How Our Understanding Of Black History Shapes Policy
Speaker 1: 00:00 As we celebrate black history month, it's time to do a check on how far this country has come and understanding its past and how well schools are teaching it, especially here in California. Sarah Kaplan is an associate professor of ethnic studies and critical gender studies at the university of California, San Diego, and a founder of UCF black studies project, professor Kaplan. Welcome. Speaker 2: 00:23 Thanks so much, Jade. It's great to be here. Why is Speaker 1: 00:26 This month of celebration so important Speaker 2: 00:28 Because we still live in a time when the history of black people's experiences lives, contributions and struggles are not incorporated into the school curriculums and the ways in which we learn about our country in the ways that you would imagine that it should be. Despite the fact that in reality, the United States wouldn't exist as the nation that it is today without black people having been here since 16, 19 Speaker 1: 00:56 New and more inclusive standard was implemented in school history books for California's students. Can you tell me about those changes as it pertains to black kids? Speaker 2: 01:06 Well, one of the things that has been very exciting about the changes in California's history curriculum, particularly increased attention to the centrality of black people in the building of the United States. What I would say, however, is that one of the difficulties that we still have in California and across the country are the ways in which schools choose to fully engage that curriculum and the ways in which, um, students learn that and the ways in which it gets incorporated for different classrooms in different places. And really the extent to which the full picture, including the more difficult parts are truly incorporated Speaker 1: 01:45 Reconstruction African-Americans were able to build communities. Talk to me about that period Speaker 2: 01:52 Reconstruction, for those of us who study black history is both was a moment of incredible promise and incredible tragedy. So as you may know, radical reconstruction lasted for only a period of about 10 to 12 years by 1877. Most of the benefits of reconstruction had getting completely decimated. So we have a period of time immediately following the civil war, where we see the introduction of many new initiatives. We begin to see all kinds of really critical shifts in voting and franchisement access to the polls access to political power for African-Americans possibility for land ownership shifts, obviously, and citizenship laws that benefited not just African-Americans, but were inconsistently extended at times to benefit other racialized immigrants. But then within a very short period of time, what becomes very clear is that even for northerners and particularly in the South, this notion of black political enfranchisement was so deeply undermining the structures of white supremacy on which the U S was built. Speaker 2: 03:06 That the only way to imagine a unified nation again, and to implement a unified nation was to do it on white supremacy. That's when we begin to see a rollback, we begin to see policies that no longer allowed black people to own land. We see the rise of white terrorist organizations like the KU Klux Klan. We see the laws that are now called, you know, sort of grandfather laws that said that if you couldn't prove that your grandfather could vote, that you were no longer allowed to vote. So we see the wholesale disenfranchisement and erosion of reconstruction that ended by the 1890s with the implementation of Jim Crow laws and the wholesale disenfranchisement of African-Americans from the vote Speaker 1: 03:52 Since reconstruction ended. Do you think America has been able to reverse the damage done to African-Americans by white supremacists, terrorism, Jim Crow laws, and, uh, the exclusion from the political system, as you mentioned, Speaker 2: 04:05 I try to tell my students, and in fact, everyone, I talk to that, the story of African-Americans and white supremacy in the U S post reconstruction is not one of damage, but one of resilience that despite every structure being created against African-American opportunity, well-being health or long life, we have still seen an incredibly resilient community. But do I believe that to this day, if we look at everything from lifespan to wealth, to projected income, to, uh, rates of death at the hands of both the police and extra legal forces, have we seen that the structures that deeply undermine black opportunity and possibility still remain deeply slated against them? Absolutely. That the, you know, it's not just that there's a sort of historic damage to be undone. It's much more that we can continue to, um, structure things in ways that make life much harder for African-Americans and to not really, um, take fully into account the ways that those happen. Speaker 1: 05:18 So how does our understanding of black history then shape the present, especially when it comes to policy? Speaker 2: 05:24 Such a great question. So, you know, I'm going to just use one very concrete example. One of the most fascinating things that I teach as somebody who studies black women's history is I take something like with my students, like say the notion of the black welfare queen, which we know emerged as a kind of trope under Reagan, this idea that there were tons of black women with tons of children who were taking advantage of welfare checks and having kids just to get more money. And it became this fantasy, this racist fantasy that became so accepted as common, that no matter how many statistics you gave people, no matter what you say, people continue to believe that somehow the real problem with our social system is welfare that goes to black women. And I always go back and trace it to the origins of welfare. When welfare first began aid for women with children began in the beginning of the 20th century, it was actually created in a way that excluded black women from it. Speaker 2: 06:23 It was only for white women who were widows with children. And the notion was that if black women received welfare, then they would no longer go to work. And they were needed to work in the sharecropping. They were needed to work as tenant farmers. They were needed to work as domestics. And so in fact, they were classified as necessary workers and excluded from the benefits of welfare. So I point out to my students that in fact, this idea that black women are taking advantage of welfare actually goes back to the idea that black women never deserved help in the first place as we understood it. And now I tell my students, when we think about which workers are getting early access to the COVID vaccine, we see doctors, we see nursing home workers. We see other people who are seen as essential workers, but those people who are working in our grocery stores who are doing low wage high-risk frontline labor that tend to predominantly be black and Brown, poor people. They are not being prioritized. No one is, you know, looking at 7:00 PM and clapping for them every night. And yet they are risking their lives every day so that we can have the things that we need to function. And I argue that it's a continuation that goes all the way back to slavery of the idea that black people's lives are expendable, as long as they perform the labor that we need for them. Speaker 1: 07:48 I've been speaking with Sarah Kaplan and associate professor of ethnic studies and critical gender studies at the university of California, professor Kaplan. Thank you very much for joining us. Thank you, Jane. Speaker 3: 08:04 [inaudible].