History sheds light on racial injustice

​A community course co-taught by a history professor and a UW alum unpacks the roots of racism.

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How can you solve a problem if you don’t understand its roots? Can you be part of a solution when you don’t know the whole story?

When the concern is as complex and urgent as the racial justice issues making headlines locally and nationwide, say Steve Kantrowitz and the Rev. Alex Gee, Jr., you need an approach that provides context and deepens awareness.

Kantrowitz is a professor of history and faculty affiliate in American Indian Studies and Afro- American Studies. Gee is a UW-Madison graduate (BA'85, Afro-American Studies) and the senior pastor at Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Madison. The two met a few years back as speakers on a panel and stayed in touch. As events unfolded across the country and in Madison, they decided to collaborate on a community course designed to unpack the roots of racism, Black History for a New Day: Allies for a Stronger Madison.

The students were primarily white Madison-area residents who had expressed interest in working toward racial justice. Gee and Kantrowitz believed the participants could best serve as “allies” to the cause if they had knowledge about the African American experience. Armed with more context and understanding, they could educate and advocate in their own circles.

“We wanted to help people deepen their under- standing of the African American past, the way it has shaped American history and life more generally, and the ways it shapes how we live with each other today,” Kantrowitz says.

“If people knew the gamut of history, they’d have ‘aha’ moments,” says Gee. “We’re empowering people to be part of the solution.”

Our purpose is to understand how the African-American experience has shaped the world we all live in, and how allies can find roles supporting racial justice today. Rooting ourselves in our history, and understanding how we got here, will help us move forward together to make a better world.

Each Tuesday evening over eight weeks in February and March, 150 participants congregated at Fountain of Life a few miles south of campus. Kantrowitz taught four weeks of history, and the other four sessions focused on anti-racist theory and practice and were led by Gee and community activists.

“Both the history piece that I did and the anti-racism piece were about structures rather than intent,” Kantrowitz says. “It’s about how the world worked and works.”

A truth that arose quickly — and is reflected in the course evaluations — was despite how eager the participants were to dismantle racist systems, they lacked knowledge about what had happened in the past.

An older man told Gee, “I know I didn’t learn about your history [in school], but I also didn’t learn my history.”

And a woman had an epiphany after comparing today’s racial disparities with slavery, Jim Crow laws and other historic injustices. “She said, ‘It seems like we keep doing the same thing but calling it something different,’” Gee recalls.

The dichotomy reinforced for both Kantrowitz and Gee the importance of sharing this history.

And it illustrated an important disconnect that can contribute to racial tensions today. “Many African Americans assume whites know – and don’t care,” Gee says.

Instructors warned students to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Creating an environment of openness was crucial, say both Kantrowitz and Gee.

“It was never finger-pointing,” Gee says of the tone of the course. “But what was finger-pointed was the system and obliviousness to it.”

“This crowd was so receptive and engaged and working at it,” Kantrowitz adds.

Kantrowitz and Gee plan to offer the course again, perhaps broadening it to other audiences. And both say they appreciated the importance of forming beyond-campus partnerships to create broad impacts.

Gee says it’s interesting that history has proven to be an essential element in shedding light on some of today’s most pervasive issues – and encourages taking a long view when working toward change.

“We look for such quick fixes,” he says. “The system we’re trying to deconstruct wasn’t built overnight.”