1940s black family packing car

How to Address Racism in U.S. History Lessons

The Catholic response to racism and addressing it in our homeschool history lessons.

America’s history of racial discrimination can be a challenging topic to deal with in our Catholic homeschools. On one hand, we need to acknowledge the darker chapters of our country’s history and understand the truth about what happened & why. However, on the other hand, we don’t want to allow those dark episodes to grow in our minds to the point where they obscure every other aspect of American history.

In this article I will examine two prevalent historical narratives that I think we should avoid in our Catholic homeschools. I’ll then offer some advice on a balanced approach to addressing racism & the discriminatory past of our country.

The “City on a Hill” Narrative

On one hand, I think Catholics need to avoid the heavily Protestantized “City on a Hill” narrative. This is the portrayal of the United States as a land of freedom and opportunity for all, founded by godly men and women who established an idealized Christian commonwealth free of classism and corrupting feudalism of old Europe.

The City on a Hill narrative is what I was taught in public school in the 1980s. It is still present in many textbooks to this day. The United States is depicted as a constant champion of personal liberty, moving from glory unto glory in the noble quest to bring democracy and equality from sea to shining sea. This approach often downplays the history of racism in America.

This narrative tends to tackle racism only when it absolutely has to—when addressing the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Even then, discrimination is usually depicted as something confined to the South, a particularly southern problem that is solved by the heroism of the Union armies under the benevolent vision of Lincoln, and again in the 20th century by the paternal magnanimity of Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights era government. The United States is portrayed as the destroyer of inequality, seldom as the perpetrator of it.

It is easy to sympathize with this view because we Americans get to be the hero in our own story. It focuses our attention on all the admirable things the U.S. has accomplished and makes us feel good about being Americans in an age when American identity is being assaulted. Yet, as Catholics, we cannot afford to have this rosy-eyed image of U.S. history.

Catholics should remember that we too were once a despised minority, right from the very beginning when Irish-Catholic immigrant Ann Glover was killed in the Salem Witch Trials for being unable to say the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer in English. Throughout colonial times Catholics were systematically persecuted and banned from public office; every single colony had anti-Catholic legislation on the books at one time or another.

After the Revolution, Catholics were subject to hostility and mistrust. Irish and Italian migrants were considered second-class citizens because of their religious affiliation. Even into the 20th century, wild anti-Catholic conspiracy theories sunk the 1928 presidential campaign of Al Smith. To this day, anti-Catholic bias continues in the way media covers the Church as well as popular Catholic stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood. For Catholics, the U.S. has not always been a welcoming place.

Since the “City on a Hill” narrative has never reflected the Catholic experience, it is ridiculous that Catholics should blindly adopt it. Catholics were only one of many minority cultures who faced the brunt of Protestant Anglo-Saxon hostility, along with blacks, Chinese, Native Americans, and others. For people outside the sphere of Protestant Anglo-Saxon society, the American experience has sometimes been one of exclusion. Catholics of all people should realize this.

The Evil Racist Empire Narrative

On the other side of the spectrum, we have a liberal narrative of the United States as an evil, racist empire. In this view, racism is not just one unfortunate aspect of America’s past, it is the determining ideology that has made America what it is. Racism is the lens through which all American activity is viewed. Economy, society, politics, patterns of settlement, culture, religion—all are seen through the paradigm of racism.

In this narrative, the entire American experiment takes on the nature of a criminal conspiracy to enrich white elites at the expense of every other group. The United States government is founded upon and perpetuated by structures of white power. Even if institutional racism has disappeared, it continues to linger in “white privilege” and the refusal of white Americans to reckon with our own complicity in this evil heritage.

This narrative is associated with the school of thought known as Critical Race Theory. This approach should also be avoided, for several reasons. First, if the City on a Hill narrative tends to ignore America’s vices, the Evil Racist Empire narrative ignores its virtues. It paints every U.S. act as uniformly bad, ignoring the complex nature of American history.

Second, while it is laudable to draw attention to the experiences of people of color, we cannot do so in such a way that vilifies all white people as closeted racists. To do such is to be guilty of the very ethnic labelling we should all decry.

