Research and Real World Injustice

It’s hard to work on a study of African American history and not be struck by the ongoing stream of news of the deaths of black people. What can often feel like an isolated exercise in abstraction—writing a dissertation—has tuned me to pay particular attention to the ongoing consequences of systematic race-based oppression in our national founding.

As a historian I’m tempted to think I really know why racism is so insidious; if contemporary white people would just study the things I do, they would truly understand the scale and weight of racism, and somehow take it more seriously in the present. That might be true, but it’s not a strategy for change. In an effort to be “objective”—a concept which is patently ridiculous—we’re trained as historians to raise questions for our students but not necessarily to provide firm answers. A student could be forgiven for leaving my classes and recognizing that history is complicated, but feeling unclear on just what to do with that realization.

This is why, in the light of so many deaths of African Americans, the daily violence of mass incarceration, inequitable application of “justice,” and a culture that prefers theoretical gun rights over actual life, I am seeking a different path as an educator. In addition to “raising questions” in the minds of students I feel compelled to seek—and speak—answers to some vital questions:

  • What policies and practices of our governments (local, state, federal) are preserving the white supremacist tradition in American history? In what specific practices is the idea that white lives are more important than others continuing to influence policy decisions?
  • What privileges do I enjoy today as a straight white male that I must actively undercut in order to gain equity for others? There are plenty of answers out there, but few of us in the privileged group who are taking on the work ourselves. (I’m inspired by the work of groups like the Catalyst Project and the White Privilege Conference.)
  • How can white men teach each other to resist and deconstruct our own privilege? In what ways are we injuring and limiting ourselves by our investment in our own dominance? How do we go about “giving up” that dominance? How can we shift from a zero sum view of power, embracing an ethos of companionship and community?

These aren’t questions I expect to be able to dig into in a conventional US History survey classroom. They will be a part of that conversation, to be sure, but questions like these also demand precise and dedicated work beyond what can be tacked onto a 15-week syllabus. As expressed by organizations like Showing Up for Racial Justice, white men must “show up” when these questions are no longer safely abstract and cerebral, when they involve the messiness of emotion, loss of control, and personal accountability.