September 27, 2023

Reparations Movement Profiles: Reckoning with Our History

“What we think of as history is really just memory—all of these things happened, but if we don’t learn about it, then we don’t remember it; it’s not part of our collective memory. This battle is not about history, because you can't change the past, but you can certainly shape our perception of who we are by manipulating what we know about the past.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and creator of The 1619 Project1

The unprecedented calls for racial justice in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020 were met with disinformation campaigns against critical race theory, intersectionality, and other forms of racial and gender justice discourse. As some individuals, corporations, and political actors rallied around racial justice while calling for broader systems reform and for the assailants to be held accountable, others sought to undermine these efforts. Their attempts spurred a countermovement branded as “anti-wokeness,” an effort designed to reject the truth and historical genealogy of the violence against, and suppression of, Black people. Without a collective understanding of the historical root causes of our inequity, it will be impossible for the nation to build a culture of repair.

While the term “anti-wokeness” is new, the kind of opposition to equity that it represents is not. Even before the Civil War, there was a concerted effort to create fear of abolition in the South. In the 1820s, abolitionists began to push more forcefully, urging the use of any means necessary to defeat slavery. In response, proponents of slavery led an equally forceful counterattack. Not only did Congress pass legal measures to limit anti-slavery speech, but abolitionist literature was criticized and intercepted in the mail, and recipients of these publications were surveilled.

Currently, the battleground for controlling what we learn and what we talk about is the classroom. In recent months, lawmakers in over two dozen states have attempted to regulate how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and issues of equality and justice. As one example, in 2022 Governor Ron DeSantis signed the “Stop WOKE Act,” a Florida state law that bars educational institutions and businesses from teaching anything that would cause anyone to “feel guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress” due to their race, color, sexuality, or national origin. At least nine states have introduced legislation to specifically ban the teaching of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which centers slavery in American history, and six states have introduced bills to promote patriotism in education.

Against the backdrop of the passage of this legislation, 2,571 books across 37 states were banned or challenged in 2022. Unsurprisingly, the banned titles consisted of characters or themes that touched on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Collectively, these disinformation efforts move the Unites States toward a country where Black history is stripped away.

In response to these disinformation efforts, several organizations and institutions have launched counter campaigns aimed at preserving our history. One such example is the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) led by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw and Dr. Luke Harris. AAPF is an innovative think tank that connects academics, activists, and policymakers to promote efforts to dismantle structural inequality. These efforts embrace the intersections of race, gender, class, and the array of barriers that disempower those who are already marginalized in society.

In recent years, disinformation campaigns against critical race theory, intersectionality, and other forms of racial and gender justice discourse have surged. In response, AAPF launched the #TruthBeTold campaign, aimed at advocating for federal action to disseminate knowledge as it pertains to racial and gender equity. The campaign galvanized opposition to the “Equity Gag Order,” an executive order which in 2020 prohibited activities and workplace trainings that addressed or promoted equity in federal agencies and their contractors. The order was successfully revoked by the Biden administration just four months later. In addition, the campaign is raising awareness of the widespread and lingering harms of the executive order and similar legislation, while providing organizations and institutions with the resources to challenge efforts to suppress honest conversation about the country’s history.

The attack on what the nation teaches makes the support of Black educators particularly critical right now. The 1954 Project, an education initiative established by philanthropists Liz and Don Thompson as part of the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education Group, enables Black educational leaders to create a better, more inclusive education system by radically redesigning how philanthropy connects with Black leaders. Named to draw attention to the consequence of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, as a result of which tens of thousands of Black teachers lost their jobs when Black students were integrated into white schools, The 1954 Project seeks to honor Black educators from the past and the longstanding legacy of diverse Black leaders fighting for educational equity for all students. “Enslaved Africans learned to read, write, and teach under the threat of death fully committed to the generations that they would never meet,” says Liz Thompson. “It is that depth of resolve that sets the stage for the importance of education in our community today.”

Moreover, funders have a unique role to play in preserving our history as well. For example, the Boston Foundation has embarked on a journey engaging with staff and internal stakeholders on issues of race and reparations, while also producing a dialogue series on reparations for a broader audience. Its reparations series is available on its website. Boston Foundation President M. Lee Pelton shares: “To tell the truth is to look back and make an honest appraisal on how we got where we got—acknowledging racial equities and understanding all of the factors that led to these inequities. You have to understand how we got here in order to move forward.”

Organizations and resources working to preserve our truth and history (this list is not exhaustive, nor have the organizations been independently vetted by the authors):

Equal Justice Initiative | NAACP Legal Defense Fund | The 1619 Project | Facing History & Ourselves | Shorefront Legacy Center in Evanston | Mapping Prejudice | The Redress Movement  | Kinfolk

More on Reparations and Building a Culture of Repair

1Alight Align Arise: Advancing the Movement for Repair,” June 7-9, 2023, Atlanta, Georgia, hosted by the Decolonizing Wealth Project.

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