Why the University Of Michigan desperately needs educational reform

Wednesday, July 8, 2020 - 2:27pm

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On June 10, I opened Twitter to see it aflame with tweets regarding President Donald Trump’s controversial election campaign rally being held in Tulsa, Okla. on June 19. Curious about the outrage, I clicked on the trending topic. I scrolled through countless threads detailing the significance of Juneteenth as well as Tulsa’s bloody history. Thanks to my K-12 education, I can tell you that John Hancock signed his name on the Declaration of Independence in a noticeably larger font. I can even tell you about how Paul Revere used lanterns to signal that the British were coming (two by sea, one by land). However, I would not have been able to tell you about one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history: the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921

A simple Google search informed me about a tragedy that felt all too familiar. Dick Rowland was a 19-year-old boy, just slightly younger than I am, who left the shoe-shine parlor where he worked to use the colored-bathroom that was located in a different building. On his way there, he tripped as he stepped onto an elevator and accidentally grabbed the arm of the person standing in front of him to regain balance. That person happened to be a white woman who was startled and screamed. On May 31, 1921, the following day, Rowland was arrested after an inflammatory local newsletter falsely alleged that he had sexually assaulted the woman in the elevator.

According to the 2001 Race Riot Commission report, “Black Tulsans had every reason to believe that Dick Rowland would be lynched after his arrest.” The report discusses how angry Black Tulsans felt knowing that Rowland’s life was being threatened due to a highly suspect crime. Much like today, the police did not have the safety of Black communities in mind. Knowing this, Black Tulsans took it upon themselves to defend Rowland. Hostile groups of white and Black Tulsans gathered and local authorities failed to intervene and pacify the situation.  

I remember reading through commission reports and sparse, often conflicting historical websites trying to piece together just how this event escalated. I came across accounts of bombs being dropped on Tulsa, buildings being reduced to ashes and Black Tulsans being unfairly arrested following the chaos and destruction of their homes. Although many of the details of the event are murky and lost in time, there is an undeniable progression of racially-motivated violence and injustice. 

On June 19, 2020, Juneteenth, I was relieved to see many articles published that revisited this event and shed light on the violence that resulted in the demise of Black Wall Street. However, when I first learned about the massacre I remember not knowing if I was more shocked at the degree of hatred-fueled destruction or how well this injustice was buried, censored and largely forgotten. 

June 2020 marked the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. It also highlights how little progress has been made in terms of true racial equality in this country. The parallels between what happened almost a century ago and the injustices that Black Americans continue to bear today are strikingly one in the same. 99 years ago in Tulsa, Dick Rowland’s life was unfairly threatened and he was failed by the very system that claimed to protect him. Instead of listening to protestors who outcried racism and sought justice, public officials provided firearms and ammunition to white individuals and units of the Oklahoma National Guard participated in the mass arrests of all or nearly all of Greenwood’s residents — the vast majority of them Black. 

Today, nearly 100 years later, history repeats itself. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd’s life was unfairly and cruelly taken by police officers for a petty, suspected crime. Thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism. Yet again, the government has largely failed to address the issues of the oppressed and instead attempts to silence them: The National Guard has reportedly used everything from tear gas to rubber bullets on protestors. Additionally, over 10,000 protestors have been arrested in the United States. 

The past few weeks have been both alarming and eye-opening for me because I have not just been ignorant of the Tulsa Race massacre. In light of the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and countless other Black Americans, Instagram has transformed into a completely new platform. Some may even call it the new history class. Every morning now, I can count on waking up to see over twenty different educational posts shared via Instagram stories. These posts detail everything from information about the history of the Black Lives Matter Movement, what defunding the police means, how to support Black communities and other instances of systemic racism in the United States. These colorful, yet seemingly innocuous posts have taught me more about institutional and systemic racism than any of my K-12 history classes ever have. 

