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  • Mwatabu S Okantah

Race: Black Elephant in the Room

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

There is a cult of ignorance in the United

States, and there has always been. The strain

of anti-intellectualism has been a constant

thread winding its way through our political

and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion

that democracy means that ‘my ignorance

is just as good as your knowledge.’

--Issac Asimove

The MAGA Trump crusade elevated Asimove’s observation to new heights; to “My ignorance is greater than your knowledge.” This alignment of ignorance with arrogance is the real danger in these treacherous yet exciting times. The actual dispute over Critical Race Theory being taught in schools is being waged to conserve a status quo most of the irrational combatants showing up and terrorizing school board meetings fail to realize has turned them into disposable pawns in a fool’s game. What is routinely being called a “culture war” is not new. This mortal combat has been joined to redeem cherished notions and to maintain control of an historical narrative in which falsehoods have been transformed into a self-aggrandizing mythology. The fundamental question is, “Did the Founding Fathers create what we are constantly told is the “world’s greatest” democracy, or did they effectively create a Slave-ocracy sustained by a political and economic system built on the foundation of chattel slavery? This conflict is about reestablishing who has the power to define, and how that power will be used to characterize a changing 21st century America.

How a story is told, and from whose perspective that story is told often determines what the story will mean to those who hear and embrace it. We are engaged in an epic fight to influence not only how, but who will tell America’s story going forward. The Founding Fathers never imagined the demographic changes that now define an ever-evolving United States or how these changes are challenging old perceptions that are not capable of encompassing contemporary American realities. The new gate keepers are calling for the burning of books in the name of protecting young people. They fear their children will experience feelings of guilt and shame if they are taught how earlier generations of European “conquerors” burned indigenous manuscripts, desecrated sacred artifacts, ransacked pre-American societies that were already ancient, enslaved Africans and exploited their own to not only “make America great,” but to enrich the world of Europeans and peoples of European descent.

The domain of education and the schools has always been the battleground where the war to oversee the essential American narrative has been fought out. From the beginning of the republic, this struggle has always been about classifying the status of indigenous people, of black people, and of other non-white people within the framework of a competitive class based social system of white preferment. This current phase can be traced to three historic developments in a movement that was born when the first kidnapped Africans were traded for supplies at the Jamestown settlement in 1619: 1) the 1933 publication of Carter G. Woodson’s seminal work, The Mis-Education of the Negro; 2) the 1954 Brown Supreme Court decision that struck down racial segregation in the schools; and 3) the 1960s-1970s Black student/Black Studies revolt that challenged the central core curriculum assumptions of American education. America’s educators are caught in a vise grip between formidable opposing forces. One side committed to the status quo and defiantly resistant to change, the other side just as doggedly determined to claim inclusion in a system that can no longer remain exclusively Eurocentric and calling for an innovative new methodology.

Woodson considered, “… the educational system as it has developed both in Europe and America an antiquated process which does not hit the mark even in the case of the needs of the white man himself. If the white man wants to hold on to it, let him do so; but the Negro, so far as he is able, should develop and carry out a program of his own.” He argued, “… the philosophy and ethics resulting from our educational system have justified slavery, peonage, segregation, and lynching. The oppressor has the right to exploit, to handicap, and to kill the oppressed. Negroes daily educated in the tenets of such a religion of the strong have accepted the status of the weak as divinely ordained, and during the last three generations of their nominal freedom they have done practically nothing to change it. Their pouting and resolutions indulged in by a few of the race have been of little avail.” He concluded, “… taught the same economics, history, philosophy, literature and religion which have established the present code of morals, the Negro’s mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor. The problem of holding the Negro down, therefore, is easily solved. When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions.”

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ignited what grew into the Civil Rights Movement. More importantly, it focused attention on the physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual devastation being trapped in white society has rained down on black people in general, and on black youth in particular. We now know that we are a people suffering from Post-Traumatic Slavery Syndrome. According to Dr. Joy DeGruy, “P.T.S.S. is a theory that explains the etiology of many of the adaptive survival behaviors in African American communities throughout the United States and the Diaspora. It is a condition that exists as a consequence of the multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery. A form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury.”

The Kyle Rittenhouse acquittal and the empty gesture of censuring Rep. Paul Gosar merely reaffirms this society continues to be what it has always been. Black lives do not matter and white lives that confront the system in support of black lives do not matter. America is as America does, and once again Americans are shocked. The very public outrage in response to Critical Race Theory or the hollow comeback of “all lives matter” to Black Lives Matter protests mirror white America’s stubborn refusal to come to grips with the real consequences of the twin legacies of slavery and colonialism: that Europeans and peoples of European descent have terrorized the planet in the name of spreading the virtues of western civilization is not open to debate. It is evident that the lives of the peoples descended from the conquered, from the enslaved and the colonized are not important enough to count. To admit that black people and other so-called peoples of color have the legitimate right to be angry requires a self-reflective look inward that too many white Americans are loathe to consider.

The Black Studies Movement has been in the vanguard of the effort to reform the parameters of American education for more than 50 years. Writing in Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies, Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young state, “The systematic study of the African American experience from its African heritage to contemporary society and beyond is nowhere else pursued in the academy than in Black Studies programs. Although the body of knowledge, for the most part, has been available to scholars for several generations, it was not until the black consciousness movement of the 1960s forced the issue that African Americans began to be accorded their rightful place in the annals of the history and development of American society. The security of that progress depends on the existence of Black Studies programs.” As a professor of Pan-African and Africana Studies for more than 40 years, I can attest to the positive and the transformative impact this approach has had on all students—black, white, and otherwise.

From the 19th century Abolitionists through the Radical Reconstruction era to the early 20th century Harlem Renaissance/New Negro/Marcus Garvey Movement through the mid-20th century Civil Rights/Black Liberation/Black Arts Movement to today’s millennial Hip Hop inspired Black Lives Matter challenge, the struggles of black people in this country have provided the template for other peoples of color and for other marginalized groups to claim their rightful places in this country. The battle over Critical Race Theory must be viewed within this historical context. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated the real point when he wrote, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans.”

The historical opposition to the Black Studies Movement and the current hostility to the teaching of Critical Race Theory are virtually the same. Not all, but too many white Americans dread the idea of giving critical thinking tools to young people that would empower them to challenge their elders and to reject the inherent advantages of white privilege. Issues of race continue to be the proverbial black elephant in the room.

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