientific studies that document the critical perspectives that African American have held and continue to hold on the nation's past and present. In articles and presentations, I have suggested that teachers in classrooms of similarly minded students should employ the concept of racial hierarchy to explain the simultaneous processes of increasing rights and opportunities for European immigrants and their ancestors and changing forms of race-bound restrictions for people of color. 3 The use of racial hierarchy as a conceptual frame can relate to white students' perspectives on the overall expansion of rights throughout the nation's development, as well as connect to the black students' perspectives that although the forms of racism have changed and been attenuated through time, its purposes and effects still operate today.

In presentations to teachers in training and teacher educators, however, the idea of organizing course content around the concept of racial hierarchy has satisfied few members of my audiences. The preservice and student teachers with whom I work find my suggestion too vague and worry that teaching more or differently about race relations in history works against the pressures placed on teachers to present more traditional content in preparation for standardized tests in U.S. history. The teacher educators who share my political perspective see the "cacophony of student perspectives" as a healthy manifestation of good teaching and learning, but offer no direction for negotiating contentious race-related discussions in public schools. Those who hold traditional visions of the national past find the term "racial hierarchy" offensive. One white retired New York City teacher, for example, who worked as a college supervisor, disciplined a Puerto Rican student teacher for presenting the Bill of Rights as a racist document. Such incendiary teaching, the supervisor warned, is in itself racist and serves to alienate further the black and Latino students who populate city classrooms.

As readers are aware, there are no easy or definitive solutions to teaching about or discussing race relations in history or contemporary society, especially in racially and ethnically diverse classrooms. But at the very least, research on the relationship between students' racial/ethnic identities and their constructions of the national past should be as much a part of a history teacher's repertoire as is the knowledge of the subject matter itself. My hope is that the findings presented here provoke discussion about how to teach national history in ways which reflect, respect, and broaden all students' understandings of their nation's historical legacies, especially as they relate to concepts like democracy and racial diversity. Otherwise, debates about teaching the nation's past in public schools will continue to be based on political rather than pedagogical interests.

—Terrie Epstein is an assistant professor of education at Hunter College of the City University of New York. The book she is writing based on the research discussed in this article is entitled Nation Narrations: Race and the Formation of Historical Interpretation in an Urban Community.

Notes

1. The articles include "Deconstructing Differences in African American and European American Adolescents' Perspectives on U.S. History," Curriculum Inquiry 28: 4 (summer 1998), 397-423, and "Adolescents' Perspectives on Racial Diversity in U. S. History: Case Studies from an Urban Classroom," American Educational Research Journal 37: 1 (Summer 2000), 185-214.

2. National Center for History in the Schools, National Standards in United States History: Exploring the American Experience (Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, 1994).

3. See Thomas Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Michael and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge Press, 1994); and Rogers Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).