Each year a planning committee composed of faculty, staff, and students across campus choose a theme based on its relevance to current social justice issues and the teachings of Dr. King.
The 2020 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium theme is…
The (Mis)Education of US
“I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”
– Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
In his letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. King exhorts his fellow clergy to stand up to injustice and seek the true causes. To develop appropriate solutions requires identifying the sources of injustice. Exclusion from resources, from social spaces, from history, and from power, marginalizes too many of those who live in the US. That exclusion is often defined by the color of your skin, when and how you arrived in this country, your religion, who you choose as your partner, or how you define your sexuality. And that exclusion is perpetuated through a myriad of strategies from the attempted erasure of groups, to coded racial appeals, to distortions of King’s legacy.
One of the causes of social injustice is an inadequate, inaccurate, and incomplete education. Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, puts forth the thesis that schooling culturally indoctrinated Blacks to see their group as inferior. Today more researchers and educators acknowledge that minimization in mainstream schooling and media excludes and distorts many groups’ historical narratives. This limited diversity in the school curriculum and media prioritizes one group over others and thereby culturally indoctrinates us all by indirectly suggesting the need for ‘others’ to assimilate into the dominant cultural group. The centering of the lives and histories of European’s is a defacto proclamation that other groups exist outside of history and do not matter. This illusion impacts us all.
The ‘US’ in the symposium theme is a double-meaning of the United States and the literal us. It underscores the need to pay attention to the content and form of our formal schooling as well as the broader ways we are socialized. What messages have our schools and other institutions given us that shape the way we understand, appreciate and relate to one another and to the land? The literal ‘us’ is a reminder that each of us must take account of how we are the products of our school systems and of American socialization. As always, the symposium and the theme statement call for us to remember that while we are the products of our upbringing and participants in our environment, neither background, nor history, nor surroundings are the full determinants of our destiny. To acknowledge our miseducation puts us on a path to unlearn and learn anew, so that we may create a nation and a society that is equitable and just for all.
While there has been much social progress, marginalized communities (for example, people of color, people with low socioeconomic status, LGBTQ people, women, non-binary, agender, and people with disabilities) continue to experience prejudice and discrimination. And those who identify with multiple identities that face exclusion and prejudice from bias are hit hardest. Social inequities in health and well-being are so persistent that they seem to be unmovable or even inherent in the makeup of our nation. These inequities are the result of a complex web of economic structures, cultural values, truths, myths and misconceptions communicated through policies, schooling, and social practices. These messages and mechanisms of communication serve as part of America’s system of education.
Education is the systematic instruction that prepares us to be productive participants in society. Thus ‘the (mis)education of us’ invites us to consider how our schooling and larger socialization practices have worked against us in working together to build a just nation for all.
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
– Paulo Freire
mis⧫ed⧫u⧫ca⧫tion | mis- e-je-‘ka-shen: poor, wrong, or harmful education
Consider 3 strands of our (mis)education.
Most students in the U.S. will learn the history of the world and its many peoples through the lens of the descendants of Europeans, primarily male descendants. Our schools virtually erase all others. Few schools teach the history of the indigenous people of the Americas apart from their interactions with European immigrants, yet the natives of this land have a long and vibrant history and culture that can be understood from an indigenous frame. In some schools, the history of African Americans is only taught during Black History Month in February. Histories of other racial and ethnic groups may never appear in the curriculum. The message this conveys is that others are less than.
This form of exclusion represents a prejudice that becomes dangerous when forming laws. Policies and laws can also marginalize people and make them invisible. Africans were enslaved and reduced to less than human in the American Constitution, in which they were legally defined as 3/5 of a man. During much of the 1900s there were forced or coerced sterilizations of individuals labeled as ‘feeble-minded’, and Puerto Rican women and other women and men. From the early Naturalization Laws admitting only white Europeans to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, there is a lineage of policies that serve to exclude groups of people from America based on their identity. When we do not know each other, we do not see one another fully and thereby miss the mark in treating each other humanely. This is how children are forgotten and left with nowhere to go after school when ICE agents detained their parents in Mississippi. The erasure of narratives and policies of exclusion in our classrooms and public discourses serve to orient us into a false reality that divides, demoralizes, and dehumanizes us all.
As we advance the practice of freedom and equality, author and Professor Ibram Kendi argues that the strategies for justice and the opposing strategies of oppression have both evolved over time. An example of an evolved tool of oppression is color-blind policies. Whereas policy-makers used false biological differences in race to justify racist policies, now, the acceptance that race is not biological is used as an argument for ignoring race or color-blind policies. These color-blind notions mask the fact that though race is not biological, race still shapes opportunities and outcomes through policy, societal norms, and generations of inequality. The focus on uniform policies or equality over equity has led to maintaining affirmative action for whites and challenges to multicultural and ethnic-based studies. Color-blind policies accept many of the safe spaces that exist for whites while challenging the safe spaces for people of color.
