Sociologist James Loewen’s shadow looms over Republican efforts to warp history

by | Aug 27, 2021 | Education, Policy

America lost an icon last Thursday when James Loewen, 79, succumbed to bladder cancer in a Bethesda, Maryland, hospital. An acclaimed educator, sociologist, and racial justice advocate, Loewen made his name as a leading voice in the fight to dispel white supremacist mythology within the country’s history classrooms. 

For those who are unfamiliar with Loewen’s story, it’s a powerful one. It’s also one that’s undeniably connected to Texas Republicans’ ongoing efforts to cement a politicized, warped, and unfactual curriculum in the state’s schools for years to come. 

As a teacher in the 1960s and 1970s, Loewen saw firsthand how false recountings of America’s most consequential times were being fed to students. The greatest inflection point came when he was an instructor at Tougaloo College, an HBCU outside of Jackson, Mississippi. While addressing his students, he asked what they’d been previously taught about Reconstruction in the South. He was floored by their response. 

“And what happened to me was an ‘aha’ experience, although you might better consider it an ‘oh no’ experience,” Loewen recounted during a 2018 interview with NPR. “Sixteen out of my 17 students said, ‘Well, Reconstruction was the period right after the Civil War when Blacks took over the government of the Southern states, but they were too soon out of slavery, and so they screwed up and white folks had to take control again.’ “

The rise of the Klu Klux Klan out of the Confederacy’s ashes? The widespread lynchings that followed? The poll taxes and grandfather clauses that kept formerly enslaved people from voting? The fact that Rutherford B. Hayes slammed the door on Reconstruction in exchange for occupying the White House? Those facts had intentionally been withheld from his students and redacted from their history books, Loewen found. 

So, he set out to change that — an endeavor that, over the next half-century, would make him a nationally recognized champion for racial justice and an author of nearly a dozen books challenging systemic racism in education. Easily his most notable work was the groundbreaking Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, which remains one of the most important titles on the topic. 

Unfortunately, the demons that Loewen spent his life battling ultimately outlasted him. And, here in Texas, they’re alive and well. 

Throughout 2021, Republicans have pushed lie-riddled legislation seeking to entrench white-centric retellings of history within classrooms statewide. Among their most notable moves: Passing HB 3979, a propaganda-fueled bill that Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law in June, and creating the 1836 Project — an undertaking that, besides ripping off its name from the New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project, forgoes accurate depictions of the people and events that forged Texas, especially when it comes to slavery and racism. 

These undertakings aren’t accidental, of course. In the wake of last year’s nationwide reckoning on racism following George Floyd’s murder, there has been a renewed effort to reexamine whether Lone Star students are being properly taught about things like the institution of slavery, the KKK, or the fact that Texas’ founding fathers were enslavers. Rather than heeding those calls for accountability, Republicans have made them yet another flashpoint in their ever-raging culture war, a development that’s as problematic as it is predictable.

Politicizing the past is nothing new here, of course. For decades, Texas has presented a watered-down and white-washed history to public schools not just around the state, but across the country. That’s because, as one of America’s largest textbook markets, it has long had the power to shape what generations of children throughout the U.S. have learned. While this system is undeniably disturbing and a clear-cut example of what James Loewen so ferociously opposed, it had largely been allowed to flourish in the shadows and out of public sight. However, Republicans aren’t just defending it in broad daylight these days: They’re actively bolstering it.

With a quorum now present in the Texas House during the legislature’s second special session of the summer, the majority party has resumed its attack on truth and history — this time, in the form of HB 28. Proposed by Rep. Steve Toth (R-15), the bill would force all school districts with 300-plus students to publish a detailed list of its teaching materials on the internet. Toth, who represents The Woodlands, claims the legislation would be a victory for transparency. But anyone, even a select few Republicans, can see it’s meant to empower angered parents to personally seek out teachers and administrators whose curriculum enrages them. 

“You’re saying that you want the ability for anybody and everybody to be able to look up whatever is being taught within the classroom?” Rep. Dan Huberty (R-127) recently asked Toth. “And then, you know, for whatever reason that they disagree with it, they can, you know, vilify Miss Smith on social media and all the other stuff that goes with it.” 

And yet, because House Democrats chose to return to Austin and restore quorum at the State Capitol, it’s entirely possible that HB 28 (and other legislation like it) becomes a reality. Regardless of what comes next, though, this 87th Texas Legislature has more than proven that the next generation must pick up where Loewen left off. There’s still plenty of work to be done. 

“Telling the truth about the past helps cause justice in the present,” he was known to say. “Achieving justice in the present helps us tell the truth about the past.”

Contributing Writer/Podcaster | + posts
Based in his hometown of Austin, David is a political reporter and feature writer whose work has appeared in the likes of The Washington Post, the Texas Observer, and Public Health Watch. He’s also a graduate of the University of Texas, where he studied government and wrote for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Texan. In addition to providing a blend of reported pieces and opinion columns for the Texas Signal, David is a frequent guest on the outlet’s signature podcasts. You can find him playing basketball or hanging out poolside in his free time.

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