Behind the Attack on Critical Race Theory

Republican legislatures in approximately thirty states have sprinted to pass legislation which seems intent on banning teachers from discussing race, racism, and what has been termed “divisive” concepts. Also forbidden: anything that makes (white) students feel “discomfort” or a “sense of responsibility” for the past. The current efforts by Republican legislatures and conservative school boards have been packaged as an opposition to “critical race theory” (CRT), an academic framework that views racism as ingrained in law and other modern institutions. But, as others have noted, “critical race theory” is a red herring that functions as a catch-all term that includes any consideration of race and racism (e.g., multiculturalism, “wokeism,” identity politics, culturally responsive teaching, etc.). Any hint that “racial inequities in the United States are anything but fair outcomes, the result of choices made by equally positioned individuals in a free society,” or any attempt to offer anything but a sanitized history of the United States is equally likely to be caught up in the Republicans’ expansive nets.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by USA Today Network via Reuters Connect

CRT emerged in the legal studies field in the 1970s, spreading to other academic disciplines as a series of theoretical propositions. As Jacqueline Jones, president of the American Historical Association, recently summarized, it “provides an intellectual framework for understanding the many ways that governmental entities and private interests have put racial ideologies into practice in the forms of laws, taxation policies, public works projects, regulatory guidelines, profit-making schemes, hiring preferences, and more.” In terms of educational policy, the theoretical concept moves away from the individual child, focusing instead on “suspension rates, assignment to special education, testing and assessment, curricular access…who gets into honors and AP, who doesn’t,” as Gloria Ladson-Billings observed. (Ladson-Billings co-authored what is considered the definitive article on critical race theory in education.)

“Critical race theory” was always a suspicious target for legislators and school board members if only because it simply is not taught at the K-12 level. Indeed, it’s rarely offered at an undergraduate level.  But the increasing diversification of the U.S. population and the unprecedented calls for social justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 left the Right searching for a response, and “critical race theory” was at once vague, all-encompassing and suggestively threatening. Fox News, always a good barometer of Right-wing currents, virtually ignored CRT through mid-2020, raising it a scant 12 times between June and August 2020. Then, spurred by Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, Tucker Carlson jumped on board. By September, Trump added the power of the presidency with an executive order banning as “divisive” diversity training in federal agencies. Fast forward one year: between  June and August 2021, Fox referenced CRT over 1,900 times.

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Taking Responsibility

I’ve used some of the space opened up during COVID-times to begin to address a gaping hole in my education. Truth is, I know painfully little about U.S. history, even less as regards its African American component. That I know more about the history of Chile or Mexico than the history of my own country is unsurprising since I’m trained as a Latin American historian, and have spent the better part of 50 years studying those countries. But how I could avoid taking responsibility for my own country’s history for so long is puzzling. In any case, I’ve begun to address my ignorance with generous amounts of Douglass and DuBois, Baldwin and Rankine, McGee, Glaude, Jr., Wilkerson, and Blight. I’ve also put my long walks outside to some educational purpose by listening to podcasts covering this history, including any number of episodes of NPR’s “Throughline” with hosts Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah, David Blight’s 27 lectures at Yale (History 119) on “The Civil War and Reconstruction,” Brooklyn Deep’s “School Colors,” as well as “Floodlines,” “A Strange and Bitter Crop,” and many others. Yesterday, I caught up with the final episode of “Blindspot: Tulsa Burning,” produced out of WNYC’s studios, and expertly narrated by WNYC’s KalaLea.

Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, Item 1977.025.001

I don’t have to remind you that we recently marked the centennial of the race massacre that led to the destruction of the so-called “Black Wall Street,” the prosperous 35-block Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, a white mob of thousands, aided and abetted by the police and the National Guard, rampaged through Greenwood, leaving behind a heap of rubble where once a thriving town had stood, up to 300 dead (we’ll never know the exact count as Black lives didn’t matter), a thousand injured, and some 6,000 Black townsfolk penned up in the fairgrounds and other large sites. Nearly 10,000 people were left homeless as 1,256 homes were looted and burned down.

What followed the atrocity was…silence. Not a single person was ever arrested or tried for the racist rampage; the only individual to be compensated for his losses was a white pawnshop owner. White Tulsa avoided taking responsibility for its own history by thoroughly erasing the massacre from the city’s official history for most of the 20th century even as the events remained as a traumatic memory for its victims, one so painful that survivors rarely spoke of it to their children or grandchildren.

