When I set out to learn more about systemic racism, I quickly realized how ignorant I was. Ignorant about how systemic racism came about, about how our laws enabled segregation, how we have perpetuated racism through the generations. The more I read, the more the books opened new areas of unawareness.
For example, I learned that The Social Security Act of 1935 excluded from coverage about half of American workers – primarily agricultural and domestic workers of whom a large percentage were Black Americans. Many have argued that policy makers in 1935 deliberately excluded Blacks from the Social Security system because of prevailing racial biases of the time.
I learned that the National Housing Act of 1934, which created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), furthered segregation by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods — a policy known as "redlining," while subsidizing builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites — with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans.
How did I not know these things? That’s an easy answer. No one ever told me or taught me. My middle- and high-school education did not include courses in Black history. When I was in school, I was taught that Franklin Roosevelt was an American hero. That he created the New Deal, provided relief to the unemployed, restored confidence in the banking system, and helped save the world from Nazism by joining the Allied Forces in wiping out the forces of evil. While all these things are true, they do not paint the full picture – that much of his New Deal legislation discriminated against Black Americans.
A front-page article in this past Friday’s Washington Post entitled “Teens across US push for racial shift in curriculums” caught my eye. High school students across the country are petitioning public, private, and small parochial schools to include more Black history in curriculums and a more diverse range of authors in English syllabuses. They are advocating for more Black and Hispanic teachers and anti-racist training for students and staff.
I find the efforts of these young men and women to be exemplary. And while they are leading the charge, we as adults can join them.
Our country has a decentralized system of education. Unlike math and science, there is no agreed-upon standards for teaching social studies and history across our country. School districts take guidance from state officials but exercise significant discretion in developing course work.
What can we do?
- Encourage your local school boards to create a diversity action plan.
- Petition school boards, as the young people are doing – to include ethnic studies programs, to overhaul curricula to include a more inclusive view of our history, to introduce more books by people of color in English programs, and to hire more teachers of color.
- When considering your vote in upcoming school board races, learn who is in favor of anti-racist education in middle and upper grades.
- Read. Study our collective history and how it has informed our attitudes and behaviors.
- Educate your children at home.
- Investigate Facing History and Ourselves, a non-profit organization committed to helping students connect the choices made in the past to those they confront in their own lives, and consider introducing the organization, which partners with schools and educators around the globe, into your school system.
With these actions, the adults of tomorrow won’t have to admit, like I do, that I was ignorant of the ways systemic racism began in our country. According to the website of Facing History and Ourselves, "Together we can create the next generation of leaders who will build a world based on knowledge and compassion, the foundation for more democratic, equitable, and just societies.”