Do NC Schools Reinforce Racism?

Merrimack CollegeI’m not breaking any news when I say that race relations in this country remain strained, tense even. For all the progress we’ve made, we have miles to go in building understanding and trust.

We’ve seen these tensions bubble up recently: Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore and the ensuing riots. The shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston. Racist chants by a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. Even the suspicious death of Jesus Huerta in the back of a police cruiser in Durham, NC.

Last month, a noose found hanging from a tree on Duke’s campus threatened to become another painful incident in this series. Fortunately, students and administrators mobilized quickly and a student came forward quickly to accept responsibility.

Crisis averted.

But, when the student’s apology letter hit the news a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but wonder if we had, in fact, avoided the crisis.

The student claimed the noose was part of an innocent joke on friends, and that he or she was unaware of the “historical connotations.”

This apology letter left me scratching my head in confusion and shaking my head in dismay.

Now, my purpose is not to berate the University (although I still have quite a bit of frustration left over from basketball season). Nor is it to verbally flog the student for his or her professed ignorance.

But if this apology letter was true – and I have no reason to believe it wasn’t – a student at one of the most prestigious universities in the nation was unaware of the historical significance of a noose hanging from a tree. This student was apparently unacquainted with this country’s painful history of lynching.

That is a striking condemnation of our education system – up and down – as well as our responsibilities as a society. That Duke could release that letter without an apology of its own was almost shocking to me. Clearly, the university, along with a number of other institutions, has failed this student – and too many of this generation.

Our children have to be taught about this part of our history, mortifying though it may be. We simply cannot sweep this under the rug.

Thousands of black Americans were killed in lynchings from the late 18th century through the 1960s. Groups of whites (the NAACP definition says more than three) would publicly kill and often torture blacks under the guise of “justice.”

It was not justice. It was about power. It was about anger. It was about continuing to exert a culture of fear.

Sadly, those themes are still making the rounds. Just look at Baltimore and Charleston and too many other places.

Our children need to be taught these lessons. They need to understand our history – all of it. It is the only way to ensure that our future is better than our past.




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  1. Barbara Smalley-McMahan

    I appreciate this author’s perspective on our need to make sure that our public education system is informing our children of the racist nature of our past and present times in this country. However, it’s been my experience that many of us as adults were not even taught the whole truth about how deeply racist the very structure of our system of government was in its inception and continues to be even today in 2015.

    An excellent resource for us as adults on this matter are workshops which are regularly being offered in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill which do a good job of disclosing the fallacies that many of us were taught in the public schools we attended. Certainly as a child growing up in South Carolina, I never learned anything about the systemic nature of racism which still infused the founding of our country and still infuses our system of voting and our justice, economic, educational, and health care systems today as well, just to name a few of the systems which were designed by our founding fathers to benefit the dominant white race at the expense of the races of color.

    The workshops are called Racial Equity Workshops and the presenters are from the Racial Equity Institute in Greensboro, NC. Right now the two day workshops are being offered in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill through the efforts of these cities’ organizing groups of volunteers. In Durham the organizing group is called DOAR, (i.e., Durham Organizing Against Racism). In Raleigh it’s called ROAR (i.e. Raleigh Organizing Against Racism), and in Chapel Hill the organizing group is called OAR (i.e., Organizing Against Racism). Our goal is to help insure that we, the adults in our community, continue to have our eyes are often opened first to just how deep the injustices are which are being perpetuated by the systemic nature of racism that was rooted in the founding of our country starting in 1600 and even earlier with our founding father’s hopes of committing genocide to wipe out the natives whom they found living on the land they wanted to own and work with free labor. In order to accomplish these goals our laws had to make this kind of exploitation of other human being possible. Which is exactly what our laws have done for centuries now and continue to do today, without many of us even seeing how this is the case.

    Specific to this article though is the issue of the lynchings which have been committed against the black race in our country. Though we think of these lynchings as horrors which were part of our past, today in the United States there are still hangings of young black boys and men which continue to occur and to go un-investigated as possible lynchings. A recent hanging of this nature in NC was the hanging death of 17 year old Lennon Lacy in Bladenboro, NC, in August of 2014. If your readers are not familiar with this case then I encourage them to do some research and find out more about it. One reporter whose taken an interest in documenting the continued hangings of young black men in our country is Keith Beauchamp. He was interviewed on MSNBC after the hanging death of Lennon Lacy. There have also been several interviews with Rev. Barber after the death of this youth. When the DA ruled that Lennon Lacy’s hanging death was a suicide, the family asked the NC NAACP to help them obtain a federal investigation of the death of their son who was found hanging from a swing set in the middle of a predominantly white trailer park in Bladenboro.