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You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

“Forgetting is an involuntary act. The more you want to leave something behind you, the more it follows you.”  I couldn’t help but think of this epigraph attributed to one William Jonah Barkley in Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian when I read of the efforts by Republican lawmakers in Texas to reframe that state’s history lessons by minimizing references to slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination that were – how to put this? – fundamental to  that state’s existence. And yet, the more determined these legislators are to excise this country’s roots in slavery and genocide, the more the reality of that history continues to dog their heels.

The Texas bill, similar to ones taken up by Republican-controlled legislatures in other states, would ban the teaching of the 1619 Project, an initiative by The New York Times designed to re-center the country’s history by foregrounding the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans, as well as by limiting classroom teachers from discussing how racism has influenced the legal system in the state and the rest of the country. Another bill, which cruised through the Texas House, would create a committee to “promote patriotic education” by ignoring how the territory’s 1836 breakaway from Mexico was spearheaded by proponents of slavery’s expansion.

Slave and Free States, 1850 (Library of Congress)

Mexico, after all, had banned slavery in 1829, but newly arrived American “patriots,” nearly 80% of whom were “illegal aliens” who entered after an 1830 law prohibiting their immigration, made sure that slavery would be zealously secured by the new Republic’s Constitution. The General Provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas prohibited owners, without the legislators’ consent, from freeing those they had enslaved, while barring Congress from making any law that would restrict the slave trade or emancipate enslaved people. 

Finally, returning to the present, a third bill proposed by the Texas legislature would block exhibits at San Antonio’s Alamo complex from (truthfully) stating that major figures in the Texas Revolution were slave owners.

The “Lone Star” state, of course, does not stand alone in this matter. Earlier this month, Idaho Governor Brad Little signed into law a bill that restricts educators from teaching critical race theory. CRT has been developing since the early 1980s, spurred at the time by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a student at Harvard Law, who wanted to deepen an understanding of how the history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination was embedded in U.S. laws and continued to shape outcomes for Black Americans. It was largely ignored by the non-academic world until the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder when Fox News commentators, who referred to CRT only twice in 2019, suddenly became fixated on the concept. Since June 5, 2020, more than 150 broadcasts on the network saw fit to reference critical race theory.

Senator Joe McCarthy by Herb Block, May 7, 1954; Library of Congress

Last September, Christopher F. Rufo, writer and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, to argue that CRT had become “the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” and was being “weaponized against the American people.” Senator Joseph McCarthy (“I have here in my hand a list of 205… members of the Communist Party … who are still … shaping policy in the State Department”) is likely smiling from his grave. Rulfo called on Trump to issue an executive order banning it.

Conservative lawmakers feared that white students were being taught to be “ashamed” of past wrongs, such as slavery. And yet shame, were it to arise in these imagined classrooms, would be but the most minimal recompense for the sins of a country, as Frederick Douglass put it in his shattering “Fourth of July” speech of 1852, “built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men.”

Nearly a dozen states have introduced similar Republican-backed bills that would direct what students can, or more often, cannot be taught about the role of slavery in American history and the ongoing impact of racism in the U.S. today. On May 12, the North Carolina House of Republicans approved a plan to prohibit public schools from teaching seven specific ideas that critically examine how race and racism influence American politics, culture, and law. According to Republican Representative John Torbett, “We owe [our children] an education system that unites and not divides.” Actually, we owe our children an education that educates, not obfuscates.

The Tennessee General Assembly, for its part, not only banned the teaching of critical race theory, but also would withhold funding from any public school that discussed white privilege. Perhaps Tennessee is just maintaining its historical traditions: the state’s Butler Act of 1925 made it illegal to teach human evolution in any state funded school, paving the way for the infamous Scopes Trial.

In New Hampshire, House Bill 544 would prevent K-12 schools and public colleges and universities from teaching certain “divisive concepts,” such as systemic racism or sexism. One of the bills circulating in Oklahoma would make public colleges liable for students or employees who are “harmed” by the institution “promoting, requiring, or allowing any political, social, or unorthodox views as part of the curriculum.” The Arizona House of Representatives has approved a bill that would fine teachers $5,000 for discussing “racist, sexist, politicized or other controversial topics” in schools. On May 20, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law a measure that bars faculty from violating students’ First Amendment rights and made it easier to discipline or fire employees for supposed violations. The new law, much like Arizona’s, revealed its heartfelt devotion to the First Amendment by simultaneously restricting the teaching of concepts like systemic racism.

