Opinion | The Miseducation of Nikki Haley

After her failure to identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War generated a wave of criticism last month, Nikki Haley assured her potential constituents that she had Black friends, and that she understood the war’s origins. Growing up in South Carolina, she said, “literally in second and third grade, you learn about slavery.” Conveniently producing Black friends is, alas, unsurprising, but claiming she learned that the Civil War was a battle over slavery in second and third grade is.

Gov. Haley attended a segregation academy, a type of private school established in the years after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education by white parents who did not want their children attending school with Black children.

By 1975, the number of private schools in South Carolina grew more than tenfold, enrolling as many as 90 percent of the white children in some majority Black counties. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that discrimination on the basis of race wasn’t legal at private schools, either, but even today, many segregation academies remain overwhelmingly white.

Ms. Haley graduated in 1989 from Orangeburg Preparatory School. Orangeburg was the product of a merger between Wade Hampton and Willington Academy, also segregation academies, the former of which was named after one of the largest slaveholding families in South Carolina. At one point, graduates of Hampton received Confederate flag lapel pins, which were meant to symbolize resistance against segregation. The year Ms. Haley graduated, her high school yearbook featured at most a handful of Black students.

I attended a segregation academy, too: Edgewood Academy in Elmore, Ala., from first grade until I graduated in 1995. Though the town was about 30 percent Black, none of the 33 people in my graduating class were. My parents say they sent me and my two younger brothers there because they thought we’d get a better education, and because it was affordable (annual tuition is now $6,210, which would have been roughly $2,000 the year I matriculated), an important consideration for a family whose sole breadwinner was a lineman for Alabama Power.

When I was at Edgewood, there were no A.P. classes, no college test prep and no real expectation that any of us would go to college unless we really wanted to (which, for the girls, would be largely to find husbands). The science teachers taught us Creationism and the principal used a big wooden paddle on misbehaving students, no matter how young or old they were.

Our history textbooks positioned the Civil War as a states’ rights issue, a narrative that was reinforced by teachers, many of whom — as Gov. Haley suggests — did mention slavery, but said the idea that it was a root cause of the war was liberal propaganda. We were told that some slaves had good relationships with their owners and were grateful to be taken care of, as if they had been awarded cushy jobs with excellent benefits instead of being torn from their families, abused and treated as if they were subhuman. We took field trips to the Confederate Memorial Park in Marbury, but not to the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, which was the same distance from us.

My fifth-grade teacher told us that if Jesus were alive in Alabama he would have been a white Dixiecrat, that God frowns on what she called race mixing and that children who are the products of interracial marriages are to be pitied because they’re mistakes. (I wonder now how she would have treated me if she knew that I was the product of an interracial marriage — which, as an adoptee, I found out only well after I graduated.)

I don’t know which textbook Nikki Haley’s school used, but I know just by virtue of the fact that she attended a segregation academy that her understanding of the Civil War was shaped by white teachers and administrators who were not inclined to grapple with the evils of slavery.

When conservatives talk about education and indoctrination, I think of it as the most obvious kind of projection, because the environment in which I was educated was carefully constructed to give me the message that white, conservative, Christian Southerners were the true Americans, chosen by God.

My real education about American history happened at the public library where my mother used to drop me off while she ran errands, and later in college. If you want to understand why evangelical conservatives are waging war on public libraries and universities, it’s precisely because they expose kids to facts that undermine the kind of indoctrination I received.

At the elementary school level, books that mention race or, in some cases, simply include Black protagonists have been banned because they might cause white children discomfort. At the university level, activists like Christopher Rufo have labeled any frank discussion of race as “critical race theory,” a distortion that serves to, in Mr. Rufo’s own words, make the topic “toxic” and contribute to “negative perceptions.”

Many Republican politicians like to couch American history as an uninterrupted parade of greatness and righteousness, without mention of the atrocities we committed along the way. They regard that perspective as a kind of patriotic optimism, but it’s not. It is fragile and cynical.

That perspective presumes that our nation will crumple under any scrutiny of the racist systems that persist to this day. It suggests that the only way we can be a great nation now is to delude ourselves into believing we are not inherently capable of evil.

My view is more optimistic. I don’t need to believe that America is unblemished and inherently good to believe in its potential and its ability to be better and stronger. If we cannot — or will not — do the sometimes uncomfortable work of reckoning with our past, America’s destiny is small, mean and weak. An unwillingness to tell the truth about the past serves only a shrinking number of Americans who wish to live within the distorted understanding of the world that segregation academies created for their students — an America only for some, and with a very limited future.

Elizabeth Spiers, a contributing Opinion writer, is a journalist and a digital media strategist.

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