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American Exceptionalism and White History


In the Oklahoma version of the attack on AP U.S. History standards, the bill (now withdrawn) read:

“founding documents of the United States that contributed to the foundation or maintenance of the representative form of limited government, the free-market economic system and American exceptionalism.”

In other words, AP U.S. History standards should conform to stories that confirm current Republican positions.

But the whole idea of American exceptionalism is an inherently white construction, as it celebrates, rather than critiques, the history of a white settler state centered around the oppression of minorities and the dispossession of land from indigenous people, ignoring those critical issues in understanding it. Historians David Wrobel and Amanda Cobb-Greetham:

David Wrobel, Merrick Chair of Western History at the University of Oklahoma, says in response to Fisher’s position, “The idea of American exceptionalism is deeply connected to the mid-19th century idea of Manifest Destiny…. But it’s important to bear in mind that Manifest Destiny developed as a justification for American expansion…. To accept it as the explanation for American development, to say as historians that God favors one nation over other nations…would be to write history on faith rather than engage in historical analysis.”

Amanda Cobb-Greetham, Chickasaw, director of Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, has another take on the term, “In its classic form, American exceptionalism refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation because of the principles and beliefs on which it was founded, democratic ideals of individual liberty, freedom, justice, equality. To my mind, if we’re exceptional, it’s because we continue to strive for those ideals, not because we have met them in every circumstance. We haven’t.”

That’s nicer than I would have been.

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