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National Archives’ Racism Task Force Labels Own Rotunda Example of ‘Structural Racism’

Visitors look at the U.S. Constitution on display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives Museum in Washington, June 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The National Archives’ task force on racism claimed in a newly unearthed report that the agency’s own rotunda housing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights is an example of “structural racism.”

The report to the country’s top librarian, which was released in April but resurfaced by Fox News on Sunday, also claimed that the Founding Fathers and other white historical figures are depicted too positively. 

The task force was formed at the direction of National Archivist David Ferriero in response to the murder of George Floyd last year.

The group claims that structural racism “unequivocally impacts” how National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) employees approach each other, customers, and historical records.

The summary of the report detailed examples of “structural racism” including “legacy descriptions that use racial slurs and harmful language to describe BIPOC communities.” The list includes racial slurs and terms such as “elderly,” “handicapped” and “illegal alien.”

It labeled the National Archives’ Rotunda as an example of “structural racism” because it “lauds wealthy White men in the nation’s founding while marginalizing BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and other People of Color], women, and other communities.”

The task force called for “trigger warnings” to be added to historical content to “forewarn audiences of content that may cause intense physiological and psychological symptoms.”

“Providing an advisory notice to users gives us an opportunity to mitigate harm and contextualize the records,” the report says. “It creates a space to share with the public our ultimate goals for reparative description, demonstrate our commitment to the process, and address any barriers that we may face in achieving these goals (i.e., the size and scope of the Catalog and the ever-evolving knowledge we gain regarding what is harmful).”

The report also recommends a change to language on OurDocuments.gov to be less celebratory of historical figures such as former President Thomas Jefferson.

“OurDocuments.gov features transcripts and historical context of ‘100 milestone documents of American history’ but often uses adulatory and excessive language to document the historical contributions of White, wealthy men,” the report says.

“For example, a search of Thomas Jefferson in OurDocuments.gov brings up 24 results. He is described in this sample lesson plan as a ‘visionary’ who took ‘vigorous action’ to strengthen the ‘will of the nation to expand westward,’” the report adds.

The report continues: “The plan does not mention that his policy of westward expansion forced Native Americans off their ancestral land, encouraged ongoing colonial violence, and laid the groundwork for further atrocities like the Trail of Tears.”

It also calls for “the creation of safe spaces in every NARA facility” and says NARA has “a responsibility to eliminate racist language in archival descriptions and revise the policies and practices that led to it.”

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