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3 Things Schools Should Teach About America’s History of White Supremacy

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A Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington, D.C., in 1926. Photo: Everett Historical from www.shutterstock.com

When it comes to how deeply embedded racism is in American society, blacks and whites have sharply different views.

For instance, 70 percent of whites believe that individual discrimination is a bigger problem than discrimination built into the nation’s laws and institutions. Only 48 percent of blacks believe that is true.

Many blacks and whites also fail to see eye to eye regarding the use of blackface, which dominated the news cycle during the early part of 2019 due to a series of scandals that involve the highest elected leaders in Virginia, where I teach.

The donning of blackface happens throughout the country, particularly on college campuses. Recent polls indicate that 42 percent of white American adults either think blackface is acceptable or are uncertain as to whether it is.

One of the most recent blackface scandals has involved Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, whose yearbook page from medical school features someone in blackface standing alongside another person dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam has denied being either person. The more Northam has tried to defend his past actions, the clearer it has become to me how little he appears to know about fundamental aspects of American history, such as slavery. For instance, Northam referred to Virginia’s earliest slaves as “indentured servants”. His ignorance has led to greater scrutiny of how he managed to ascend to the highest leadership position in a racially diverse state with such a profound history of racism and white supremacy.

Ignorance is pervasive

The reality is Gov. Northam is not alone. Most Americans are largely uninformed of our nation’s history of white supremacy and racial terror.

As a scholar who researches racial discrimination, I believe much of this ignorance is due to negligence in our education system. For example, a recent study found that only 8 percent of high school seniors knew that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. There are ample opportunities to include much more about white supremacy, racial discrimination and racial violence into school curricula. Here are three things that I believe should be incorporated into all social studies curricula today:

1. The Civil War was fought over slavery and one of its offshoots – the convict-lease system – did not end until the 1940s

The Civil War was fought over the South’s desire to maintain the institution of slavery in order to continue to profit from it. It is not possible to separate the Confederacy from a pro-slavery agenda and curriculums across the nation must be clear about this fact.

A Confederate treasury note from the Civil War Era shows how reliant the South’s economy was on slave labor. Scott Rothstein from www.shutterstock.com

After the end of the Civil War, southern whites sought to keep slavery through other means. Following a brief post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction, white southerners created new laws that gave them legal authority to arrest blacks over the most minor offenses, such as not being able to prove they had a job.

While imprisoned under these laws, blacks were then leased to corporations and farms where they were forced to work without pay under extremely harsh conditions. This “convict leasing” was, as many have argued, slavery by another name and it persisted until the 1940s.

Southern jails made money leasing convicts for forced labor in the Jim Crow South. Circa 1903. Everett Historical / www.shutterstock.com

2. The Jim Crow era was violent

While students may be taught about segregation and laws preventing blacks from voting, they often are not taught about the extreme violence whites enacted upon blacks throughout the Jim Crow era, which took place from 1877 through the 1950s. Mob violence and lynchings were frequent occurrences – and not just in the South – throughout the Jim Crow era.

The body of Rubin Stacy, 32, hangs from a tree in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as neighbors visit the site July 19, 1935. White lynchings of blacks were common during the era. AP

Racial terror was used as a means for whites to maintain power and prevent blacks from gaining equality. Notably, many whites – not just white supremacist groups like the Klu Klux Klan – engaged in this violence. Moreover, the torture and murder of blacks was not associated with any consequences.

During this same time, white society created negative stereotypes about blacks as a way to dehumanize blacks and justify the violence whites enacted upon them. These negative stereotypes included that blacks were ignorant, lazy, cowardly, criminal and hypersexual.

Blackface minstrelsy refers to whites darkening their skin and dressing in tattered clothing to perform the negative stereotypes as part of entertainment. This imagery and entertainment served to solidify negative stereotypes about blacks in society. Many of these negative stereotypes persist today.

3. Racial inequality was preserved through housing discrimination and segregation

During the early 1900s, a number of policies were put into place in our country’s most important institutions to further segregate and oppress blacks. For example, in the 1930s, the federal government, banks and the real estate industry worked together to prevent blacks from becoming homeowners and to create racially segregated neighborhoods.

This process, known as redlining, served to concentrate whites in middle-class suburbs and blacks in impoverished urban centers. Racial segregation in housing has consequences for everything from education to employment. Moreover, because public school funding relies so heavily on local taxes, housing segregation affects the quality of schools students attend.