Finally, it teaches us to see skin color as the fundamental question in American social life. It is a kind of racial Marxism. Marxism views class as the most important social distinction, and this narrative does the same with race. One’s racial demographic becomes the be-all end-all of identity, transcending things like region and religion.

Catholics ought to especially reject this latter point, as it directly challenges the Catholicity of the Church. If we really believe that in Christ we are all one, that there is “neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28), then we must reject ideologies that try to divide us into “black Catholics,” “white Catholics,” “hispanic Catholics,” etc. Of course, we can acknowledge and celebrate these ethnic differences, but we ought never enshrine them as the pivot around which our entire identity turns.

A Balanced Approach

The problem with both of these narratives is that they are not merely trying to teach us about the past. They are trying to goad us into taking action here and now.

The City on a Hill narrative, by presenting a sanitized and idealized vision of America, attempts to rouse us to “defend American values” and protect “our way of life” against contemporary threats. It is not a bad thing to want to maintain “our way of life,” but that is not the reason why we study history. Historical study has to be objective, not wielded as a weapon in some ideological combat.

Similarly, the Evil Racist Empire narrative hopes to make us indignant enough that we clamor for legal remedies to redress our heritage of injustice. It is used as a crowbar to pry open public discourse to consider proposals for slavery reparations, affirmative action, and a variety race-based policies. Again, it is not wrong to desire public discourse about such matters, but that is not why we study history. We study history to understand our past, not as a catalyst for pushing social change here & now.

Then, what is the right approach to studying racism in U.S. history? There is no one right answer, but here are some guideposts I have tried to follow in discussing these matters:

  • First, don’t be afraid to cover this issue. Many people mistakenly think any discussion of racism will put you on the slippery slope towards Critical Race Theory. That is simply not true. Studying race does not make one a Critical Race Theorist. So don’t be afraid to address this subject.
  • A balanced approach must acknowledge the racist history of America in all its facets while not going so far as to make race the only lens through which we view our country.
  • We should seek to understand the experiences of the minorities that have contributed to the American tapestry while not discounting the history of the historic white majority of the United States.
  • When studying racism, we should leave room for exploring how factors like class, religion, and regionalism all intersected. For example, we often speak of African Americans as a monolithic group with a uniform identity and experience. But the experience of, say, black auto-workers in Detroit in the 1930s was vastly different from black share-croppers in Alabama during the same time.
  • We should not confine our discussion of race to the Civil War and the Civil Rights Era. We miss important historical events when we do this—like the race riots that swept the country in 1919, or the disputes over bussing and affirmative action that characterized the 1970s and 80s.
  • In all things, try to understand both sides of an issue. We understand why blacks wanted to end discriminatory practices like segregation. But why did others favor segregation? Even if we don’t sympathize with one side, we must at least work to understand it. This stops us from turning people into caricatures. We cannot understand our past if we caricaturize people. This is true of contemporary racial problems; we must always avoid caricaturization.
  • Finally, resist feeling like you either have to vindicate or condemn America’s heritage. Don’t feel like your history curriculum needs to “make us look good” or “make us look bad.” Apply the same impartiality as you would if you were studying the Roman Empire or ancient Egypt. Nobody has any trouble acknowledging Rome’s cruelty while also praising its accomplishments. Yet, for some reason we struggle to think impartially about our own country. Every country is a mixed bag. Embrace the “mixed-baggishness” of the United States without feeling like you have to take a “side.” This may be a challenge because our country is so polarized today, but getting yourself out of that mental space is incredibly freeing.

The issue of racism really cannot be ignored in American history. The best approach, therefore, is to tackle it with objectivity and balance. I hope these tips will help you wade through this issue with more confidence in your Catholic homeschool!

Additional Parent Resources

Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers was recently on the Homeschooling Saints Podcast (produced by Homeschool Connections) to talk about the Catholic Church and Racism. You can listen on your favorite podcasting app or watch here:


If you really want to go deep into this topic, here is Deacon Harold’s 2-plus-hour interview with Matt Fradd:

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