OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES
©Wendell Griffen, 2015
February is Black History Month in the United States when it is customary to highlight the contributions and achievements of black people to humanity. One reality of racism is that human history has been and continues to be defined and interpreted by people whose thinking is based on notions of white supremacy, white privilege, and the belief that people of color are inferior to people who are white. Black History Month efforts and events attempt to challenge that mindset and actions flowing from it.
While it is certainly important to highlight the contributions and achievements of black people to humanity, doing so is not enough. Any useful understanding of the experience of black people in the United States and throughout the world—whether during Black History Month or any other time—requires that we understand the past and continued effects of racism, white supremacy, white privilege, and notions of black inferiority. Otherwise, Black History Month amounts to little more than a routine we practice while refusing to face hard truths about the past and continued effects of racism, white supremacy, white privilege, and notions of black inferiority.
For example, one almost never reads or hears anyone connect the “achievement gap” between white and black students to the history of racism, white supremacy, white privilege, and notions of black inferiority in the United States and Arkansas. The “achievement gap” is usually discussed as if that history never happened. Instead, some people explain the “achievement gap” by claiming white families are more concerned about and better at educating their children than are black families.
But the United States—including Arkansas—“was founded explicitly, prospered explicitly, and still often lives uneasily on the precept of black inferiority and white supremacy” to quote Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. from his book titled Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process. Present conversations about the so-called “achievement gap” ignore what Judge Higginbotham declared. “From the time the Africans first disembarked here in America, the colonists were prepared to regard them as inferior.”
Perhaps some people will argue that any notion of black inferiority and white supremacy—at least in public education—ended in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public education in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. In that case the Supreme Court ruled that intentionally segregating black children in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
Some people will point to the Brown v. Board of Education decision and ask why black academic achievement remains so far below that for white students in 2015, more than 60 years after 1954. But belief in white supremacy and black inferiority did not end in 1866 when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery. It did not end in 1868 when the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed equal protection for all persons. It did not end in 1870 when the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote to all citizens of the United States. And the racist belief in white supremacy and black inferiority did not end in 1954 when the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education.
The poisonous wine of racism, white supremacy, white privilege, and black inferiority that forced Africans into slavery in this hemisphere centuries ago has never been thrown away. It has merely been poured into new bottles. The decision by Governor Orval Faubus to deploy National Guard troops to prevent black students from enrolling in Little Rock Central High School was a new bottle. Governor Faubus and the Arkansas General Assembly enacted legislation that outlawed integrated education of black and white students. That was another bottle.
As late as 1963, the Arkansas Advisory Commission of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported that “Arkansas public schools remain basically segregated.” In the 1969 edition of the International History of Negro Life and History Charles Wesley reported that as of 1966, twelve years after the Brown decision outlawed racial segregation in public schools, “the facts of racial isolation in the public schools left the Negro as short-changed as before.” Arkansas school districts resisted desegregation efforts even after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibited federal funds from going to segregated school districts. Those resistance efforts were new bottles.
At every turn, the old wine of racism, white supremacy, white privilege, and black inferiority has been poured into new bottles. “Achievement gap” discussions almost never admit this history, let alone ponder how that old wine relates to the new bottles of racial profiling, police brutality, mass incarceration, racial health disparities, racial disparities in wealth ownership, and other signs of racial injustice.
One reason the “achievement gap” continues is because many people have an “achievement gap” about the history of racism, white supremacy, white privilege, notions of black inferiority, and public education in the United States. People who don’t understand their historical responsibility for a cross-cultural problem won’t understand their present inability to solve it, let alone question their competence to do so. It is easier for them to blame current victims of racism, white supremacy, white privilege, and notions of black inferiority than accuse themselves.
Culturally incompetent people are not reliable solvers of "achievement gap" and other cross-cultural problems. We should remember this always, but especially during Black History Month.