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Why White Students Need Black History
Fascism is an assault on all young people.
There are many reasons to be concerned and horrified by Ron DeSantis’ assault on the teaching of Black history in Florida. Janai Nelson of the Legal Defense Fund says it is “performative white supremacy and that:
research into the effects of ethnic studies K-12 curriculums found that discussing race and racism in school improves academic outcomes for students, reduces prejudice among white students and students of color and improves feelings of belonging in students of color and even their beliefs about their academic abilities. On the other hand, research shows that education that ignores students’ awareness of race, racism and stereotypes leads to increased prejudice.
I’d go further, and say that learning accurate history is a matter of life and death, and not just for Black students. Without a historical grounding in Black history, young white people are ill-equipped to understand the real threat they face from white racists when they take antiracist stances.
James Baldwin makes this point in his lengthy essay The Devil Finds Work in a discussion of the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues.
The ubiquitous Ku Klux Klan appears, marching beside the bus in which the band is riding. The band is white, and they attempt to hide Billie, making, meanwhile, friendly gestures to their marching countrymen. But Billie, because of the strange fruit she has just seen hanging, is now beside herself, and deliberately makes herself visible, cursing and weeping against the Klan: she, and the musicians, make a sufficiently narrow, entirely cinematic escape. This scene is pure bullshit Hollywood-American fable, with the bad guys robed and the good guys casual….
This incident is not in the book: for the very good reason, certainly, that black people in this country are schooled in adversity long before white people are. Blacks perceive danger far more swiftly, and, however odd this may sound, then attempt to protect their white comrade from his white brothers: they know their white comrade’s brothers far better than the comrade does. One of the necessities of being black, and knowing it, is to accept the hard discipline of learning to avoid useless anger, and needless loss of life: every mother and his mother’s mother’s mother’s brother is needed.
There is a great deal of historical evidence that when white people, however provisionally, take a stand against racists, other white people who are racists react with murderous fury. John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Schwerner and Goodman, Heather Heyer, hundreds of thousands of Union dead. America is an exceedingly violent country, and that violence is inextricably linked to its racism. Anyone of good conscience who fails to understand that, whatever their skin color, is in danger here. More, white people may put others at risk through an overestimation of the power of their own white privilege when enlisted for an antiracist cause. Refusal to provide historical context is a deliberate tactic meant to make everyone, Black and white, more vulnerable to fascist enforcement of racist hierarchy.
Finally, I think white young people benefit from Black history because Black history is an antidote to helpless and enervating guilt.
This is explicitly counter to the argument of DeSantis and his fascist co-conspirators. The right claims that Black history is a long accusation aimed at white people, and that if white kids have to learn about the ugliness of slavery or Jim Crow, they will end up feeling bad about themselves.
But the truth is that most kids understand that slavery and racism are evil. They can see who was the oppressor and who was the oppressed. Without sufficient background or knowledge, they’re likely to conclude that their only place in history is as the villain, and that they have no role to play in liberation or in making America a better place. James Loewen notes that when he asked his mostly white college students who they saw as heroes in American history, they mostly answered with the names of Black leaders: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass.
These are all worthy heroes for Black and white Americans. But it’s notable that students did not choose, and quite possibly did not know about, white Americans who chose to fight for antiracist causes or allied themselves with Black liberation. People like the Grimké sisters, or John Brown, or Schwerner and Goodman, don’t make much sense, and probably don’t even exist, in an American history that leaves out Black history, or which relegates white people to uplifting white saviors always marching towards progress with no real pushback or stakes.
Without Black history, and antiracist history, you’re left with…racist history, in which people are just functions of their race. That’s an evil, intentional assault on Black students; fascists like DeSantis want Black kids to see themselves as inferior and subservient. But being placed in a box by whiteness is also not great for white students who, if they have any inkling of conscience or morality, are going to quickly understand that the state wants them to see themselves as slavers and murderous thieves. In order to see yourself as an individual, with the power to do good, you have to have the context to see that racism is an imposed ideology, not a truth, and that you can push back against it, whatever your skin color, by refusing fascism and fighting for the rights of those people—especially Black people—who are not free.
Again, the main harm of racism in general, and of racist censorship of history in particular, is to Black people and Black children. But children of all races, under fascism, are themselves a despised and policed group, which the state wishes to regiment and control. Under guise of protecting white students, Florida is busily damaging their educational opportunities, putting them at risk of violence, and erasing their agency and their self-respect. DeSantis is willing to harm white children as long as he can harm Black children more. That’s always the evil calculus of white supremacy. Black history helps us see that, and fight it.
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