    So the injustices in our system which continue to be upheld by at least some of our law enforcement officers and investigators in the land, (as well as by our lawmakers in ways that many of us are not even aware), are injustices which all of us need to make sure we’re informed about. In this way we can overcome the self-perpetuating myth of American Exceptionalism which occurs when we the people, aren’t readily given access either to learning enough about what’s truly going on.

  2. Barbara Smalley-McMahan

    I appreciate this author’s perspective on our need to make sure that our public education system is informing our children of the racist nature of our country’s past. I recently attended a Racial Equity Workshop which was sponsored by the Racial Equity Institute out of Greensboro. The material presented in this workshop exposes many injustices than most of us were ever taught in the public education we received. The kinds of injustices I’m speaking of are the systemic injustices which are often the invisible ones that are created when our laws and policies allow the white race to benefit from financial and educational opportunities for instance like the GI bill after WWII, while the poor whites and the people of color are denied access to those same opportunities. If we really want our children to understand the past, then I believe as parents, we have to start by learning as much as we can first about the systemic injustices which lead to the kind of economic inequality that is hurting our nation right now. We also have to tell our children the truth about who our founding fathers really were. Basically those who came to the New World to start over, came with a big plan to take all the land here for themselves by coming up with a plan to commit genocide that would wipe out any indigenous people who lived here. With this kind of disregard for human life, none of us should be surprised that the new white landowners decided that in order to prosper on their new land they would need to set up an economic system where they could use other immigrants (both white and black) who’d come over with them on the ships to work their land for free as indentured servants. This kind of systemic racism is still being perpetuated today as we all stand by and watch the wealth gap widening between the rich and the poor. Again, this kind of economic injustice can only happen in a culture which disregards the worth of all human beings as equal and valuable. In such a culture as ours still is, perhaps we should not be surprised to see the old lynch rope swinging from a tree, even on the campus at Duke. So I applaud the author for challenging our educational system and it’s commitment to being honest with our children when it comes to teaching them about our country’s past. What I’m wondering if this author and others might still find surprising though is that in reality lynching ropes are not a thing of our past. In fact in the kind of economically inequitable environment we’re all living in today, racism has continued to grow, so much so that there have been recent lynchings in our country that I’m wondering if the author was aware of. Today in the United States black men and boys are still being found hanging from trees. Their deaths often go without being adequately investigated, and instead ruled a “suicide by hanging.” A recent hanging of this nature in NC was the hanging death of 17 year old Lennon Lacy in Bladenboro, NC, in August of 2014. If people are not familiar with this case, then I encourage them to do some research and find out more about it. One reporter whose taken an interest in documenting the continued hangings of this nature of young black men in our country is Keith Beauchamp. His documentary about 17 such deaths appeared on the Discovery Channel a while back. Recently, Mr. Beauchamp was interviewed on MSNBC following the hanging death of Lennon Lacy. Rev. Barber, the president with the NC NAACP has also been interviewed several times concerning the death of this youth. The NC NAACP became involved in this case when the DA ruled that Lennon Lacy’s hanging death was a suicide. The family asked the NC NAACP to help them obtain a federal investigation of their son’s death because he’d been found hanging from a swing set in the middle of a predominantly white trailer park in Bladenboro.

    So the racial injustices in our system are continuing to happen today on many levels. This truth is often hidden from all of us too, just like our public schools continue to hide the truth from our children. That’s why it’s up to all of us as adults first, to make sure we understand the subtle and not so subtle ways that racism is still being perpetuated in our society. When we come to understand that we will never eradicate racism until we eradicate it systemically, then we will be the ones in our children’s lives who have gone beyond the self-perpetuating myth of American Exceptionalism to tell our children and our neighbors what’s really going on in America. In this way the author’s correct. We learn from our past so we’re not destined to repeat it again.


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