“Trapped in a History They Do Not Understand”

They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.

James Baldwin referred to white people when he said “they.” Examples that he cited then and since along with a large cadre of journalists, researchers, and essayists make the point with examples after he died in 1987 such as police beatings of Rodney King in Los Angeles and Dylan Moore killing of African American parishioners in Charleston (SC).

A recent but less lethal example of being “trapped in a history they do not understand” is U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’s comment that historically black colleges were “pioneers” and stellar examples of school choice, a policy she is determined to expand through vouchers and charter schools.In a PR statement she released after meeting with the President and leaders of HBCUs, she said:

A key priority for this administration is to help develop opportunities for communities that are often the most underserved. Rather than focus solely on funding, we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have done this since their founding. They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution.

HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.

Their counsel and guidance will be crucial in addressing the current inequities we face in education. I look forward to working with the White House to elevate the role of HBCUs in this administration and to solve the problems we face in education today.

The ignorance of the remark—HBCU’s arose in the 19th and 20th centuries because white colleges, by law, would not accept black applicants—stuns anyone familiar with the history of legally segregated education in the U.S. After the dismantling of Reconstruction following the Civil War and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision (1896) Jim Crow was the law in Southern states. That segregation was alleviated by a myriad of court cases between the 1930s and 1950s to get white colleges to at least provide equal (albeit separate) resources for black applicants. Not until the Brown v. Board of Education did Jim Crow K-12 and higher education begin to weaken and eventually dissolve but leaving HBCUs in strapped financial straits. Those “trapped in history” seldom offer context for their remarks, as Devos failed to do.

Devos quickly backtracked in her remarks after  a storm of criticism from college presidents and pundits by tweeting the context of racism and segregation that she neglected to provide in her initial comments. Were James Baldwin alive now, his expressive face would not have registered shock at the U.S. Secretary of Education mindless comment.

Another member of President Trump’s Cabinet also, “trapped in a history they do not understand” is U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. In this instance it is a highly educated African American who said to HUD staff:

That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity…. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.

After an uproar in social and print media, Carson backtracked in a Facebook entry.

The Immigrants made the choice to come to America. They saw this country as a land of opportunity. In contrast, slaves were forced here against their will and lost all their opportunities. We continue to live with that legacy.

Yet there is another issue here: forgetting the terror and shamefulness of the slave past. Dropping the historical context from this three century chattel experience in exchange for unalloyed optimism–or as one writer put it “state-sanctioned sunniness” (which both DeVos and Carson revealed) mocks any knowledge of the past.

History provides context for what happened. Without the context, ignorance reigns supreme around policies seeking improvements. That the U.S. continues to have an independent media broadcasting such non-historical comments from our top leaders to their readers gives hope to those aware of the U.S. past and who work toward the time when leaders and average citizens step outside of that trap.

They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. .



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8 responses to ““Trapped in a History They Do Not Understand”

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    The alt-facts in circulation come from people who are supposed to the highly educated. How about this. We hold the colleges and universitites from which they graduated responsible for their ignorance.

  2. rstanton

    Dylan Roof

  3. Sarah

    There is an article by George F. Will in today’s Washington Post that, in praising the establishment of a School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at the Arizona State University, lays out quite clearly the need for the “memory” of the history of western civilization to be “nurtured” in every generation. He quotes several people including Daniel Boorstin who said, “Trying to plan for the future without knowing the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.”
    What Ms. DeVos and Mr. Carson recently said shows that they either did not have that nurturing or it did not “take” in them and how, as they are now in the leadership our nation, we are all at a loss for it.
    Keep telling the truth, Mr. Cuban–historical context is essential knowledge, for leaders and for citizens to maintain our democracy.

  4. jeffreybowen

    We certainly see ample evidence of this Administration’s “mindless” embrace of an agenda that warps the past to meet their own purposes. When the departure from fundamental historical facts is so drastic, so dramatically partisan and political, it ensnares the naive and ignorant. It dishonors our struggles toward equal opportunity and treatment. I think history should be a tool to help us think and solve problems. The clearest sign of a government sewing seeds of distrust and calamity is to start manipulating our history for purposes that violate our civic and moral values. More than ignorance, we are witnessing perversity for selfish political and ideological motives.

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