All of this means that even after the removal of discriminatory housing policies and school segregation laws in the 1950s and 1960s, the consequences of this intentional segregation in housing persist in the form of highly segregated and unequal schools. All students should learn this history to ensure that they do not wrongly conclude that current racial disparities are based on individual shortcomings – or worse, black inferiority – as opposed to systematic oppression.

Americans live in a starkly unequal society where health and economic outcomes are largely influenced by race. We cannot begin to meaningfully address this inequality as a society if we do not properly understand its origins. The white supremacists responsible for sanitizing our history lessons understood this. Their intent was clearly to keep the country ignorant of its racist past in order to stymie racial equality. To change the tide, we must incorporate a more accurate depiction of our country’s racist history in our K-12 curricula.

Noelle Hurd, Scully Family Discovery Associate Professor in Psychology, University of Virginia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The U.S. Should Confront the New Threat of Technology with an Old Idea

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University of Georgia Extension agents look down on cotton plants at the Ponder Farm in Tifton as part of an agent-in-training session, led by UGA Extension personnel. (Photo by UGA CAES/Extension via Flickr, Creative Commons)

The economic disruption of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics could steal jobs and wealth from American communities. To make sure more than just a few people prosper from the change, we need a technology training program like the Extension Service to give communities more control of their own economic future.

If we keep obsessing about whether robots and artificial intelligence (AI) will put millions of people out of work, we’re going to miss a once-in-a-century opportunity, according to a new report from the nonprofit Makers All.

In the next 20 years, not only robots and AI but also augmented and virtual reality, digital fabrication, and other emerging tech will create an abundance of wealth.  If we can give communities the power to shape this technology and the impact it has on them, we can create an economy that works for all.

How do we do it? By taking a lesson from our agricultural past.

Robots and AI threaten to shatter the link between wealth and broad prosperity: new industries may not create enough good jobs.  But if we can put everyday people in the driver’s seat, if we can train millions of adults from Harlem to Harlan County to become developers and designers, they can capture a big enough slice of emerging tech’s wealth to help revitalize our communities.

The idea of training millions of adults to master a complex technological skill might seem like wishful thinking. It’s not. We’ve done it before, with Extension Services.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the U.S. faced a similarly daunting challenge. How could we ensure millions of farmers mastered the basics of soil science and other complex knowledge and practices that made up modern agriculture?  After several failed efforts, the U.S. created Extension Services, a massive community-oriented program that:

  • Collaborated with communities to make modern farming techniques and tools much more accessible.
  • Embedded Extension agents in every agricultural county, helping farmers leverage the power of community and peer-oriented learning to spread modern agricultural practices.

Using the lessons of Extension Services, the report argues we can truly democratize emerging tech using the following three strategies:

Smooth the Learning Curve. Today, coding can be painfully hard to learn. We need to do for emerging tech what Extension Services did for ag tech: redesign it so it’s easier for everyday adults to learn. To do so, we should apply “user experience” (UX) design — a mainstay of modern web design — to the world of programming via community-oriented coding UX.

Develop an Ecosystem of Community-Oriented Support.  We need to transform our current piecemeal approach to training and support so it harnesses the power of community and operates on the scale that Extension Services did.  As we do so, we also need to build a better bridge between training and work.

Integrate Tech Training and Civic Engagement Training. In the next 20 years, emerging tech will upend some of our core assumptions about how markets work, creating opportunities to reshape the rules of the road so our economy works for everyone. But if we want all communities to have a seat at the table, we must learn from the experience of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement’s Citizenship Schools, whose approach overcomes some of Extension Services’ limitations, and teach both the technical and the civic engagement skills needed to truly participate.

Equally importantly, the report argues, we must change our mindset. Why does the idea of training millions of people in emerging tech coding seem like wishful thinking? Because just like the first attempts to revolutionize agricultural training, our solutions so far aren’t up to the challenge.

For example, most community-based tech training efforts can only get funding for a fraction of the resources they need.

Unlike Extension Services, our current efforts aren’t accountable at the scale we need. We don’t regularly ask, are we transforming every community?

The tech world prides itself on being insanely ambitious, and yet the reason we’re failing so many communities is that we aren’t being ambitious enough. That’s the main lesson of Extension Services. If Apple’s coders learned a thing or two from apple growers, we’d all be better off.

