Kimberle’ Crenshaw and Luke Charles Harris (Twitter Photos)
In American society, we claim to support freedom of speech as a cornerstone of our democracy. Yet, when it comes to certain kinds of information, the freedom celebrated by many first amendment absolutists mysteriously disappears. If materials threaten the basis for White supremacy, censorship suddenly becomes justifiable. A teaching tool created by my organization – the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) – was recently subject to this form of censorship in Henrico County, Va.
As part of Black History Month at Glen Allen High School in Henrico County, Ravi Perry, president of the National Association of Ethnic Studies, showed AAPF’s Unequal Opportunity Race video at an optional-attendance assembly. In consultation with school officials, Perry developed a program to facilitate dialogue with students about contemporary racial issues that responded to a recent instance of racism at the school.
Despite its accurate representation of historical events and ongoing racial inequities, the video has been demeaned as a “White guilt video” by a vocal minority, egged on by national outlets such as Fox News. Far more alarming than this backlash is School Board Chair Micky Ogburn’s apology. Denouncing the content as “racially divisive,” Ogburn proclaimed that “school leaders have been instructed not to use the video in our schools.”
The tactics employed by those attacking and censoring us are as old as the Republic. It was once punishable by death to permit Blacks to read and write, squelching our capacity to contest the logic of an inhumane system. Materials that challenged the moral basis for slavery were not only banished but those who wrote them were punished by law.
This ugly past is brought to bear in the present moment through the banning of the Unequal Opportunity Race. The 4-minute video uses an age-old metaphor showing our society as a race that is rigged from start to finish, highlighting the conditions on the track that advantage White runners and disadvantage Black and Brown participants. Through calling attention to the conditions on the racetrack – including slavery, genocide, poor schooling, the wealth gap – the video displays that regardless of the character of the individual runners, the track’s conditions determine who will win.
Since the controversy has received national attention, we have also been receiving a barrage of hate messages. This mirrors the historical pattern of legal censorship sanctioning extra-legal harassment and even violence. Throughout American history, vigilante suppression led to printing presses being shut down and abolitionists being killed. Ida B. Wells was run out of town because she dared to question prevailing beliefs used to justify lynching. These acts of terror were justified as expressions of White supremacy – ideas deemed too threatening to the status quo were quashed by any means necessary.
Many Americans believe that racial repression is firmly locked in the past, and that ugly suppression tactics are forever lost to history. In fact, today’s racial discourse is replete with cries that the real racial victims are white people, and the villains are social justice advocates who insist on holding a “divisive” dialogue about race in America. Perhaps it is because they know little of their country’s history that those who buy into this notion of “reverse racism” don’t see that the very tactics they use to deny race-based inequality prove the that racial repression isn’t a problem of the past. As our experience demonstrates, both structural racism and censorship of content that seeks to dismantle the status quo are very much alive and well.
What is revealing about this moment is not simply a spirited debate about a YouTube video. Far more disturbing is that White discomfort with the Unequal Opportunity Race is spilling over into public policy. Through official banning of the video, we see the same logic employed by those who engaged in “massive resistance” half a century ago against efforts to remove white power from law in states such as Virginia. We see an emboldening of voices that were once written off as offensive or radical, which in the age of Donald Trump are seen as mainstream.
To put it plainly, in acceding to White demands for racial comfort, legally-backed censorship is now taking place in Virginia. This is not just avoidance of an uncomfortable topic. It is outright repression in the maintenance of White power.
Kimberle Crenshaw, Professor of Law at Columbia University and UCLA Law Schools, and Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum; and Luke Charles Harris, Professor of American Politics and Constitutional Law at Vassar College, and Program Director of the AAPF, are the co-creators, writers and producers of The Unequal Opportunity Race Video.