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By denying its history, America denies accountability

Trump will probably walk away without punishment for inciting the insurrection because this nation inoculates white supremacy from guilt.

Eugene Goodman, a Capitol Police officer, steers members of the pro-Trump mob away from the Senate chambers during the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection. Donald Trump's second impeachment trial opened Tuesday in the Senate.MARK PETERSON/NYT

At a predominantly white charter school in Utah, some parents were so upset by a curriculum honoring Black History Month, they received permission to opt their kids out of it.

After significant backlash, the school rescinded the request. Yet the initial offense lingers. These parents preferred to educationally deprive their children rather than have them learn that this nation could not exist without Black people, or that Black history is American history.

To understand this nation’s aversion to accountability, one must recognize how much it loathes its own uncensored history.

Of course, it’s a coincidence that this nation’s fraught relationship with history and accountability will be scrutinized in Black History Month, during the second Senate trial of Donald Trump. He’s being tried for inciting a deadly white supremacist insurrection at the Capitol five weeks ago, an attempt to overthrow the results of an election he lost.

Now Senate Democrats will try to hold Trump responsible for an attempted coup that he stoked for months with relentless lies about a “stolen” election. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer says there is a “solemn responsibility” to hold the former president accountable for his actions. Trump’s guilt is unquestionable. His own words, deeds, and tweets are the smoking gun. Again and again, he incriminated himself.


Yet it’s all but certain that most Republicans will opt out of convicting him. Senator Mike Lee of Utah recently told Fox News, “Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone is entitled to a mulligan once in a while.”

In golf terms, a mulligan is a do-over. You know who could use a do-over? Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who died from injuries received during the attempted coup. What happened to him, and what happened at the Capitol, was not a mistake. If its ringleader is not held responsible, it’s all but certain those who assaulted democracy will foment their own do-over.


In her novel “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” Jeanette Winterson writes, “Very often history is a means of denying the past.” That’s what white supremacy demands, and usually receives. History books in this nation’s classroom still fail to fully convey the horrors of slavery, as if to spare the fragile white American psyche. It’s not just that America tends to downplay what doesn’t glorify this nation’s strategically curated self-image. To sustain its myths, history becomes tyranny, truth is unpatriotic, and accountability is divisive.

In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, the Black intellectual and historian, created “Negro History Week,” a precursor to Black History Month. He said, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

These are also the risks faced by a nation that would rather bury its history than learn from it. In its mind-meld with QAnon, Republicans are spinning alternative fantasies about what happened on Jan. 6. And they’re doing this despite the fact that millions witnessed the attack on democracy, one that gestated for more than 150 years, facilitated by legislators who perpetuated Trump’s Big Lie.

On Jan. 6, violent insurrectionists loyal to Donald Trump break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. While lawmakers inside voted to affirm President-elect Joe Biden's win, the pro-Trump mob marched to the building and broke inside. Five people died in the attack.John Minchillo/Associated Press

Of course, that lie is woven into the fabric of American mendacity, which refuses to acknowledge how centuries of harm inflicted on Black people continue to wreck lives today, whether it’s police violence, substandard housing, schools, and health care, or voter suppression.


Before rescinding the decision to allow kids to skip lessons about Black history, Micah Hirokawa, the director of the North Ogden, Utah, Maria Montessori Academy, wrote in a Facebook post, “We should not shield our children from the history of our Nation, the mistreatment of its African American citizens, and the bravery of civil rights leaders, but should educate them about it.”

They should also learn that history without accountability begets more trauma, not unity. That lesson has already been lost on many GOP senators who, like their counterparts in the House, care less about democracy than about dominance.

Trump is the first president impeached twice. Yet he will probably walk away without punishment — just like the men who murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till or the former Cleveland cop who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice — because America continues to inoculate white supremacy from guilt. In the stark absence of accountability, this nation will always opt out and excise its full truth from textbooks, classrooms, and the halls of Congress.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.