The key to unlocking our future is in our past. If we can do for emerging tech what we did for agriculture, we can help communities from Harlem to Harlan County gain the power they need to shape their destinies. It won’t solve all the economic problems created by robots and AI; not everyone is going to become a programmer or designer. But it can serve as one critical foundation for rebuilding our communities and making them whole.

Anders Schneiderman is the founder and director of Makers All. He is a sociologist turned techie, with over 30 years of experience as a developer, software project manager and adult tech trainer at labor unions, corporations, nonprofits, and government.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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The Sounds of Appalachia

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Forest listening. Photo: William Randall

An audio project set in Appalachian Ohio expands the idea of “listening to each other” to include natural soundscapes and audio archives. Composer and artist Brian Harnetty says such listening is one way to bridge differences in perspectives, politics, and place.

I spend a lot of time listening to Appalachian Ohio. I listen to its people: bakers and shopkeepers, community organizers and coal miners, farmers and fracking protesters, and they all have a story to tell. I listen to places, too: forest hemlocks and sulphury streams, warblers and spring peepers, oil wells and local industry, as they come together to make the region’s soundscapes. Just as importantly, I listen to sound archives, where I hear voices and songs of everyday people; I am eavesdropping as sound and history collide.

I transform these sound archives into new music. For the past two decades I have worked as a composer and ethnographer to figure out a process and a language to do so. I have worked with archives across Appalachia and the Midwest from Kentucky to Chicago. They have included everything from 90-year old ballad singers to the ruminations of jazz visionary Sun Ra. In this work I am striving toward a new way of listening that involves careful attention to both old recordings and contemporary voices. The projects look back and perform history, but invariably they also lead me to the present moment.

Making music from archives helps me develop an understanding of complex cultural and social relationships that inform both rural and urban places. But it is also contradictory: my training as a classical composer is undoubtedly cosmopolitan, yet the music I make and who I make it for are increasingly rooted in rural communities. Since 2010, I have spent much of my time in Appalachian Ohio, a region deeply divided. Residents are caught between fighting for jobs in the midst of economic depression, and mitigating centuries of environmental degradation. These differences often correspond to the political spectrum, pitting right against left. Despite divisions, residents come together over shared places and pasts: histories of towns and forests; stories of immigration and racial tolerance; and celebrating the region’s long labor struggles.

My current music projects, Shawnee, Ohio, and Forest Listening Rooms, reflect these divisions and contradictions. Each project allows rural and urban relationships to inform one another as a means to change our understanding of both. In Shawnee, Ohio, for example, 11 local residents tell and sing the stories of a small coal mining town in Appalachian Ohio. These projects also consider family history. My ancestors immigrated to Shawnee as Welsh coal miners in the 1870s. Here, I take author and farmer Wendell Berry at his word. I return again and again to where my family is from to understand it in new ways and infuse my own artistic voice with senses of place. This points to a broader metaphor, where the music becomes part of a place, and the voices and land and past of that place all become music.

What can people from urban areas learn from Shawnee and other rural places? And perhaps more importantly, how can we come to understand each other? During the Trump era, we are barraged with media about rural voters, forced to understand Appalachia in particular through the reductive lenses of Hillbilly Elegy, whiteness, extraction, and poverty. These narratives only feed into our divisions and fears. We are made to think that the nation is so completely unyielding between left and right and urban and rural that there are no solutions between ideologies.

Or so it seems. The more I listen, the more I am not so certain these divisions are insurmountable. For example, I have talked with what some may find the most unlikely of environmentalists: mud-caked ATV and dirt bike enthusiasts emotionally describing their love for public lands as they fight to prevent further strip mining; and hunters with a vested interest in our state’s national forest. They have as keen a desire as any urban environmentalist to protect places as an act of stewardship.

The strategies I have developed for listening to archives and the people connected to them can be used to help navigate our current political and ecological crises, where careful acts of listening have often ceased. When I am meeting local communities, our conversations often begin over a shared love for the land where they live. We then follow associations and connections, even when they seemingly go nowhere. Here, intuition leads to places we never intended, and this openness yields sparks of insight. All along, I am always listening, and in many different ways: closely, critically, peripherally, contemplatively. These forms of listening take time to unfold, just as it takes time to build relationships and trust.

