“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
During a recent trip to Washington, D.C. to visit members of our federal delegation and supporters of Western, Uzma and I took advantage of an open afternoon to visit, for the first time, The National Museum of African American History and Culture. We could have spent the entire day and more—there is so much to learn, absorb, and to reflect upon.
During the few hours we were at the Museum, I learned new facts about our history. While I was familiar with the role that several European colonial powers played in the slave trade, I did not know that, at one point in time, Portugal controlled 31 percent of the trade. I learned that the struggle for freedom from slavery is much older than I had thought, starting in the seventeenth century. And I had never heard of an unincorporated town in southern Indiana called Lyles Station, where free blacks settled and worked their own land prior to the Civil War, a remarkable feat considering slavery was still the law of the land in half the country, including in Kentucky just 35 miles to the south.
More importantly, however, the visit made me reflect on the critical role race relations has played in the history of our nation, and continues to play in shaping our history and culture. Certainly, a lot has changed over the past 50 years—from the time of Jim Crow-era segregation and the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and others. But one cannot help but think how much still needs to change as we watch the daily struggle for justice waged by movements like Black Lives Matter.
Today, Millennials and Generation Z are challenging the systems and structures which have not delivered on social and economic change, at least not at the pace they would like to see. The heated and divisive political discourse over the past couple of years has brought to the foreground the tense environment around race relations in our nation. It has resulted in resurfacing of intolerance in American public life, sowing fear, doubt, suspicion and despair not only within our communities and neighborhoods, but toward our public institutions as well.
As Claude Steele articulates in Whistling Vivaldi, stereotype threat, or the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s group, further impacts performance and reinforces negative perceptions about the group we belong to and how society views it. We are not independent observers and each of us brings our own biases to any social setting. It is easier to construct a picture of another group of people independent of any reality and certainly without any personal interaction with members of that community. The toxic mix of certainty about someone else according to stereotypes, without knowing anything about that individual’s life experience, is unhealthy and exacerbates the difficulty of achieving mutual understanding and social justice.
As an educator, I am particularly interested in equity and inclusion in the education arena. Educational access and success continues to be governed too much by a person’s zip code, and socioeconomic identity, background and cultural orientation continue to limit educational opportunities for some groups compared to others. As a recent piece in The New York Times, The Growing College Graduation Gap, points out, while enrollment of students in colleges from modest backgrounds has increased in recent decades, “the college-graduation rates for these poorer students is abysmal.” Fixing the systematic obstacles is hard work and requires us to be more intentional, but it is important to ensure that everyone is positioned for success.
One of the lines that stayed with me from a film shown at the Museum was a quote from Maya Angelou’s poem, On the Pulse of Morning: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” By 2023, the majority of children in the U.S. will be from current minority communities. We need to see past differences, to ensure that students from all backgrounds are afforded opportunities for success that meet them where they are. We, at Western and in higher education institutions across the country, have a moral imperative to expand access to higher education, particularly to those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds who have been historically disadvantaged. We have an added responsibility that goes beyond access; we need to ensure success is attainable for all students as well. Advancing access and success for all students is one of the most courageous and concrete ways to ensure equity and inclusion, and lasting social change, so that we don’t continue to relive our history.