As Black History Month ends this year, education has been playing a larger than usual role in the national conversation about race. Take the fear and trembling provoked by Critical Race Theory. When I first started teaching, I was amused by the anxieties aroused by Postmodern Theory in people who really cared little about philosophy and literature, but that was nothing compared to the reactions to CRT. Around the country people have been convinced that they must protect their children from a body of scholarship that they know almost nothing about. And they’ve demanded their representatives in government or on school boards do something about it. What’s going on here? It seems that efforts to block CRT are meant to forbid discussion of any scholarship about anti-black racism that doesn’t see it as a wild aberration from the norms of American history. Some of the bills making their way through statehouses or school districts forbid “divisive concepts” that might make a group of people feel uncomfortable or guilty.
Historians know that our understanding of the past is always subject to revision, either because we discover new facts (which rarely happens), or because we have new interpretive frameworks with which to make sense of the facts already familiar to us. This doesn’t mean anything goes, or that inquiry is divorced from reality; it just means that history is a product of interpretations that resonate at a particular place and time. These interpretations are subject to criticism, and through this process our sense of the past evolves in relation to our present. It’s hard to think of a reframing of American history in the last hundred years that has been more resonant — and more subject to criticism — than Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project. Debates about its framing of the American Revolution, and hence, of the American experiment, will go on for some time, as they should. But the vehemence and nastiness of much of the criticism has little to do with her treatment of sources or her understanding of events. For many, the 1619 Project is a narcissistic blow – a shock to the self-image of the nation. Efforts to ban the work or to marginalize those associated with it are a reminder of how difficult it is to change thinking about one’s national identity. The repression of the Project and the vilification of Hannah-Jones is a sad reminder this month of how far we have yet to go to integrate Black History into the dominant narratives of American history.
In higher education, there is a great deal of worry that the Trump-packed Supreme Court will bring affirmative action to an end. Today, colleges and universities are still free to develop admissions policies that take race into account in relation to a number of other factors in their efforts to create a diverse educational environment. Promoting access to a high-quality education has been key to turning American rhetoric of equality into genuine opportunity. And throughout our history, elites threatened by equality, or just by social mobility, have joined together to block access for groups striving to improve their prospects in life. In the 20th century, policies were enacted to keep immigrants out of colleges and universities and to limit the number of Jews who enrolled. In more recent decades, referenda and legislators in states red and blue have attempted to block consideration of race in admissions at public universities, undermining opportunity for minorities, especially African Americans. Today, higher-ed institutions need more (not less) diversity broadly conceived ― including intellectual diversity ― and we should enhance our efforts to make them inclusive, dynamic places of learning through difference. A retreat from affirmative action will result in more “opportunity hoarding,” and return us to the orchestrated parochialism of the past.
Watching history repeat itself has been especially troubling this month as several HBCUs were forced to evacuate buildings and suspend classes because of bomb threats. Terror has long been used to keep African Americans from pursuing their educational goals, and it has also been used to limit voting rights. The FBI is investigating the bomb threats, but efforts to keep blacks from voting are happening in plain sight. Recently, Trump’s justices ensured that Alabama could solidify its long-standing marginalization of black voters through blatantly racist gerrymandering. Of course, politicians from both parties seek political advantage by redrawing voting districts. This is just a sad fact of American history. But racist efforts to limit the franchise has an especially egregious history, and it is happening again as state legislators pass laws to make it harder for African Americans to vote. History won’t go away. At least not on its own.
We don’t have to stand by passively as forces of racism and oppression emerge from the past. As Black History Month comes to a close, let us stand in solidarity to defend the right to vote by supporting voter registration efforts across the country. Colleges and universities should inspire their students to take the field, as in the Freedom Summer of 1964, to help people participate in the electoral process. Librarians and other educators should stand shoulder-to-shoulder to stop the banning of books just because they cause discomfort. Professors and administrators should make common cause to defend the right to discuss uncomfortable subjects and to explore new visions of American history and Black history. As we leave Black History month behind, it is vital to remember that how we imagine the past affects how we build the future.