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President Donald Trump recently announced his intention to create a 1776 Commission, charged with restoring patriotic, “pro-America” education to public schools.

Trump pointed to The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which explored the legacy of slavery in modern America and has been adopted by many districts across the country, as an example of framing America’s founding around “the principle of oppression, not freedom.”

The president fails to understand that acknowledging our shortcomings doesn’t mean perpetuating a story of oppression. We can admit our mistakes while also celebrating the heroes of our history — which must include Black history.

A truly patriotic education should inspire our students to reach their greatest potential — to lead movements, solve unsolvable problems, create new enterprises and fight for freedom. And to do that, we must build an education system that embraces Black history and cultures for the sake of all our children. 

A patriotic education should include the contribution of a Black doctor named Dr. Charles Drew, who developed techniques for preserving blood plasma — the very techniques that are showing promise in treatments for Covid-19 today. 

A patriotic education should include the story of  Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the first doctor to perform open-heart surgery and a Black man who graduated from medical school just 18 years after the abolition of slavery. And it should include Gladys Westa Black mathematician whose work informed the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS). 

For centuries, public schools have reinforced an image of Black Americans as either helpless victims of white oppressors or passive beneficiaries of white heroes. That plays out in both our policies and our textbooks. Today, Black students are still segregated into schools with less funding, fewer experienced teachers and fewer rigorous courses.

Social studies classes spend only 8 to 9 percent of their time on Black history, treating it as a niche topic instead of a core part of American history. 

Kids are smart; they recognize systems that don’t encourage their full potential. Black students notice when educators have low academic expectations of them. They question whether they have to trade their identities for academic success.

Their history lessons celebrate white people, and their books feature white characters. By high school, Black students of all economic backgrounds are significantly less likely to aspire to prestigious careers than their white peers. 

The solution begins by making room for every student to learn about, grapple with and celebrate the complexity of our history — while also learning about the contributions of a diverse set of Americans.

In Chicago, Stagg School of Excellence — one of my organization’s partners — is home to the Black Chicago Museum on the first floor of its building, which highlights Blacks’ migration to Chicago and contributions to our city.

Many white kids learn that being nonracist means ignoring race altogether, so they grow up unable to engage with, or even understand, the ways race plays out around them. They develop a weaker understanding of American history when they do not understand the role of Black contributions and achievements. 

The museum is open to the community, but also integrated into the curriculum of the school. Daily, you can find its elementary students touring the museum, reading about our history’s Black leaders or learning about city history through Black art.

Students who believe their cultures are valued in the classroom engage better

with the material,  achieve stronger academic avhievement and develop pride. They feel empowered to look and act and communicate in ways that come naturally.

Cultural pride is powerful. It builds a sense of belonging and even creates a psychological buffer against anxiety from experiencing racism. This narrative that minimizes Black excellence results in the belief that Black people have played no part in our nation’s achievements beyond music and sports.

When Black students are able to celebrate role models who look like them and envision the pathways available to them, it demonstrates that they don’t have to shed their racial identity to be successful. 

These practices do not benefit only Black children. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College and author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race,” has written prolifically about how important it is for white children, as well, to understand how race operates in our society.

Many white kids learn that being nonracist means ignoring race altogether, so they grow up unable to engage with, or even understand, the ways race plays out around them. They develop a weaker understanding of American history when they do not understand the role of Black contributions and achievements. 

Yet learning about unfamiliar cultures and ideas makes us smarterIt sharpens problem-solving and critical thinking skills in students of all races, inciting more vibrant discussions and deeper learning. 

The education community often talks about ways to build up Black confidence, hoping to intervene before students begin to doubt their talents. But, paradoxically, research suggests that racial discrimination does not actually steal their confidence; it steals their aspirations.

Coming into adulthood, Black students believe they are smart, capable and talented enough to reach their goals, but don’t see the world letting them become doctors or scientists or authors. They daily weigh the pain and injustice they’ll have to swallow to get where they want to go against the benefits of getting there. For many, the scales tip. 

If we want to advance the principle of freedom — as President Trump espoused — then we must advance an education system that delivers it. That starts by ensuring our Black students see themselves in the success of America, and see a future in which the color of their skin does not determine their potential. 

Phyllis Lockett is the founder and CEO of LEAP Innovations, a Chicago-based nonprofit working to transform education to ignite the potential of every learner. 

This story about Black history was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Phyllis Lockett is the founder and CEO of LEAP Innovations. The founding president and CEO of New Schools for Chicago, she previously served as executive director of the Civic Consulting Alliance.

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