Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Sun Prairie And Other School Districts Across Wisconsin Must Reexamine Their Black History Lessons

Wisconsin's racial disparities exist in part due to ignorance.

The incident involving a student wearing blackface at a local high school sporting event over the weekend showcases the need for students to be taught black history in more depth, not just in the suburbs of Madison, but throughout the state of Wisconsin.

The student, who did not wear blackface upon arriving at a Sun Prairie High School but applied it on during the girls basketball game on Saturday, was immediately chided by his fellow peers, and told to remove it by them. That's wonderful news that deserves to be recognized — that the kids spoke up against a racist action.

What's disturbing, however, is that the action happened in the first place.

According to the Sun Prairie School District, which sent a letter to parents on Monday about the incident over the weekend, had the administrators noticed the student engaging in direct racist activities, they would have halted it at once.

"The student would not have been allowed to enter the event while wearing blackface. Had district personnel been notified or observed this, they would have acted immediately," the letter read, per reporting from CNN.

Those are good sentiments to hear. But it's not enough.

If it's unclear to some that this action was racist — undoubtedly, apologists will chalk it up to a misunderstanding by the student, whom they will insist shouldn't be criticized TOO much for it — one only has to consider which teams were playing. The game featured Sun Prairie, a district where 7-in-10 students are white, against Madison Memorial, a school whose population is 50 percent non-white.

Students from Sun Prairie's high school, middle school, and the Prairie Phoenix Academy walked out on Tuesday to protest what happened, WKOW reported. They made demands directly to Superintendent Brad Saron and other administrators, who promised to address them in talks with student leaders in the near future.

Those demands included:
  • updating school policies to include stricter enforcement against racist actions;
  • hiring more teachers of color in the schools; and
  • reviewing curriculum to ensure schools are teaching black history in a proper way.
On that last point in particular, it isn't just Sun Prairie School District that needs to address their curriculum. Schools across the state, beyond the suburbs of Madison (but including that city also), need to do more to educate their students on the story of racism in the United States, beyond just the basics.

So often, I fear, such history courses are content to discuss the bare bones of black history, in particular the parts of American history in which people of color were relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Slavery gets a mention, as does freedom after the Civil War. But then, it's apparent that most people's understanding of black history fast-forwards to Martin Luther King/the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which likely only gets lip service in the classroom, if we're being completely honest.

But there's a lot of history that's missing. What about the Dredd Scott ruling? The three-fifths clause of the Constitution, and the racist reasonings for instituting the Electoral College? The American Black Holocaust? What of Plessy v. Ferguson? What of Emmett Till? Bring these terms up at your Thanksgiving dinner this week, and see how many of your relatives' faces go blank.

Heck, how often did your own face go blank just reading them now?

Among those issues, the disturbing history of minstrel shows and blackface must also be included. It's evident, based on the comments on local news sites' Facebook pages that shared this story, that many people don't see what the big deal is. There is a historical record, however, of these types of acts perpetuating stereotypes and insulting black Americans, all to get a laugh from a white audience.

That history is largely ignored in the classroom, it would appear — had it been discussed, it's unlikely this student would have applied blackface makeup at the game on Saturday.

This is an unforgivable sin, to gloss over our nation's history, and to forget about it all like it wasn't that big of a deal. It has real-world consequences.

Wisconsin is the most segregated state in the Union today, and one of the worst for nonwhite families to live in. And we imprison black men at a proportionally higher rate than whites.

More importantly, there is ignorance in this state about black history, on what qualifies as racism, and the willful ignorance over the treatment of nonwhites that is observable to any person willing to take an honest look at things. I have plenty of anecdotal stories I can recall of conversations I've had where a white acquaintance of mine has said or done something that is blatantly racist that they dismiss as a joke, or try to make a false equivalency to in order to defend themselves.

We need to do better in this state. We can start with our schools.

The demands of Sun Prairie students ought to extend beyond that district. They should be addressed by our state legislature, our governor, and by schools across Wisconsin. Change has to happen now.

Featured image credit: Scartol/Wikimedia

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