Ariel Zilber and Brian Stieglitz, Daily Mail, September 9, 2021
The National Archives has added a ‘harmful language alert’ label on the nation’s founding documents including the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as part of a new ‘anti-racism’ policies put in place by a task force.
The move by the institution, which is also considering retiring the term ‘charters of freedom’ since the founding documents did not grant liberty to everyone, has prompted furious reactions online.
The agency implemented the new policy as per the recommendation of an anti-racism task force that was named last year after the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Earlier this year, the task force produced a 100-page report blasting its own headquarters’ Rotunda for ‘structural racism’ over paintings it displays which are said to depict the United States’ white founding fathers in too positive a light.
According to the authors, the Rotunda’s famed murals depicting scenes such as the sighting of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are insufficiently tempered with depictions of Native Americans being driven off their land by settlers.
Included in the task force’s report is a spreadsheet of terms that it describes as ‘legacy descriptions that use racial slurs and harmful language to describe BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) communities’, which it claims are further examples of structural racism.
According to the spreadsheet, words like ‘crippled,’ and ‘illegal alien’ should be removed and avoided being used again.
lt also highlights the use of offensive anti-Asian slurs used throughout the archive, and recommends adding a ‘trigger warning’ about texts containing words, to ‘forewarn audiences of content that may cause intense physiological and psychological symptoms.’
That means anyone who clicks into the section containing the PDF versions of the country’s founding documents will see a warning that they ‘contain harmful language that reflects attitudes and biases of their time.’
A link attached to the label takes a user to the NARA’s ‘statement on potentially harmful content.’
‘The Catalog and web pages contain some content that may be harmful or difficult to view,’ the statement reads.
‘NARA’s records span the history of the United States, and it is our charge to preserve and make available these historical records.
‘As a result, some of the materials presented here may reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions.
‘In addition, some of the materials may relate to violent or graphic events and are preserved for their historical significance.
‘The National Archives is committed to working with staff, communities, and peer institutions to assess and update descriptions that are harmful and to establish standards and policies to prevent future harmful language in staff-generated descriptions.’
The NARA says that some of the historical documents may ‘reflect racist, sexist, ableist, misogynistic/misogynoir, and xenophobic opinions and attitudes.’
The documents also could be ‘discriminatory towards or exclude diverse views on sexuality, gender, religion, and more.’
The new policy elicited fury online.
In June, the task force recommended that the murals hanging in the National Archives’ famed Rotunda be altered due to the ‘structural racism’ depicted in the drawings.
‘While these massive paintings are historically significant and loved by many, others find them oppressive and exclusionary,’ the task force report, overseen by National Archivist David Ferriero, reads.
It adds that a possible solution to alleged issue is to either paint new murals or ‘to stage dance or performance art in the space that invites dialogue about the ways that the United States has mythologized the founding era.’
The report says structural racism ‘permeates all aspects of work and workplace culture at NARA’.
Ferriero, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama, is allowed to serve as archivist indefinitely.
In addition to adding ‘trigger warnings,’ the report suggests that the Archives ‘rewrite or discard’ online material in sources like OurDocuments.gov and Docsteach.org.
According to the report, OurDocuments.gov ‘often uses adulatory and excessive language to document the historical contributions of White, wealthy men.’ It cites the specific descriptions of Thomas Jefferson and his contributions to American history.
What the report suggests adding, however, are details about the harm it says Jefferson caused to Native American communities with his westward expansion policy. Furthermore, the report says, figures like underground railroad heroine Harriet Tubman are discussed with much less reverence.
Lastly, the report suggests long term solutions like fostering a more inclusive environment for black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) on staff and as guests. It recommends the NARA create ‘safe spaces that would allow employees to feel heard and empowered.’