Just as this year’s African-American History Month is drawing to a close, some recent incidents offer telling, and chilling, reminders of why we need such an event. Last week, a teacher at PS 59, an elementary school in midtown Manhattan, gave her 9-year-old students math homework that included questions asking them to count the number of times slaves were beaten and killed. The New York Post quotes some of the questions:
One of the questions reads: “One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)?”
A separate subtraction question says: “In a slave ship, there can be 3,799 slaves. One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?”
Education officials said that Youn had made a “clumsy attempt” to integrate history lessons into her math curriculum. Describing herself as “appalled,” Principal Adele Schroeter said that the teacher has been spoken to and will have to undergo “training.”
The incident recalls a similar one that occurred among third-graders in a Norcross, Georgia, school last year. A teacher gave them math homework asking them to calculate how many times slaves were beaten; the teacher eventually resigned.
Last week also saw an educator in a very high-profile position showing himself to be more than insensitive about racism. In a column for Emory University’s magazine, James W. Wagner — the university’s president — appeared to approve of the 1787 three-fifths compromise, according to which slaves were to be counted as three-fifths of a person.
Wagner made his comments in a discussion about the current Congressional fight over the national debt. As he wrote:
“The constitutional compromise about slavery, for instance, facilitated the achievement of what both sides of the debate really aspired to — a new nation.”
Wagner has said that his comments were not well thought out and that “personally [he has] a long way to go.”
Emory University history professor Leslie Harris points out that Wagner not only displayed a lack of sensitivity, but also a misunderstanding of American history. As she says in the New York Times, “The three-fifths compromise is one of the greatest failed compromises in U.S. history. Its goal was to keep the union together, but the Civil War broke out anyway.”
Students, faculty and other members of the Emory University community have been holding marches and other events to address Wagner’s remarks and question the university’s commitment to diversity. Located in Atlanta, Emory has a number of archives about African-American literature and history and the university has dealt before with a number of incidents involving racism, including a fraternity that flew the Confederate flag. But for the president of a university ranked the 20th best in the nation to speak positively about the three-fifths compromise is certainly troubling.
As shocking as Youn’s homework and Wagner’s column are, the reality is that such displays of ignorance about the U.S.’s racist past are not all that uncommon, as Jovonna Jones, the president of the Black Student Alliance at Emory, tells the New York Times: “As an African-American woman who has gone to predominately white institutions since middle school, I’ve had lots of incidents like this. It’s hard to be shocked anymore.”
Emphasizing that the “real question” is not to keep asking whether Wagner is a racist, Jones emphasized that “The important question is: What does it mean to embrace and value a diverse student body? What are the values of the school?”
In celebrating the achievements of African-Americans during African-American History Month, we must acknowledge that racist acts still occur in overt and subtle forms in the day-to-day lives of too many Americans. With the KKK still in existence in the U.S., do Americans truly “embrace and value” the nation’s diversity?
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