Diversity Highlights

By Nicholas Gallivan, Graduate Diversity Coordinator, ngallivan@ksu.edu

March 2021
BLM Sparks Change in U.S. Education

In a year dominated by tragedy and heartache, it is easy to relegate to cynicism and despair. While navigating the novelty of a deadly public health crisis, we witnessed another deadly crisis: the murder of people of color by law enforcement. In spite of this heartache, however, instances of growth and education have been ample. The Black Lives Matter movement saw an unprecedented resurgence, regaining recognition and awareness at every level of society. For this Diversity Highlight, I wanted to explore how the Black Lives Matter movement has impacted our day-to-day lives, specifically through the lens of education. Multiple articles have begun documenting changes in how we educate students about Black history and racial issues, including two referenced here. While these efforts may seem modest on their face at this time, acknowledging incremental improvements can be both uplifting and enlightening.

Before the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement, too many Americans had too little consciousness of the injustices targeting black and brown Americans. While it is a privilege to simply learn about, rather than experience, these injustices, the dialogues that the Black Lives Matter movement has created is substantial. As we have explored in previous Diversity Highlights, history and social studies curricula throughout the U.S. have been notably misleading when it comes to Black history. Not only that, but Dr. LaGarrett King argues that there has been a consistent reluctance within Americans to legitimatize Black history. Dr. King, Professor of Social Studies Education and Founding Director of the Carter Center for K12 Black History Education at the University of Missouri, asserts, “One of the problems with getting Black history right is we are still trying to use this notion that Black history is American history, which sounds good.” However, he believes this begets a sort of friction within American history, which often advances the narrative that “every generation has improved our society.”

We can trace origins of the issues highlighted by Dr. King and others to a number of practices shaping how we teach Black history. Dr. Christopher Busey, a University of Florida professor researcher of Black history in social studies standards, points to the concentration of history books on a limited number of events. For instance, Black history in the classroom typically begins with slavery, highlights the U.S. Civil War, and rushes through to the Civil Rights Era of 1960s where it abruptly. This not only exacerbates issues of friction highlighted by Dr. King, but it also confines peoples’ conceptualization and humanization of collective Black history to a very specific set of time and events and seemingly ignores every other facet of Black history. Puzzlingly, though, this focus does not seem to enhance students’ understanding of major points in Black and American history. For example, although slavery and the civil rights movements remain the focus of Black history, 2018 evidence from the Sothern Poverty Law Center shows that only 8% of high school seniors were able to recognize slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War. In addition to this, Black history is often told through a White lens, frequently leading to the neglect of important figures, elements, and realities of Black history, as well as the further exacerbation of this confinement.

While the consensus is clear regarding the poor state of Black history education, the consensus regarding its solution are also clear: elevate Black voices. And thankfully, the Black Lives Matter movement is doing just that. According to Dr. King, “Whenever there’s a tragedy in Black America, there’s always been an uptick of black history courses, most recently with Black Lives Matter and police shootings.” By centering conversations about the history and injustices of Black Americans around Black Americans, such as has been accomplished with Black Lives Matter, a greater sense of authenticity and precision will follow.

Thankfully, since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, instances of improvement in how we elevate Black Americans’ voices and improve upon Black history pedagogy have increased. Below is a brief list of these efforts, showing a diversity of efforts that are underway. While comprehensive education reform may be the only real solution to these issues, highlighting incremental change highlights where we are and enlightens where we still need to go.

  • Columbia University’s Teaching College, with Notre Dame and Tuskegee University, created an Advanced Placement seminar on the African Diaspora. The number of schools who have adopted this seminar has increased to 11 schools from 2 in 2017-2018.
  • At the University of Iowa, faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) collaborated to create the virtual series “Pursuing Racial Justice at the University of Iowa,” which includes discussions and presentations that faculty can incorporate within their lesson plans. CLAS is also reevaluating its hiring practice to confront implicit bias and increase the hiring of faculty from underrepresented groups.
  • With the support of $500,000 in donations, faculty across disciplines at Carthage College (Kenosha, WI) have begun infusing topics regarding the racial history of the U.S. into its core first-year courses. Furthermore, among various efforts, faculty at Carthage have created the Anti-Racism and Intercultural Seminar Experience (ARISE), where students meet with an equity coach to share and discuss their experiences with people of different circumstances.
  • Seven states have created commissions tasked with facilitating mandates to teach Black history in schools.
  • To meet the rising demand of resources, at least six Black history textbooks are currently on the market, while multiple websites have curated lesson plans on Black history created by Black scholars (e.g., Teaching Tolerance/Learning for Justice, Teaching for Change/Zinn Education Project, and Rethinking Schools.
  • Social media continues to assist the momentum of this innovation, facilitating the creation and sharing of resources across various hashtags, ranging from various topics within #FergusonSyllabus to #BlackEdu.

As I mentioned, this is only a shortlist of all of these efforts and improvements. While a number of efforts and improvements are underway here at home, there is always space for further reflection and recalibration. With this in mind, I wanted to leave you with a few questions to consider going forward. What do you know about the Kansas State Department of Education’s standards on Black history education? Have you encountered any other successful improvements to Black history pedagogy? And finally, based on your experience, what is one reform to Black history education that you believe KSDE should prioritize implementing today?


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