One of the ways color-blind policies operate is through dog-whistle politics, which are coded racial appeals used to persuade some voters to support policies that may go against their own interests but favor those with extreme wealth. Coded racial appeals work because schooling and media platforms have established associations between racial/ethnic groups and social issues, while failing to demonstrate the diversity and richness of groups. Politicians then use dog-whistle politics to garner middle-class support for ‘curbing undocumented immigration’, ‘wars against crime and drugs’, ‘travel bans’, or ‘homeland security against terrorism’. The result is that specific groups in the U.S. are criminalized and targeted. This happens while corporations gain increased control over regulations, government officials cut social services, and wealth inequality deepens.
Though the focus here is race, the discussion extends to gender, class, and other identities that are socially constructed. We must continue to develop the practices of justice to detect and dismantle the evolved mechanisms that continue oppression.
“In the end anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing: anti-humanism.”
– Shirley Chisholm
Dr. King delivered what would become known as his “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C in 1963. This was five years before his assassination and, by the time of his death, this was not considered his most iconic speech. Yet King’s legacy is often frozen in ‘63. What is missed when someone’s life is fixed in a moment, especially when it is not their last moment? What is lost when we do not recall that moment in its fullness?
While we celebrate the speech for its call to live in unity and integration–“little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”–what we often miss is that the focus of the march was prescriptive beyond the picture of social collegiality. How often is his I Have A Dream speech appropriately associated with the title and purpose of the march, ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’? King’s dream was not only about the social relationships between Blacks and Whites, it was also about the cultural, economical, and political positions of all American citizens. Soundbites leave out critical information and do not serve us well in understanding complex social movements.
In 1968 King was part of planning the Poor People’s Campaign march on Washington. This march was an interracial coalition for anti-poverty legislation. When we freeze King in time and reduce his dream to interpersonal interactions, we contribute to a (mis)education about King and miss the lessons for us to find in his charge for the redistribution of economic and political power. King’s work challenges a (mis)education that says that a nation can be the home of the free while subjecting some of its residents to second-class status or invisibility.
There is much we can do.
Honor, Organize and Resolve
The directions we must take are many. The hope and promise come from knowing that there has been a constant commitment to the progress of justice by people within all groups. As we continue to forge strategies in the fields of health, environment, economy, schooling and politics we can promote a fuller education.
Whoever we are we can seek not to erase, rather to be inclusive without having to assimilate. Wherever we are we can revere the intellect and beauty and power of those we call our people, our ancestors as well as those we see as other. The truth is that after over 10,000 years of human civilization, well beyond America’s 240 years of existence, groups of people have mixed and shared their culture and impacted and been impacted by the people they have encountered. All groups have contributed to the modern world in ways that cannot be counted nor weighed. We pay a great service to this country when we honor the history of its natives and its past and contemporary immigrants.
If we are to correct our (mis)education we must be willing to boldly and compassionately call it out. We must boldly reveal the truth, not hide it so as not to offend sensibilities. We must compassionately help people to find redemption, not condemn and abandon them. How are we calling out those who are using coded appeals to further division in our nation? Are we falling into the same pattern of speaking in code? Or are we consciously talking about race and contributing to the proliferation of both brave and safe spaces? How are we moving beyond duality and embracing multiplicity? Are we clinging to binary groupings of people? Or are we actively organizing for the protection of people at the intersection of identities?
We must be increasingly critical in asking when, where, and how do we use the stories of others, where do we get them from? How do we honor all the people of the world in our classrooms, boardrooms, and media rooms? To know this we must know people through their own words. Likewise, we must ask when, where and how are we using King’s image? Are we using it in a manner consistent with his ideals and practices? To know this we must know King through his own words.
On Michigan’s campus in 2020 there will be anniversary celebrations that serve as opportunities to counter our (mis)education. The Department of Afro and African American Studies will celebrate its 50th anniversary as one of the race/ethnicity-based programs that build and promote the narrative of groups of people of color. Earth Day is celebrating 50 years of a global focus on the health of the land, air, water and animals. And with a focus on the environment, there will be attention to its impact on people and thus necessitate a conversation on the ways black and brown and poor people are hardest hit by environmental hazards and waste.
2020 also marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment that granted American women the right to vote. This is a major milestone of an 80-year struggle for progress in American politics. But here too we must remember in our analysis of (mis)education that Native, Chinese-, Japanese-, and African-American women were not granted the same right at that time. African-Americans and some poor white women and men were not granted the protection of the right to vote until 45 years later when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. It is important to remember this exclusion as we celebrate the enfranchisement of women so that we remain vigilant in the protection and expansion of voting rights.
These anniversaries are opportunities to celebrate the momentous achievements and bold missions set forth on our campus and in our nation. They are also opportunities to center and uplift the stories of those that have been marginalized so that we may see how we are all connected.
If the effective tools and strategies to bring about change seem elusive now, then their discovery is but on the other side of a clear commitment to seek them out. We knew not how to reach the moon, but determination guided the way. Resolve often precedes the certainty of success, and even the know-how itself.
The work of social justice is not comfortable and it is immature to seek it to be so. Social justice work is about acknowledging (mis)education, healing trauma, reconciliation and forgiveness, dismantling imbalanced power structures, seeking and learning stories hidden from us, and innovating real democracy in imagining a new nation that brings forth the fullness of King’s dream. We have been miseducated, but the awareness of this is more powerful than the (mis)education of US.