Shawnee, Ohio. Photo: Jon Johnson

There are two more strategies that can help us understand one another: offer something in return, and keep coming back. To understand each other is an exchange. When I visit Shawnee and ask residents to participate in my work, I am taking and benefiting from them. In return, I offer help in simple, tangible ways: volunteering, for example, or sharing new recordings. And, even when there are disagreements, I keep returning. There is something powerful in holding on to your deeply held convictions, yet saying, “I’ll see you again tomorrow.” It shows you are committed to both places and relationships, despite differences. It also shows these relationships are between equals, and not a reduction of people to things or “others.”

This process is slow. But it is necessary work, done to combat frantic and fraught media and election cycles. These listening strategies, developed as an artistic process, are part of a larger toolkit seeking common cause amid fear mongering. They are ways to think and act creatively, addressing some of our most pressing issues. I argue that the simple act of listening to the past and present together can be transformative. Listening is the slow work that must take place if we are to understand divisions between rural and urban, and between one another.

Brian Harnetty is an interdisciplinary artist who works with sound archives. His latest album, Shawnee, Ohio, is out now on Karlrecords. He is currently an AmeriCorps volunteer and an A Blade of Grass Fellow for Socially Engaged Art, listening to and telling the stories of people in Appalachian Ohio.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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In a Desert, Any Oasis Will Do

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Photo: iStock

Rural “news deserts” are anything but arid. But the steady stream of information that flows into rural America isn’t the kind that waters the roots of democracy.

Back in the analog era, I had two newspaper boxes at the end of my driveway, a blue one for the Lexington paper, and a white one for the Louisville paper. Maybe that was showing off, but that was a time when I believed reading two sports sections made me smarter.

Then 15 years ago, the papers started shuttering their East Kentucky bureaus. Eleven years ago, the Louisville Courier-Journal quit delivering east of I-75. And in the last few years our local Lexington Herald-Leader distribution system came down to two big guys in a tiny gold Prius covering three east Kentucky counties, papers piled high enough in back to block the rear view. If the H-L wasn’t in the box by 10, you might catch the guys eating breakfast at the Dairy Queen and go pick up the paper yourself. But that was on the mornings they came to town. Some mornings what you got was two days’ papers snapped into the same rubber band. And occasionally it was three days in a row bundled together so you could read the Herald-Leader like Paradise-Lost; start in the middle, then go to the day before yesterday, and finish up vanquishing Satan with the day’s breaking news.

Where I live is now designated as a news desert. That makes it sound like the only news here is “man bites cactus.” But there’s nothing arid about our news. A lot of good journalists showed up and launched careers covering our corruption, perfidy and feel-good human interest. Former East Kentucky reporter for the Herald-Leader, Frank Langfitt, is now NPR’s London correspondent. Former East Kentucky reporter for the Courier-Journal, Gardiner Harris, covers international diplomacy for the New York Times. Even the Mountain Eagle, our weekly paper in Whitesburg, can point to its own legacy of covering local news and to reporters who went from covering these coalfields to grand destinies as authors, media executives, and, in Bill Bishop, to co-founding of the Daily Yonder.

The different definitions of “news desert” go from the simple, 1) places with no papers, to the gilded, 2) communities with limited access to credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots. The news desert’s closest living linguistic relative is the “food desert,” meaning a place where you can’t purchase fresh fruit or vegetables. I don’t know who can’t buy a banana, but my heart goes out.

Why this news desertification happened hardly matters. Maybe it was because media conglomerates, like Gannett and McClatchy in my case, wanted to maximize profits and take away the information country people need to feed democracy. Maybe it was because digital technology created a more efficient paperboy. But what matters more is that this change in the news ecosystem has occurred all over rural America in the last twenty years, and as our news delivery changed, so did our politics.

The change helped get Donald Trump elected. It helped conservative evangelicals establish themselves as news providers across rural America. And it helps explain why rural people’s understanding of their own self-interest may seem out of sync with what people who get their news in metro media hubs think it should be.

Or maybe the news didn’t dry up as much as it got diverted. At the end of the Bill Clinton administration, there was a small fight in Congress and in the FCC about how to expand the public media spectrum on the FM dial. The fight was about whether to allow religious broadcasters in. Prior to 2000, the lower end of the FM dial had been reserved for secular education and public purpose broadcast. And that changed. In the gaps between NPR stations and nonprofit community broadcasters, new licenses opened the door for country churches and emerging evangelical networks to join forces. Incrementally the licenses begat stations and the stations begat weaponized news and cultural programming that found local audiences. By 2006 those small evangelical radio outlets had become the second-largest radio format in the nation. Only country music was bigger when you measured by station count and not by metro density or population served. Today there are a combined 3,000 commercial and noncommercial Christian radio stations compared with nearly 2,200 country stations and 2,000 talk stations.