Inside the Capitol building, January 6, 2021 (Reuters)

This country’s history of ignoring, deflecting, re-writing, or forcefully repressing “inconvenient truths,” has advanced at warp-speed in the last few months and years. A violent rampage in the halls of Congress has already been turned into “a normal tourist visit” by a Representative who, when the events took place, had himself barricaded the door of the House chamber against those same “tourists.” We bring with us, unfortunately, a long tradition of politicians who stand on the bandstand of liberty in order to suppress historical investigation. Unfortunately, there is also a tradition of university administrators and trustees who are willing, if not eager, to throw a faculty “Jonah” overboard if they thought it would calm the turbulent waters on which they sailed.

I am a historian, so it is not surprising that I would add my voice to those who feel an existential dread about the efforts of Republicans to legislate the whitewashing of U.S. history in the name of free speech, unity, and “racial equality.” Most often, such drastic measures are not necessary given our tendency toward historical amnesia. Americans were by habit “destitute of political memory,” Frederick Douglass once observed. A faculty member at the liberal Bard College, understanding this, was therefore not surprised that her students were uninformed about Henry Kissinger’s widely displayed disregard for human rights, but she was gobsmacked that twelve of her fourteen students had never even heard of him. But when forgetting is not enough to stem the tide, threats, intimidation, and violence have never been far behind. It is all too predictable that professors whose efforts to raise honest, if uncomfortable, historical discussions with their students have become the target of right-wing ire and death threats. Of the 338 faculty members targeted by Campus Reform, an organization designed to “expose liberal bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses,” 40% reported receiving threats of harm, including physical violence or death, following the publication of stories about them.

But faculty, from our generally privileged positions, are not the ones most threatened by the demand to silence discussion about a flawed past. “I understand,” said Georgina Perez, who serves on the Texas State Board of Education, “that maybe some white people are uncomfortable. Well, dammit, when Black people were being lynched, they sure as hell weren’t comfortable. Native Americans being removed from their land and Mexican Americans being shot to death in the middle of the night, that shit wasn’t comfortable either.” It is those who have been erased from this history, and who stand to be victimized again and again in the shadow of that erasure, who will pay the price.  “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here,” former Senator, and now former CNN commentator, Rick Santorum proudly proclaimed on May 3. Being required to wear a face mask is no different than being “put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany,” the unhinged Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene asserted. These distortions of the factual past too easily pave the way for their repetition in the future.

The sins present at the creation of this country won’t disappear if hidden behind a wall. The crimes of enslavement, Native American genocide, and anti-immigrant violence do not vanish when state legislators threaten social studies teachers and history professors with penalties should they encourage their students to examine them. History isn’t comfortable, but banishing it doesn’t make it go away. The past will continue to follow us around. We can either accept that reality and make a good-faith effort to engage with our country’s often painful, often hopeful, history, or we can attempt to elude it. But for those who think the latter will work, I give the last word to Joe Louis. “You can run,” he is thought to have said, “but you can’t hide.”


Opinion: Laws against teaching critical race theory in college are unconstitutional” by Ronald J. Krotoszynski Jr. (Professor, University of Alabama School of Law and author of “The Disappearing First Amendment),” appeared in the Washington Post on May 26.

Can a Shot of Higher Education Immunize Against Authoritarianism? More thoughts on the purpose of an education

Steven S. Volk

In a radio interview on March 11, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson (R) said of those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, killing five people, assaulting 125 Capitol police and injuring 70 of them in the process: “I knew those were people who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, so I wasn’t concerned.” Not content to stop there, he pressed on, “had the tables been turned and President Trump won the election and tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa [sic], I might have been a little concerned.” Other than the unmistakable racism animating his statement, what Johnson has done is not just replace facts with fantasy, but remake reality to conform to his imagination. In his world, since the insurrectionists were respectful and law abiding, the violence is shifted to the “Black Lives Matter and antifa” protestors — who, of course, were only present in Johnson’s own counterfactual reality, which he is more than happy to share. Fintan O’Toole, a brilliant writer who reports regularly in the New York Review of Books, saw this coming. Former president Trump lied “prodigiously” and was able to successfully “obliterate for his supporters the distinction between the fake and the genuine,” O’Toole argues. But this alone couldn’t have created the strong bond which continues to glue his base to him. “What he managed to do,” he writes, “was simultaneously to erase the distinction between the valid and the bogus and to remake it…What is real is not what is going on. It is who ‘we’ are.” If “we” are peaceful, law abiding white people, than the insurrection couldn’t have been led by “us”!

