Public history and the campus anti-racism protests
08 December 2015 – Will Walker
As I’ve read obsessively the news of campus protests these past few weeks and shared support for protesters both publicly on social media and privately in email conversations with college administrators, I’ve been challenged to think deeply about my position as both a public historian and a faculty member at a state university. In my career, I’ve spent a lot of time teaching, researching, writing, and facilitating dialogue on issues of race and racism. Several of my courses explore the ways in which museums are (or should be) addressing these issues, past and present. Right now, however, perhaps the most direct way I am engaging with the current protests is in my role as the chair of my college’s President’s Council on Diversity (PCOD). In this advisory capacity, I have offered suggestions and participated in sensitive discussions on how to respond to bias acts and transform our campus into a more inclusive place.
In doing this work, I’ve relied on my public history toolkit–primarily by employing dialogue techniques and marshaling historical perspective to encourage productive conversation and proactive decision-making. Our council has supported the work of the college’s Chief Diversity Officer, the directors of the Educational Opportunity Program and the College Assistance Migrant Program, and other staff members whose primary responsibilities are advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion. These are the slow tools that we hope will bear fruit in the not-too-distant future–in some important ways, they are already having a positive effect. However, students at Mizzou, Princeton, Yale, Amherst, Brandeis, and many other campuses are, understandably, calling for immediate and radical changes that will improve conditions in the present.
My college has a particularly relevant recent history that has surfaced and re-surfaced over the past several years as students, faculty, and staff have addressed issues such as racial profiling and bias incidents. In 1992, in response to a general description provided by a white woman who was the victim of an assault in the bedroom of a home in the vicinity of the college, police questioned large numbers of African American men and women. In response to a police request, a college administrator provided the police with a list of names and residences of currently enrolled black male students–creating what came to be called the “black list.” The police questioned many of these students and required them to show their arms because the victim reported that the assailant had been cut during the assault. The police never found the perpetrator, but the investigation did prompt the longest litigated civil rights case in US history and caused lasting hurt and mistrust. CBS’s 60 Minutes reported on the case, and, more recently, an alumnus of the college made a documentary film about the event and its aftermath.
In 2012, the campus marked the twentieth anniversary of the “black list” with a day of talks and performances, capped by a lecture from Cornel West. The director of my museum studies program was one of the co-chairs of this event, and I helped to organize a “Street Corner University” program in which faculty gave lightning talks on the history of race and racism. Both before and after the event, I have witnessed the history of the black list open old wounds and raise new issues that strongly resonate with the past. Although my college has come a long way in two decades, there are still moments when the racial climate that enabled the black list feels not like distant past, but painful present–especially for students, faculty, and staff of color. My campus is clearly not unique in this regard–a fact we’ve seen vividly demonstrated these past few weeks.
As with the broader Black Lives Matter movement, past and present intersect powerfully in campus protests, and activists have built convincing arguments about racial inequality and injustice based in large measure on history. Public historians who work in (or with) colleges and universities can connect with this history and share it with their students–telling not simply national stories of injustice and inequality but local histories as well. Most historically white public colleges and universities did not enroll black students until the 1940s and even then numbers were extremely low. Residential segregation continues to negatively affect the educational opportunities of black and Latina/o students and define the pipeline to higher education. Where one grows up and attends school matters deeply. Moreover, our culture persists in disseminating negative racial stereotypes and resists the dismantling of ideologies that advance white supremacy.
So what’s a public historian and university employee to do? African American Studies departments have led the way in statements of solidarity with protesters and other departments have followed suit. Expressions of support and solidarity–whether as formal statements or informal social media posts–provide encouragement to protesters and show those in power that the demonstrations cannot be easily ignored. They may also move people toward more active support. I know this has been the case for me. I’ve been prodded and challenged by social media, especially Twitter, and strengthened in moments of doubt by the many statements I’ve read.
Public historians can also bring their special tools to ongoing public and private dialogues on race and racism. Facilitating dialogue–rather than lecturing–can be a very effective approach. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience has wonderful resources for doing this kind of work. Finally, public historians in colleges and universities can support, encourage, and advocate for our students and faculty of color. Ultimately, our deepest and most lasting effect will be through our students. As instructors and mentors, we have the power to recruit, train, and recommend students of color for influential positions in museums, historic sites, and other non-profit organizations. Student activism and Black Lives Matter have shown us that public history is essential to our democracy. Let’s channel this energy into supporting a new generation of leaders who will change our institutions and, perhaps, society as a whole.
~ Will Walker is associate professor of history at the Cooperstown Graduate Program (SUNY Oneonta). He is a co-lead editor of [email protected] and the author of A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum.