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Opinion | The Backlash Against C.R.T. Shows That Republicans Are Losing Ground

Du Bois excoriates those historians for acting less as “scientists” in search of something like objective truth and more as propagandists for a social and economic order of segregation, violence and exploitation:

In order to paint the South as a martyr to inescapable fate, to make the North the magnanimous emancipator, and to ridicule the Negro as the impossible joke in the whole development, we have in fifty years, by libel, innuendo and silence, so completely misstated and obliterated the history of the Negro in America and his relation to its work and government that it is almost unknown.

Du Bois, by his own account, is “astonished” by the idea that the evil of history must be “forgotten, distorted, skimmed over.”

“We must forget,” he writes, “that George Washington was a slave owner, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children … and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring.” The difficulty with this approach, he continues, “is that history loses its value and incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.”

Du Bois, who studied at the University of Berlin with some of the most acclaimed scholars of his day and who was the first Black American to receive a doctorate from Harvard, believed that history should aspire to be something like a science. And if that was to be the case, “if the record of human action is going to be set down with that accuracy and faithfulness of detail which will allow its use as a measuring rod and guidepost for the future of nations,” then in his view, “there must be set some standards of ethics in research and interpretation.”

Du Bois’s view was that, when it came to Reconstruction and the “American Negro,” American historians had fallen far short of that ideal. Instead, they produced — for the consumption of both students and the general public — a history that cast Reconstruction as a “disgraceful attempt to subject white people to ignorant Negro rule.” Rather than treat history as “a science or as an art using the results of science,” they had used it as a tool of “pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego, and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment.” This history, wrote Du Bois, existed only to “influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish,” where “we” meant the existing power structure.

It is not hard to see how this critique applies to present circumstances. Spurred by a wave of youth protest that revealed (and then underscored) the extent to which the conservative movement had failed to inculcate, in the next generation, its view of what America is, this effort to gag any discussion of the United States that doesn’t affirm a triumphant narrative of national innocence is a clear and obvious attempt to make up for lost time.

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