I continue to ponder the role of higher education in responding to the epistemological and democratic crises on full display in Johnson’s interview which I considered in my last post. If the democratic crisis was most terrifyingly visible in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, an invasion bent on overturning a democratic election (and a Democratic victory), no less so is the epistemological crisis which paved it way by fashioning a “reality” in which two-thirds of Republicans think Biden’s victory was illegitimate and one-third say the claim that “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that includes prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites” is either mostly or completely accurate. This is more than troubling even if, as a colleague who works on these issues pointed out, Republicans still represent less than 30% of registered voters.

If I seem obsessed by this topic, it is largely because, as I observed in earlier posts and as emerging data continues to indicate, education is increasingly becoming an important predictor of party preference, more so than income, and increasingly since 2016. “At the subgroup level,” David Shor, the head of data science at OpenLabs, a progressive nonprofit, argued recently, “Democrats gained somewhere between half a percent to one percent among non-college whites and roughly 7 percent among white college graduates.” That, he added, “is kind of crazy.” A voter’s level of educational attainment — whether they had a college degree — became even more predictive of which party they voted for in 2020 than it had been in 2016, while a voter’s racial identity became less predictive.

As the Republican Party sails deeper into anti-democratic waters, as it persists in lashing its future to an individual (and a remarkably flawed one, at that) rather than to any ideas or legislative program – see, among many others, here, here, here, and here – one begins to wonder whether a bachelor’s degree can offer some kind of immunity to the authoritarian virus. Yet even were this the case, the “vaccination” rate remains too low (less than 35% of persons 25-29 hold a bachelor’s degree) and the “efficacy rate” of today’s college education in preventing “smart” people from anti-democratic cravings is not robust (the margin between Trump and Biden voters with a college degree is actually quite narrow). By now we all are aware that Ted Cruz’s office is papered with his Princeton and Harvard diplomas, that Josh Hawley boasts degrees from Stanford and Yale, and that Louisiana Senator John Kennedy attended Vanderbilt, the University of Virginia, and Magdalen College (Oxford). Yet none of what they learned at those august institutions stopped them from attempting to halt a democratic election in a Senate vote taken a few short hours after insurrectionists roamed the Senate floor and rifled through their desks. Ninety-six percent of the members of the 116th  Congress had a college education, two and a half times more than the population as a whole. Yet, according to Gallup polling from December 2020, when asked about honesty or ethical standards, only 8% of respondents rated members of Congress as “very high” or “high.” (And yes, If you’re wondering, that puts them at the bottom of the heap, even below the proverbial used car salesman.) The chasm between morality and intellect is not new, but it is troubling. We have agonized for decades trying to understand why learning and knowledge didn’t safeguard the Germans, well-educated students of Goethe and Kant and other humanistic giants, against murderous hatred. How is it that schooling (and higher education in particular) has become so alienated from ethics? Should we try to reverse that alienation? Can anything be done to reverse that movement?

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Our Dual Crises: Knowledge, Democracy, and the Way Ahead

Steven S. Volk

I am not the first, and certainly will not be the last, to observe that, as a country, we face a crisis of both democracy and epistemology. Unsurprisingly, the first crisis is strongly entwined with the second – the deep divide on determining how we know what we know. While this administration has failed to take seriously a rampaging virus which, as of this writing, is quickly approaching 400,000 deaths in the United States, Trump did lie so abundantly and so doggedly that he succeeded in undermining the ability of tens of millions to perceive reality itself. Politicians who take liberties with the truth are a dime a dozen. Con artists who find willing buyers for snake oil cures? In some circles that is called advertising. But a huckster who can lead you to deny what you actually observe with your own eyes – that’s a level beyond your garden variety charlatan.

Film Footage: The Heart (ca. 1950), from The Prelinger Archive; Photo: Fred Holland, 1913, from The Library of Congress

Trump’s creation of an alternative universe free from the gravitational pull of facts has always been about an assertion of power, as Masha Gessen pointed out at the inception of the Trump presidency. When Trump, she wrote presciently in 2016, “claims that he didn’t make statements that he is on record as making, or when he claims that millions of people voting illegally cost him the popular vote [in 2016, that is; he would, of course, claim the same thing in 2020], he is not making easily disprovable factual claims: he is claiming control over reality itself.”

