Do Better is an op-ed column by writer Lincoln Anthony Blades that debunks fallacies regarding the politics of race, culture, and society — because if we all knew better, we’d do better.
Although Black History Month is underway, and many in the nation have dedicated themselves to celebrating and highlighting the great achievements of African-Americans, the nation at large is still plagued by racism. While the tradition — which was started by Carter G. Woodson, back in 1926, as Negro History Week — has grown immensely in the 92 years since it began, the nation in which it was founded is still fraught with intensity, hostility, and discomfort toward the topic of race.
For those committed to bringing about equality, it has become commonplace to believe that the key to overcoming racial animus is for people of different backgrounds to come together and “start a conversation” on race. What can be a progressive tool in the fight for racial unity presupposes that both sides are entering it with, at the very least, a basic knowledge of basic facts on the subject. But in America, there is very little understanding of even the most elemental facts about African-American history, especially as it pertains to slavery. This begs the question: How can truly productive conversations on race take place when so many students are suffering from a void in knowledge?
A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) showed that U.S. schools were drastically failing at properly educating students about the barbaric and inhumane history of slavery. The SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project surveyed 1,000 American high school seniors and more than 1,700 social studies teachers and found a large gap between what kids shouldknow by senior year about the nation’s history of enslavement and what they have actually learned. Researchers found that only 12% of the seniors knew that slavery had been essential to driving the Northern economy. Just 8% were able to identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War. Not even one-third of students correctly identified that the 13th Amendment was the formal end of chattel slavery, and less than half identified that the “Middle Passage” was the primary means of transport of enslaved Africans to North America.
The research team discovered that the learning gap was a result of multiple factors, according to SPLC. Teachers struggle with the content, as just 52% reported teaching their students about the legal roots of slavery, including how it was framed in the nation’s founding documents. Textbooks lack sufficient material regarding slavery, as 58% of teachers reported inadequate textbooks to SPLC. And most states have failed to provide proper support for education on slavery, as 39% of surveyed teachers said. While the report lays down the facts of this problem, many of these same issues have been highlighted in years past. In 2015, Roni Dean-Burren, a black mother living in Houston, criticized her son’s World Geography textbook for referring to enslaved Africans as “workers” and “immigrants.” A year later, educational book publisher Scholastic received a torrent of backlash for distributing a children’s picture book titled A Cake for George Washington, which depicted slavery as a joyful entanglement.
According to the survey, there wasn’t a single question about black history where more than 67% of students answered correctly.
Enslaved Africans were constitutionally exposed to extrajudicial rape, torture, and murder. They were legally relegated to property that constituted only three-fifths of a full human being, while fueling America’s economy as a world power. If students don’t understand this, they won’t understand that the roots of white wealth and black poverty in America are literally traced back to the economic and political foundations of slavery. Those same students, then, won’t understand that the Civil War was not about noble brothers fighting over a difference of opinion on how the U.S. should be governed, but about slavery, as some textbooks do say. More than 600,000 Americans died in a battle over whether or not enslaved blacks should be freed. Students should understand that.
To comprehend the modern world that black Americans have inherited, students must understand how life was after the Civil War ended, in 1865. Black people went from collective exclusion from sociopolitical or academic worlds to holding 2,000 public-office seats between 1865 and 1877. By 1877, nearly 600,000 black students were enrolled in Southern schools. That progress was snatched away by violent white domestic terrorism against them from groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and by the federal government’s lack of military and political intervention. Students must know that more than 4,000 black men, women, and children died because of racist lynching violence, a number that counts only documented lynchings.
Those students must grasp how Jim Crow laws allowed white people to flourish off the postwar economy — one of the greatest periods of sustained economic growth in the history of America — while black Americans were locked out of it, expanding the racial wealth gap. Post-slavery, black Americans have suffered through voter suppression, racist housing discrimination, mass incarceration, lack of access to quality education, environmental racism, and poverty. All of these persist today.
When the average student hears this, can they trace the line from these modern problems back to the history of the Civil War? Most likely not. So when they become adults, just “starting a conversation” won’t work.
To engage someone without adequate understanding of slavery’s effects in America, to conduct a conversation about erasing the racial wealth gap, might not work. When I’ve had these conversations, those without understanding often succumb to stereotypical ideologies of black folks being lazy or less enterprising than white people, and they speak with confidence but also with zero context of how oppressive policy created that gap. How do we foster meaningful conversations when students are falling prey to prejudicial propaganda?
This isn’t just a matter of a few lazy or unintelligent students failing to grasp one aspect of their curriculum — it is a systemic problem that starts from the top of the nation’s highest academic power structures. Yet, while American schools are failing to provide their students with an adequate education on African-American history, other nations are making strides to truly acknowledge their own nations’ complicity with their longstanding legacies of prejudice. Germany is renowned for demonizing its Nazi past and memorializing and monetarily supporting victims of the Holocaust. And we’re now seeing African nations, such as Benin, resolving to plainly address their involvement with the transatlantic slave trade. In Ouidah, Benin, less than a mile away from what was West Africa’s largest slave port, where more than a million Africans were shipped to new lands as property, the government is investing over $24 million to erect museums to finally confront its brutal complicity in the slave trade. It’s just the start — and a departure from the country’s previous lack of reconciliation. In education, it’s an opportunity to finally address their history.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic, “I don’t know how you diagnose the problem of racism in America without understanding the actual history.” The truth is, you can’t. Until America concedes to teach its history fully, in all of its brutal and beautiful honesty, we’ll never collectively be in a position to truly start a progressive conversation on race, because too many of us have no idea what happened and what’s continuing to happen in this nation.