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In the past week, there have been two deplorable incidents at the intersection of race and education. For me, both incidents raise questions with regards to how we see, understand, and experience race.
The incident that has gotten considerable national attention involves the members of the now-defunct Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. In a video shot by one of the passengers, you can hear the brothers of the fraternity singing, “You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me. There will never be a nigger at SAE.” The actions taken against the fraternity have been swift and severe. SAE had its house closed and its affiliation with the national organization.
This blatant disrespect of African Americans has found its way to Duluth as well. A manipulated photo of an African American student started to circulate around Denfeld High School via Snapchat. In this photo, a black Denfeld student was shown with a noose around his neck. The photo was captioned “gotta hang ‘em all.” The students have been identified. The Duluth School District is deciding what to do with the students, and the Duluth Police Department is considering press charges against the individuals involved.
In thinking about both of these stories, the thing that sticks out to me the most is that both incidents involve white people lynching black people. A seeming relic of our national history, lynching was the means for meting out something that was called justice but was, in reality, nothing of the sort.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, nearly 4,000 black men, women, and children lost their lives to lynching. Although it occurred primarily in the South, it migrated to many other places in the North including Duluth. In 1920, the lives of Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson, and Elias Clayton were taken at the intersection of Second Ave. E and First St., victims of an overzealous white mob who hanged them from the light post that used to stand there. If you want to know what the incident looked like, a simple Internet image search will bring up the photo that was taken at the time, which was then put on a postcard that sold as fast as it could be printed.
Although lynching is seen far less frequently now, its specter still haunts our society. Unlike language that can be reclaimed, lynching will always be negatively connected to the African American experience due to its outsized influence on the community’s history. Among the Tea Party, this connection is understood, which is why so many members of this movement displayed effigies of Barack Obama being hanged. One such effigy appeared in Duluth in 2012 following his re-election. Although Obama initially ran on the rhetoric of change, this event made it clear that not everyone believed in it.
The incidents at the University of Oklahoma and Denfeld High School are more intriguing because they involve young people. Unlike the tea party members, they were not raised during a time of active, explicit racism, a time when black people were called niggers and nigras by public officials on television. I’m willing to chalk these incidents up to sheer ignorance rather than blatant racism. I think that their ignorance can be solved though with a little bit of education.
With the election of Obama, the successes of the Civil Rights movement, the prominence of the black art form of hip-hop, and many social advancements that African Americans have made, there is a false assumption that everything is better for the population. The problem is that these are all surface-level improvements. The national black community is still extremely disadvantaged and still suffers from a variety of structural problems. According to the US Census Bureau, the African American unemployment rate in Duluth is 23 percent and 63 percent live in poverty. African Americans suffer from greater amounts of police harassment, police brutality, and imprisonment than any other racial group. These are not problems that developed overnight. These are problems that have been developing since the arrival of the first slave ship in 1619.
Black people are where we are now due to a continual system of disenfranchisement that has worked to minimize the numbers of options available to us. This system has existed since we set our first shackled foot on this land. Although this is true, it can be hard to understand, especially if a person does not interact with black people on a regular basis. This is where schools come in.
Schools can—and should—work as places to spread knowledge about racial minorities. Just being in the same space as other minorities is not enough; people need to learn about one another’s histories. To learn about the whole black experience, students must learn about the positives and the negatives. When students learn about the whole black experience in America, they will see that black people have prospered in the face of tremendous odds, but that we also continue to suffer in many ways such as the ones listed above.
The hope is that this education will increase tolerance. If students are forced to discuss lynching and how it served as a form of terrorism against black people, people would not make jokes about lynching black people, hang nooses in public places, or make effigies of lynching Obama. I know that this is not a cure-all for every situation—there will always be racists—but there is a high likelihood that a person gets more respect when he or she becomes a person rather than someone who helps your team win on the weekend, gets you dancing at the party, or is seen as a leech upon society.has been.