It was this Trump-created reality – fed by the Republican Party, Fox News, and an appalling number of those who really should have known better – that convinced his ground troops to storm the Capitol on January 6, aiming to forcefully overturn a democratic election. In my area of specialization, Latin America, we would call that an attempted coup. Whether Trump’s persistent peddling of his “landslide” victory is a product of cynicism, authoritarian tendencies, or serious psychological problems, I’m not qualified to say. Certainly it’s not an either-or situation. There is no question that his revanchist bootlickers, the Ted Cruz’s, Josh Hawley’s, and Jim Jordan’s in Congress (the last, heaven have mercy, being my own congressional representative), are contemptible opportunists, looking to cash in on a political base which Trump will never actually bequeath to them. (“Sure, boys. I’m off to Mar-a-Lago, but you can have all that populist rage and anger that I built up to benefit myself and my family. Do with it as you like; I’ll be on the links if you need me.”)

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The Elections, Education and a Path to Reality

Steven S. Volk

It’s been a while. Some months have passed since I last posted to “After Class.” To those who have written wondering whether I’ve been stricken with COVID, fallen into a ditch, or just tired of writing: thanks for your concern. I’m fine, and actually have spent these last many months writing a book with my colleague, Beth Benedix of DePauw University. The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College: A Manifesto for Reinvention (Belt Publications) came out at the end of September. The book reaffirms our intense pride at having taught a (combined) half century in liberal arts colleges and seen generations of our students, regardless of their myriad career paths, remain engaged with their communities and devoted to what in Hebrew is called tikkun olam, repairing and making the world a better place. And, holy crap, is that ever needed now!

At the same time, we express our concern that, rather than taking advantage of their small size and residential nature, our colleges are replicating the departmental structures characteristic of much larger universities and holding fast to traditional pedagogies and curricula that do not adequately prepare students for the world they will enter. What is more, we have become increasingly frustrated by how these colleges, including our own, reproduce wider structures of economic exclusion and systemic racism. Although they are hardly alone in this, they have frequently become engines of inequality, using selectivity as a mask for elitism. Our “manifesto” suggests how, coming back from the COVID-19 pandemic, as we will, small liberal arts colleges should reimagine, reinvent, and redesign themselves to address these problems.

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Every Day Matters: Immigration in the Age of Trump

Steven S. Volk

For better, and often for worse, the U.S. story is an immigrant’s story. Narratives of those who came here and found shelter from persecution jostle with histories of indigenous displacement and forced African migrations. Yet when we encounter tales of migration in the Age of Trump, they are more likely to be horror stories, recounting journeys initiated by fear or hunger and halted by frequent, bitter, barriers. Each immigrant’s story is different, but they flow together to form a human river that has reached flood stage. Walls won’t stop what set this this tide in motion in the first place, but they do make life a misery for millions of people. Yet it is in our response to this inherently human desire to seek security and safety that we observe most clearly not who “they” are, but who we have become.

I.

Lampedusa-mapOctober 3, 2013: A boat carrying more than five hundred Eritreans and Somalis sank off Lampedusa, a small Italian island in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia. The boat went down quickly, but those who survived remained in the water for five hours, often clinging to the floating bodies of their dead companions. Among them was a young Eritrean woman, perhaps 20 years old, who literally gave birth as she drowned. Her waters had broken in the water. Rescue divers found the dead infant in her leggings, still attached by the umbilical cord. As Frances Saunders wrote in the London Review of Books, “The longest journey [was] also the shortest journey.”

Given that there are more than 70 million refugees and displaced persons in the world and almost 4 million asylum seekers, each day’s news is likely to yield disturbing, often heartbreaking, stories from the immigration front. Here’s a sampling taken from a single, almost random, day, January 31, 2020:

* Washington announced a ban on immigration from Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, and Myanmar. The new measure, brazenly anti-Black in its conception, reflects Trump’s expressed contempt for Africa. It blocks immigrant (not tourist) visas for nearly a quarter Africa’s 1.2 billion people. Unlike the outrage generated by Trump’s original Muslim travel ban from early 2017, no large demonstrations protested the new ban. Continue reading

Book Burning and Confronting the Past

In 1973, I was a doctoral student studying in Santiago, Chile, when the military, led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a socialist. The September 11 coup was not a surprise: sectors of the military had carried out a (failed) dry-run the previous June and, in August, conservatives in Congress declared Allende’s Popular Unity government to be unconstitutional. But the utter ferocity in which it unfolded was. The military’s decision to bomb its own presidential palace (La Moneda), the massive roundup of Allende’s supporters who were herded into the National Stadium, the sight of bodies floating down the muddy Mapocho River which cut its way through the center of town, the hundreds of mutilated bodies I witnessed in the National Morgue – all these and more pointed to the brutality that would define the new regime.

