“What is Jim Crow?”

The question took me aback. It came from an earnest sophomore, a white student from southern Maine who had enrolled in my Colby College course on race in the nation’s capital a few years ago. We had been studying how Black Washingtonians faced an increasingly hostile racial atmosphere in late 19th century, and I had hoped to talk about the nuances of Black protest. Yet this young man had never encountered or understood the popular name for racial segregation, one of the central realities of American history.

I was stunned. How could a bright student graduate from a Maine high school and get into a competitive college without knowing what Jim Crow was, let alone understand its impact on American society? Could he have skated through his first two decades of life without learning about the Constitution, the Civil War, or other key parts of American history? What were they teaching (and not teaching) in our high schools?

But I also recognized this as a teachable moment. Here was a sincere question from a student who simply did not know, and was brave enough to ask. It was a wonderful opportunity to step back and make sure my students – almost all of whom were white and from relatively homogenous communities – grasped some of the basics of American history.

For all the recent hubbub about “critical race theory,” the simple reality is that most white American students – even top students at competitive colleges such as Colby – know remarkably little about our nation’s racial history. From Maine to Iowa to the Mountain West, many white Americans live in racially monolithic communities and remain largely unaware of the central role that African Americans and other racial minorities have played in American history. Many consider race to be of interest primarily (or solely) to Black people, a subject relegated to Black History Month.

As many of my students lament to me, trying to explain why they know so little: “There were no African Americans in my high school, so I never learned any of this stuff about race.”

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A man holds up a sign against Critical Race Theory during a protest outside a school board meeting on May 25 in Reno, Nev. Andy Barron/Reno Gazette-Journal via AP

At the same time, however, these students – like many other white Americans – yearn to learn more about race. They see the profound racial tensions and racial inequalities in our society, and they recognize that they don’t know enough. They are curious and want to understand their world, but they may be afraid to ask questions for fear of being labeled “dumb,” “racist,” or even “unpatriotic.”

We adults often make things worse. Worried that talking about race is divisive, uncomfortable or just plain impolite, many teachers, parents and other adults avoid the subject altogether, hoping naively that if we simply don’t talk about racial differences, then racism and inequality will magically disappear. But if our kids don’t learn about race from adults they can trust, where will they turn? To the Internet, with its legions of white supremacist trolls looking for recruits? To social media, where algorithms drive extremist posts into their newsfeeds?

When we deprive students of the opportunity to learn the full story of American history, they head off to college, the military or the workplace woefully unprepared to deal with the complexity and challenges of a world that is much more diverse than the schools they attended growing up. If we shield them from racial realities, we set them up to feel misled and disillusioned when they eventually encounter the truth.

We can do better. Students of all races deserve – and need – to learn about how race has shaped American history. Our kids deserve more than a fairy tale history where Americans are always the good guys or where racism was vanquished long ago. Our history is rich, complicated and deeply human, filled with remarkable people who were brilliant at times, yet also flawed, capable of both profound insight and confounding myopia.

Teaching the truth about our racial past will not lead our kids to “hate America.” Quite the opposite. It inspires them to see that the struggle to live up to our founding ideals of freedom and equality endures to this day. It helps them understand that they, too, have an essential role to play in the ongoing American experiment in democracy. And it empowers them to embrace the responsibility of helping to create a “more perfect Union.”

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