I like local radio. My favorite program is on a station in Powell County, Kentucky – “Tradio on the Radio.” People call in to sell you a garage-kept like-new ’99 Mercury Marquis with 229,000 miles or 14 electric pole glass insulators, all for $3. Once I heard a woman say, “I still have that wiener dog that showed up, blind in one eye, and answers to the name of Willow.” (How many names would you have had to try before you came up with “Willow?”)

But not that long ago I was driving through the same Powell County and I picked up another station with a preacher telling a story about a boy who had been helpful at the church. Preacher asked the boy could he come back on Saturday during the revival and help park cars. Boy told the preacher, sure he would. But then the day came, no boy. Preacher said, when he saw him out next time he asked why he didn’t come park cars as he’d promised. Boy told the preacher he was sorry, but it turned out that revival Saturday was his brother’s day to wear the shoes. “They only had the one pair,” the preacher explained, then said, “Well, we bought that boy another pair of shoes,” before going on to enumerate why your local contributions to the station were so important.

And many of those local Christian stations are important. They reach out to people down on their luck. And in a lot of small towns facing addiction, joblessness and dissolution of community, luck is in short supply. Part of the appeal is that these stations blend local ministries and community outreach with on-the-hour national news with a Biblical perspective. What’s under the radar is that the Christian news feed and other programs are nationalized and weaponized by conservative think tanks and by Evangelical church networks. Right now, that news product is some combination of political and cultural discourse meant to push emotional buttons. Today’s topics include: paying reparations for slavery, well-to-do socialists, a billion-dollar Medicare scam, an approaching immigrant caravan and a failed coup to remove the President of the United States. The news can change from hour to hour, but the emotional button-pushing remains constant.

Also under the radar is the accounting that shows these radio networks and affiliated institutions have gone glandular monetizing religious radio stations and media support services like news, sermons and church literature. In 2011 the revenue for Focus on the Family, a service ministry, was reported to be over $95 million. According to Ministry Watch, Education Media Foundation, the network for many of the nonprofit evangelical stations, has net assets of $552 million. The commercial Salem evangelical network lists assets of $559 million on over $250 million in annual revenue. By accepted accounting principles, there should be no shoe desert anywhere Christian radio is on the dial.

Still, it is not just Christian radio broadcast that has moved into the vacuum left in rural communities — after regional papers pulled back and local market TV channels refocused on their more well-heeled suburbs. And it is not just Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting and syndicated AM talk radio either. They may preach to a sizeable choir, both confirming messages and synthesizing community, but they are not digital missionaries finding new converts.

Cutting edge communication technologies have brought with them the precision of seeking out the conservatively curious and the politically disinclined to push them toward common political purpose. Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, and – most of where you go online to express yourself – have you targeted. You are the change they seek. They take what you like and what you hate and prank with you. (Sources say.)

A while back I stopped in Hazard to visit my sister. My brother-in-law had just built a zip line for my niece and nephew along the river bank. I’d never seen one. Very cool. After that visit, I went down the block and coaxed my brother to fix me a drink. In the chat about University of Kentucky sports and Hazard High sports and by the way how are the kids, the zip line came up. When I showed up at work the next morning, 30 miles away, I opened my computer, and immediately Google presented me with an ad for a zip line. The trick is not figuring out how they do it, but when they are doing it to you. Is that report of the FBI coup real or a feat of news desk prestidigitation? And when should I take the story seriously about that immigrant caravan hurtling toward town on a zip line?

Before the last election, many of us in my town reached out to a friend who was sure that Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine had abused his daughter. Something my friend learned from reliable sharers on Facebook, confirmed at church by others who’d seen the same report. With enough care, you can explain a story like that is several years old, cut and pasted from actor Alec Baldwin’s family crisis, and that no daughter had been harmed in either case. But you can never convince that friend who believed the story the first time that a Tim Kaine is OK to leave your kid or your country with. And when you see that the same abuse news story went systematically unchecked to a million voters, you can begin to appreciate the power of emerging news platforms programmed to hunt down gullibility and sidestep candor.

Dee Davis is publisher of the Daily Yonder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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