This was confirmed with an act that unfolded on September 23, some two weeks after the coup. Photographs of soldiers tossing books onto a bonfire signaled Pinochet’s comfort with an act firmly associated with fascist Germany.  It was a clear indication that the impulse driving the military was far from a ”restoration of democracy,” as Allende’s conservative opponents had promised. But my own reaction to the event was more immediate – for among the materials consumed in the fire that afternoon were my own books.

Burning Books - Chile September 1973 (David Burnett/Contact)

David Burnett, Gamma

Early that morning, those of us living in the Remodelación San Borja, an apartment block close to the center of Santiago, were awakened by loudspeakers barking orders to remain in our apartments and not try to leave. Looking out my front windows, I could make out the machine gun nests that had been stationed around the complex. My apartment had been searched previously by army soldiers looking for foreigners without proper documentation. This time the search promised to be more thorough, as I could already hear the sounds of soldiers pounding on the doors of the upper-floor apartments. Continue reading

Reputation

I returned a few days ago from a trip to the South with my wife and four old friends. We visited important civil rights sites in Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Jackson, and Memphis. It was a deeply moving, deeply informative, deeply disturbing, and deeply uplifting trip. There were many highlights, with the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum and lynching memorial in Montgomery among the most moving. Both, in different ways, told the story of the hundreds of years of enslavement and racial terrorism that African Americans have endured in this country. EJI has documented more than 4,000 cases of lynching and underscored that one of the most important motivating factors behind the Great Migration of some 6 million Blacks from the South was the desire to flee racial terror and endemic violence. It is a history that most Americans either don’t know or choose to ignore.

HarrisOther sites and museums documented the astonishing efforts of hundreds and thousands of (mostly) unnamed individuals who fought enslavement, Jim Crow, and racial terrorism. In each city, we stopped to read the plaques and remembrances of those who were part of that struggle, soldiers in a battle for equality and dignity. In Montgomery, we read the plaque (left) dedicated to Charles Oscar Harris, African American Community Leader, who was one of the longest active Republicans in Alabama. “On March 11, 1875,” the marker noted, “Harris and other prominent Montgomery African Americans tested the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by purchasing tickets to the white-only section of the Montgomery Theatre. Being denied seats, they pursued their rights in court.” He raised 10 children with his wife, Ellen Hassell Hardaway, 9 of whom attended college (the 10th died in childhood). Mr. Harris, the plaque informed, attended Oberlin College.

EdmonsonIn the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, we learned about Emily & Mary Edmonson (right), who “were just 16 and 13 respectively in 1848 when they snuck aboard The Pearl in Washington DC,” hoping to sail north to freedom. They were caught, but “white abolitionists helped their father, a free black, buy their freedom before they could be sold into prostitution. Educated at Oberlin, the girls became abolitionists.”

Walking on, we came on a tribute to Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, “one of the first African American women to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree.” Dr. Cooper graduated from Oberlin in 1884. Continue reading

Oberlin, Whose Oberlin?

“The nature of moral judgments,” Susan Sontag wrote, “depends on our capacity for paying attention.” A lot of horrors seem to compete for our attention these days, from Trump’s temper tantrums which are destabilizing the world’s economy and security, to the burning of the Amazon, which is undermining its climate. So, if I choose to attend to my home town, Oberlin, Ohio, and the college where I spent the last 33 years, it’s not because it is the most important of the many issues that demand our consideration, but because, in its own small way, examining events here can offer some insights on the moment we are living.

The students have begun to repopulate the town after a summer spent near and far. (There is no summer session at the College.) The sports teams are the first to return; my days of working out in a nearly empty gym are coming to an end. The first-years arrive in a few days, to be followed soon after by all the others. For the most part, they have been absent as the Gibson’s issue played out in a nearby Lorain County court room as well as in hundreds, if not thousands, of news reports, commentaries, and social media streams. Unlike most of those, and similar to my commentaries from earlier in the summer (here and here), I am more interested in exploring some broad contextual themes that can help us understand the terrain on which “Gibson’s” is playing out and not re-litigating the events themselves, including the trial. Continue reading