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  • Writer's pictureMwatabu S Okantah

Race: The Elephant in the Room

Updated: May 12, 2023

“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.’”

--Isaac Asimove

The weaponization of ignorance and arrogance are the real dangers in these treacherous yet exciting times. The misguided battle over Critical Race Theory being taught in schools, the attack on African American Studies in Florida, the SB83 assault on Black Studies, on notions of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and on the fundamentals of academic freedom here in Ohio are being waged to conserve an archaic status quo that was never intended to embrace 21st century American realities.

Most of the mean spirited combatants introducing racist, homophobic, and misogynistic legislation at all levels of government or the mob-like “parents” showing up and disrupting school board meetings are making their intentions clear. They would rename Jim Crow, “James,” as if we would not recognize him with a new face. It is beyond their myopic tunnel vision to recognize the cynical ways they have been duped into becoming disposable pawns in a fool’s game. That so many mostly white Americans actually believe Trump-like leaders are their champions is the real “head scratcher.” Nevertheless, what is routinely described as a “culture war” is not new.

This mortal combat has been joined to regain control of an historical narrative in which falsehoods were transformed into a vainglorious national mythology. The critical question in dispute: “Did the Founding Fathers establish the “world’s greatest” democracy, or did they effectively create a sophisticated slave-ocracy sustained by a political economy constructed 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 point of view the story is told, often determines what that story will mean to those who hear and accept it. The Founding Fathers never imagined the demographic changes that now define an ever-evolving United States or how these changes are challenging old notions that are not capable of incorporating a present-day American landscape. The legend of the United States as a cultural “Melting Pot” is no longer viable.

The new gate keepers are calling for the banning of books under the guise

of protecting young people. They fear their children will somehow be traumatized if they learn how European “conquerors” burned indigenous manuscripts, desecrated sacred artifacts, ransacked pre-American societies that were already ancient, enslaved Africans, exploited their own indentured servants and conscripted Asians into work gangs, not only to make America great but to improve the standard of living of Europeans and peoples of European descent.

The domain of education remains the primary battleground where the war to control the cherished American narrative is being waged. This struggle has always been about classifying the status of indigenous people, people of African descent, and of other non-white people within the framework of a competitive class based social system of white preferment. The present Black Lives Matter conflict can be traced to three notable developments in a movement that actually began when the first Africans were traded for supplies at the Jamestown settlement in 1619.

Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 publication, The Mis-Education of the Negro, the 1954 Brown decision that struck down racial segregation in the schools, and the 1960s/1970s black student revolt that challenged the core tenets of American education are pivotal. The sanctity of the accepted storyline is under threat and educators find themselves trapped in between antagonistic 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 patriarchal and Eurocentric.

Woodson argued, “… the educational system as it has developed both in Europe and America is 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.” Efforts to establish independent black educational initiatives and institutions are not new. Some contend they are needed now more than ever.

He wrote, “… 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.”

Woodson recognized, “… 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 Brown ruling galvanized the Civil Rights/Black Power Movement. It focused attention on the physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual devastation being ensnared in white society has rained down on black youth.

According to Dr. Joy DeGruy, "P.T.S.S. (Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome) 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, the empty gesture of censuring Rep. Paul Gosar or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's promise to pardon convicted murderer Daniel Perry 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. The very public outrage in response to Critical Race Theory or the hollow retort of "all lives matter" in reaction 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 Jim Crow racial segregation.

Europeans and peoples of European descent have bullied the planet in the name of spreading the alleged benefits of Western Civilization. The communities of the peoples descended from the conquered, the enslaved and the colonized are now derisively referred to as the "Third World." To admit that black people and other so-called peoples of color have a legitimate right to demand reparations requires a collective look inward that too many Americans cannot bear to indulge. It is on this level that the Black Studies Movement has been in the vanguard of the effort to reform American education for more than 50 years.

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 ... 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 Black Studies for more than 40 years, I can attest to the transformative impact this discipline has had on all students--black, white or otherwise. From the 19th century Underground Railroad through the Radical Reconstruction era to the early 20th century Harlem Renaissance/New Negro/Marcus Garvey Movement through the mid-20th century Black Consciousness/Black Arts Movement to the current millennial Hip Hop inspired Black Lives Matter challenge, the struggles of African Americans have provided the radical model for other marginalized groups to claim their rightful places in American society.

The conflict over Critical Race Theory is typical subterfuge. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated the real dispute 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 opposition to Black Studies, Women's Studies, Latinx Studies, LGBTQ+ Studies, DEI initiatives and the erroneous targeting of Critical Race Theory--which has never been taught in public schools--are fundamentally the same. Not all, but too many "older" white Americans dread the idea of giving critical thinking tools to young people that would empower them to not only challenge their elders and the status quo but to also reject the inherent advantages of white privilege. Matters of race and identity continue to be the proverbial elephant in the room.

Who can deny that this nation is engaged in a classic struggle to influence not just how, but who will be the editors of a genuine anthology of the diverse and inclusive American stories that must be celebrated, that must finally be told?

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