The Noose of Racism

What happens when we don’t teach about the history of racism? Turn on the news.

As a historian, I promote the value of historical study, but I’m never surprised when my students reveal an absence of historical knowledge and awareness. It’s one reason I tirelessly advocate for more funding and programs that emphasize history. 

I also promote the study of history because the very future of our society is in danger if we do not understand our past. This danger is more than evident in the racist events that occurred recently at the University of Mississippi and Phillipsburg High School in New Jersey—events that remind us we do not live in a “post-racial society” (despite protests to the contrary). As a nation, we don’t just have a legacy of racism; we have a present that is founded on—and perpetuates—racist institutions and practices. Racism is not just symbolized by a noose; racism is the noose that will strangle our collective progress unless we dramatically reconsider how we teach about race and racism.

The incidents in Mississippi and New Jersey both involved nooses.

  • On Sunday, February 16, two men were seen shouting racial epithets as they draped a noose and flag with a Confederate symbol on the statue of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Meredith was the courageous African-American student who integrated the university in 1962. University Chancellor Daniel W. Jones responded to the offensive act by stating, “Their ideas have no place here.” The FBI joined the investigation to find the perpetrators, and three freshman students quickly emerged as suspects. The students’ identities were turned over to the FBI by the national office of their fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, which also expelled them from the fraternity and suspended the university’s chapter. The students now face disciplinary action from the university and an array of potential charges for both local and federal crimes.
  • An all-white group of wrestlers at Phillipsburg High School in New Jersey were suspended from a tournament last week by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association following the discovery of a photograph of the group surrounding a wrestling dummy wearing a rival team’s jersey and hanging by a noose. The dummy, owned by the high school, is made of dark brown leather, and the photograph resembles a lynching photo. According to the NJSIAA, the wrestlers were guilty of violating the organization’s sportsmanship rule; NJSIAA Executive Director Steven J. Timko said that the photo was disrespectful and depicts “violent imagery that has no place in high school sports.” However, many view the photo as not only an indication of unsportsmanlike behavior, but also evidence of racist ideology. The group’s lawyer, speaking for the students, said, “We did not give any thought to the physical appearance of the dummy as anything other than an unidentified, generic wrestler… and our poses were not premeditated but, rather, spontaneous gestures without any forethought.”

Sadly, I do think it’s possible that at least some of the wrestlers acted without forethought because I have continually been faced with evidence that we as educators have not done enough to teach students about our country’s violent white supremacist history. It’s almost as if we are afraid to expose our students to the hatred, violence and graphic evidence of racism. Maybe we’re afraid of getting in over our heads in classroom discussions that have no easy resolutions, of unintentionally hurting or inflaming student feelings, or of tangling with parents and school boards that might object to teaching such “adult” topics.

Yet these are not adult topics. They are human topics. If we don’t address this history (in age-appropriate ways, of course), we risk our students growing up lacking knowledge, empathy and tolerance—like those who defaced the statue of James Meredith. Those wrestling students got a swift lesson in what happens when you don’t know about the legacy of racism and, in particular, the violent role that lynching played in perpetuating white supremacy. If those students had been exposed, for example, to the history of lynching, they would have known that their actions were inappropriate, and perhaps wouldn’t have evoked these painful images of anti-black terrorism.

Teachers need support to adequately address these topics and—ideally—prevent these outcomes. Luckily, history education gives us excellent tools. Here are some suggestions for ways to do that at every grade level:

  • Teaching Tolerance’s Responding to Hate and Bias is a guide for administrators to help prevent incidents of hate and to respond appropriately if they occur.
  • Tongue-Tied,” an article that appeared in Teaching Tolerance magazine, addresses the challenges of teaching about slavery, a critical topic many teachers are shy to address in depth. “Tongue-Tied” and the accompanying toolkit provide concrete ideas for creating a safe environment as well as key content to highlight.
  • Teaching Tolerance also provides classroom resources on the topics of race and ethnicity and the civil rights movement—a treasure trove for K-12 teachers dedicated to discussing the history of race in America.
  • High school students would benefit from researching the history of racial violence in America. The online Musarium exhibit Without Sanctuary provides an archive of lynching photographs that drives home the horror of racial violence. Similarly, the Uncovering New Chicago Archives Project (UNCAP) includes a rich collection of documents related to the fight against racism, including those by anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells and issues of the Chicago Defender newspaper.
  • The Leadership Conference provides comprehensive resources for teachers and parents to help them discuss racism with younger children. It identifies ages 5 to 8 as a “critical period” in which “children are old enough to begin to think about social issues and young enough to remain flexible in their beliefs.” The site offers downloadable resources and sample answers to common childhood questions about racial issues, including ways to help students cope when they are the victims of racist language or incidents.
  • Teaching for Change is an organization dedicated to “building social justice starting in the classroom” and offers advice on how to create anti-bias educational experiences and resources including book lists, articles, and DVDs for teachers and parents. Its “Tellin’ Stories” parent organizing program explains ways to build community through cultural sharing and consciousness-raising activities.
  • Keep your eyes on this month for the release of The March Continues: Five Essential Practices for Teaching the Civil Rights Movement. This Teaching Tolerance guide provides concrete guidance for educators committed to excellence in civil rights education.

Incidents like what happened at Ole Miss and Phillipsburg High School should concern everyone who thinks about what it means to be American and what we want for the future of our society. It’s time that we took some responsibility for the actions of the students who committed these racist acts by recognizing that, somewhere along the line, we failed to teach them to be tolerant. Given that the state of Georgia just approved a new license plate boasting a Confederate flag, it is absolutely crucial that we educators fervently take up this cause—because who else will?

Silos-Rooney is an assistant professor of history at MassBay Community College.

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