Is Black History an Endangered Species?
February 2, 2023 – Marisa Guerin, PhD
(Warning, I’m about to wade into politics and social justice.)
The other day, I read a news headline that set off alarm bells in my head.
The Governor of Florida wants to suppress university spending on anything related to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, (DEI) and Multiculturalism, and this is on top of the legal limits his state has already placed on the freedom of teachers to present difficult topics of racism and anti-Semitism fairly. It follows on the heels of his pushback against advanced placement studies in Black history. There is no mistaking the pattern.
Florida, of course, is not the only place where policies to address racial injustice are actively losing ground. A national group opposed to equity initiatives has just sued a Pennsylvania school district on account of its use of racial affinity groups and cultural competency lessons. An insidious pattern of similar actions is occurring in other states.
Cynical American politicians today see a path to power by riding the waves of white resentment and anger, deliberately inflaming what is already the nation’s most painful, most entrenched injustice. It’s bad enough that racism marks so many dimensions of life. It’s much more dangerous when political leaders who have the perspective and education to know better intentionally oversimplify, pander, and deepen the wounds. It is unconscionable.
I realize that people may honestly differ on exactly how to address specific aspects of racial injustice – for example, the topic of affirmative action stirs many pros and cons, and not all DEI initiatives are well-thought-through – but that kind of search for how to improve things is not what is happening here, and that’s not why the alarm has gone off in my head.
It looks to me like what is happening in Florida and elsewhere is part of the backlash arising from the Black Lives Matter movement and the impossible-to-ignore tragedy of daily lethal violence against Black people, especially young men. It is a reaction in particular to the notion that racism could be anything more than individual bigotry – that it could have systemic, generational dimensions. This idea is deeply unsettling and categorically rejected by many white people. But systemic racism exists, and it must be understood (education) and confronted (nonviolent action and legal remedies). It is this reality that Dr. King wrote about so powerfully in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
If you already agree with what I’m writing here, there is little need for me to explain why this is such a problem. And if you don’t agree, I am not sure there is much more I can say that would be meaningful. I’ll just sound like another woke voice, in this case, a white person’s voice.
So why do I bother even writing or posting this blog? Because I believe it is important for all of us, including and especially white persons, to pay attention, to push back, to speak up and declare the value and the importance of education about Black history, education about racism and education about anti-Semitism. Blaming or shaming are not the point. Knowing what is true is the point, and being able to think about it is the point. Honestly, we Americans seem to have a death wish. The surest path to national decline is to undermine education, and we have been doing that for some time now. Why can’t we get this right?
Black history and the history of slavery – this is American history. The story of Indigenous Americans and how they have been impacted by European settlers – this is American history. The horror of the Holocaust -- this is world history, and it shadows the treatment of Jews in this country.
For every kind of American, there is a back story as to how his or her people related to other peoples, and to the land. There is no good rationale for insisting that the only valid American history is a story of an “empty” land and pioneering white settlers from Europe. In fact, there is no “one” historical narrative at all – every history is told from some point of view; the winners or the losers, the men or the women, the powerful or the poor. It is our duty and our unique privilege as Americans to seek to understand as many threads of our complicated story as possible, and to value the uniqueness of each as we try to live together.
The threat to people of color in this country, especially Black people, is constant. I am not Black, but I get drained with fear for the children of my Black friends and neighbors, and for their own physical and emotional health as well. The chronic disease of racism and my unintentional collusions with it require my attention at all times. But for today, I find myself focused on the hope that Black history will be saved from the endangered species list by Americans who will not let intolerance win this battle.
I can’t say I’m optimistic about how long this may take, but I don’t have the right to be impatient. Eyes open, keep paying attention, act when I can. Don’t give up faith, hope, or love.