The word narrative means story. Most of us have learned “stories” about people of different races, which form our biases. What we think we know about race comes from a variety of places: our parents, friends, teachers, books, museums, movies, television and social media. The stories have helped solidify a racial hierarchy: the widespread belief that some people are superior or inferior based on their racial or ethnic identity.
The legacy of racism in the United States is multifaceted. It touches every community across all backgrounds and cultures, albeit in unique ways. The history presented here is by no means exhaustive, rather it represents several turning points that created the present realities faced by all people living in the U.S. today.
STORIES REINFORCED THROUGH EDUCATION
Federal Indian Boarding Schools (1819 and 1969)
The federal government established Indian boarding schools across the nation in order to culturally assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children into Western/Eurocentric culture. They forcibly removed children from their families and tribes and required them to give up their language, religion and cultural beliefs. Boarding schools were also notoriously spaces of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of many students, leading to trauma that has lasted generations. Still today, Native communities are striving to reclaim their culture, language and mental, physical and spiritual health.
Literacy Laws (1831)
Nearly all southern states created laws prohibiting anyone, White or Black, from teaching enslaved people to read. Many enslaved people viewed literacy as the road to liberation, especially those who served White children and watched how reading and education led to powerful adult lives. Abolitionists taught literacy and opened schools for Black people escaping to the North as revolutionary acts; while free Black people in the North created literary societies to assist newly arrived refugees from the South.
The Dunning School of Thought (1886-1950s)
Columbia University Professor William A. Dunning held a stunning influence over what children and everyday people learned about race during the 20th century. As backlash against the political gains of Reconstruction – when Black men held 15% of elected positions in the South and 16 seats in Congress – Dunning published academic papers to justify white supremacy and Jim Crow. Dunning mentored and influenced many academics at major universities, whose views about white superiority and Black inferiority made their way into bestselling books and elementary school curriculum throughout the 20th century. (Citation: Morgan York. “The Dunning School.” University of New Mexico Metathistory Histiography Project.)
Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas (1954)
The Supreme Court decided that segregated schools harmed Black children, because they represented an institutional belief in Black inferiority. The Court wrote: “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group.” According to the Court, the resulting psychological harm violated Black students’ constitutional right to equal protection under the law. (SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES. Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Supporters of desegregation hoped that children learning together would reduce racism and inequality across society. However, many educational systems developed new discriminatory practices, such as tracking which places White students in accelerated classes and students of color in basic or remedial classes.
Anti-Critical Race Theory (CRT) Campaigns & Book Banning (2020-2023)
Pressured by well-funded and coordinated groups of parents, state lawmakers and local school boards are banning or restricting lessons that explore race, racism and sexual and gender identity from elementary and secondary school curricula. The removal of children’s books with diverse characters and authors from library shelves is becoming widespread. Critical Race Theory has become a rallying cry to stoke the fears of some parents that their children are being indoctrinated with anti-American rhetoric. In reality, CRT is a set of theories used at the graduate school level to examine the presence of racism in history and legal and social systems. (Learn more from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.)
Affirmative Action (2023)
On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two decisions removing a critical framework for addressing deeply rooted racism in college admissions practices. In Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina, the Supreme Court ruled that race can not be used as a criteria for admissions to college and universities. If college campuses become less diverse as a result, students of different backgrounds will have fewer opportunities to learn with and from one another (W.K. Kellogg Foundation).
We must examine the stories we tell through education, media and conversation, in order to change the narrative that some human beings have more value than others. Inspired by the National Day of Racial Healing, we can begin to tell the true stories of our communities to foster more genuine, truth-filled relationships which are the foundation for working together toward a more equitable society.
Explore Inspiring Stories of Racial Healing
- In the Keeweenaw Bay Indian Community in Michigan, early childhood educators focus on healing from the legacy of boarding schools by bringing Indigenous language and culture into classrooms.
- The Healing Power of Remembering. On the National Day of Racial Healing 2019, Black residents of Selma, Alabama visited the Equal Justice Initiative museum and memorial in Montgomery to engage with true stories about their community’s past and honor local lynching victims.
- The Pop Culture Collaborative works to bring diverse stories to screens, both big and small, as well as visions of Black Futures that center freedom and thriving.
Take Action Today
3 Simple Ways to Support Narrative Change:
- Checking out a book is now a revolutionary act. Head to your local library and find one of these 20 books about diversity to read with young people in your life.
- See our action kit for Engaging Children for more ideas to help young people form healthy views of race and identity.
- Engage in personal storytelling with neighbors, friends and relatives using our Conversation Guide and the Conocimiento practice. Conocimiento means knowledge and wisdom, to be conscious and to become aware. It is a practice that builds community and deepens relationships through group discussions and personal growth.