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‘Race and Racism in America’ Seizes Historical Moment


Last semester, Professor of Africana Studies Heather Merrill taught a new course that she developed to meet this moment in history. “Racism and Anti-racism” explores the theory and practice of anti-racist work through an examination of race and racism in America and the resistance of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Frances Seward. Students also read more recent and contemporary authors such as James Baldwin, Jane Lazarre, France Winddance Twine, Ibrahim Kendi, Emma Dabiri, and Heather McGee. In observation of Black History Month, Merrill shared this perspective about the course and the students who took it. They inspired hope. 

In my field of Africana studies, we study Black life as central to the story of the modern world. We try to stand inside the realities of Black lived experiences, which tell us a great deal about our society and where we can go from here. I put together this new course on racism and antiracism because I believe this new generation, along with all the others, can seize this historical moment and move us in more humane directions. This can only be done with more knowledge.

We start in the 19th century and examine the origins of whiteness as an identity, exploring how leaders like Frederick Douglass and John Brown challenged this racial capitalist system that seduced Irish and Italian immigrants into ignoring the cruelties of the slavery system, expressing aggression toward free Black people, seeing themselves as superior, and therefore white. We also explore how some white people have come to deeply criticize and devote themselves to working to dismantle the system of white supremacy. 

 Heather Merrill
Heather Merrill. Photo: Nancy L. Ford

In 2020, a host of processes converged to ignite what many then described as a “racial reckoning,” when white people throughout the world seemed in large numbers, for the first time in history, to feel empathy for and solidarity with Black Americans, and to question the stories they had been told about our history and society.

People living in racially segregated and frequently affluent towns and cities, who were confined to their homes due to the pandemic, watched a video of the tragic murder of George Floyd by a police officer and felt horrified — even though this sort of public lynching of innocent people was by no means unique. To take one of many examples, a few years earlier, Philando Castile was fatally shot by a police officer with little public outcry. Breonna Taylor was asleep when she was killed by police in her home, Eric Garner’s cries for help as police murdered him were filmed and shown widely, Tamir Rice was a child whom police shot while he played with a toy gun, and countless other tragic losses to Black families and communities had taken place while white Americans remained incredulous or apathetic.

Thus, when the media depicted the protests among white people as a sort of racial reckoning, many perceived the compassionate show of support as likely to be superficial and fleeting. The reality is that there are deep social patterns of racialized hierarchy in this country (shared with many others); patterns of “white innocence.” James Baldwin describes that orientation in his letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook,” as the practice of “destroying hundreds of thousands of lives,” and not knowing it — not wanting to know it. Baldwin describes his own American countrymen as the authors of this devastation, nevertheless of being well-meaning and “innocent,” adding that, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” 

This innocence has been challenged, and has reached a point, especially among young people, when, with willingness, openness, and knowledge, we may transform our society into a true beacon of social justice and freedom — instead of watching it be further divided and dissolve into extremes of inequality and racialized nationalisms. These divisions have caused widespread voter suppression, attacks on school boards, and new state legislation prohibiting teaching “critical race theory,” which means anything about manifold and persistent anti-Black racialized inequities.

In order to achieve such a transformation, we have to rethink and reimagine where we came from and build a new American story untethered to race. We need to critique the way our institutions and policies work through the belief and expectation that being white is the “price of the ticket” required for one to be treated with respect and dignity. As Ibrahim Kendi put it, “to be an antiracist is to view national and transnational ethnic groups as equal in all their differences.” In order to reach this, we need to rearticulate suppressed and or little-known histories. In other words, to challenge racist policies, we must first educate ourselves. There is a lot at stake. 

Heather McGee writes in The Sum of Us that white people have been taught to see the well-being of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) as a threat to their own lives. This idea, created during slavery – a racialized labor institution we genuinely need to grapple with — is deeply harmful to everyone. The “zero sum hierarchy” is a way of thinking that further advances huge disparities in wealth. It distracts white people, leading them to blame others for their problems instead of examining and critiquing the interests that wreak havoc on their health, school systems, and the environment. It leads many people to forfeit access to open spaces where their children and families can play, explore, and connect with each other. They lose access to good public schools, health care, child care, decent housing, fair wages and work environments, and other rights that should be basic in a country built on principles of fairness, equality, and justice. 

In teaching this course, I found students more willing than in the past to examine their own taken-for-granted ideas and question what they’d been taught about themselves as part of this country and our world. As horrible as the pandemic is in so many ways, it seems to have a silver lining. It is creating space for a rethinking and remaking of social ideas, values, and practices that have long been part of common sense in our social system. The students expressed genuine interest, commitment, and even excitement about helping address entrenched racialized violence and inequalities.

Hamilton students are wonderfully engaged, and the students in this class were open and concerned, more able to truly question everything in ways I had not seen before. They probed whiteness and white supremacy, learning its origins, reproduction, and recent acceleration in ways that fully dehumanize our society, as if to draw us backward to the unjust and highly stratified society of the 19th century.

These students gave me hope that, as we find ourselves at a dangerous historical crossroads, many of us will take the path that leads to a radical transformation and repair of our racial system and racial capitalism, building a far more compassionate society where human connections are enhanced by differences; where violence and the hoarding of wealth and power through domination are no longer glamorized; and where, instead of succumbing to crude nationalisms that separate us, we are able to build coalitions of imagination and justice.

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