For example, one bright pink and white themed post that I came across recently is titled, “8 Facts About Black History That We Didn’t Learn In School.” To my surprise, the facts from this post and almost all of these educational posts are curated from original documents, The New York Times, NPR and other highly reputable sources. Each and every fact challenged my prior misconceptions and knowledge in some way. The fact that particularly stuck out to me from the post was the very last one. It reads, “8. The 13th Amendment Allowed Slavery: ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime...shall exist within the United States’ (1). This phrasing gives explicit permission for slavery to continue as part of the criminal justice system.” The slide goes on to discuss how slavery has become institutionalized and continues today largely due to the privatization of prison labor. Essentially, prisons profit from these labor systems, which can take form as anything from agriculture to manufacturing work, by paying the inmates less than $1.50/hour. My middle school history class painted the 13th amendment as the great resolution to racial oppression in this country. Never did I learn that the United States’ huge mass incarceration problem, which disproportionately affects Black Americans, is written into the very same legislation that “freed” slaves.

I actually have an entire folder on my Instagram app dedicated to impactful educational posts like this one. Everyday I find new bits of information that chip away at my ignorance and help me see a more comprehensive picture of what it means to be Black in the United States of America. But how did we get here? Why has it become necessary for Gen Z to clamor and take it upon ourselves to unearth history and amplify the voices of activists to educate our peers? Why did our education system fail us so badly?

Slowly, I have started to see a pattern in the information that is deliberately ignored or oversimplified and sugar-coated in school curriculums. By not teaching about how certain groups of people have been and are currently oppressed, the U.S education system allows these cycles of injustice to happen again and again. This censorship allows generations of people to believe that equality is our current reality; that affirmative action is an “unfair advantage” instead of a modest form of compensatory justice; that Black people are “drug-dealing thugs” when really those stereotypes stemmed from the racial motivations behind Nixon’s “War on Drugs” that sought to vilify and terrorize Black communities; that Black Lives Matter protests are an “overreaction to an isolated incident” when George Floyd is actually one name on an excruciatingly long list of people that have been wronged by a system that was never on their side to begin with. 

Clearly, the K-12 public education system is largely responsible for failing to incorporate Black history beyond a watered-down version of slavery and Black History Month into its curriculumn and thereby, perpetuating harmful stereotypes, misconceptions and complacency. However, educational institutions at every level play a critical role and need to be held accountable. Are higher education institutions using their immense resources to actively combat racism and eliminate ignorance? Or are they allowing ignorance to pass by –– unchallenged and unperturbed? 

Since the formation of the University of Michigan’s Race and Ethnicity requirement in 1990, countless students have voiced many concerns about the requirement and its poor execution. Simply put, the shortcomings of the University’s Race and Ethnicity requirement are four-fold. 

*I would like to mention that none of these shortcomings are new or by any means my own original ideas. Students have been vocal about them for years. The University has met these concerns by doing a large-scale survey in 2016 of the effectiveness of the requirement to inform their decision on what improvements need to be made. However, progress has been slow ever since. I am choosing to bring them up these concerns again to underscore the implications of these shortcomings and the urgency for change.*

Firstly, the required focus guidelines of the Race and Ethnicity requirement are too broad. It is explicitly stated that, “Although it is hoped that many of these courses will focus on the United States, it is not required that they do so. Courses that deal with these issues in other societies, or that study them comparatively, may also meet the requirement.” As a result, a student can take “History 252: Introduction to Chinese Civilization” or “Italian 240: Italian Mafia” to fulfill the requirement. These classes are important and relevant in their own right. However, these open-ended guidelines leave students with the choice to be ignorant to race issues within the United States. Ignorance is not a choice and should not be tolerated at any capacity by the University. Being educated about issues within the United States is paramount to a student being prepared to enter his or her career. Especially as someone who aspires to be in the healthcare field, I know how much of a problem medical racism continues to be and how critical the need for educated leaders in this field is. This need holds true for any field and is why students need to think critically about relevant race issues. 

Secondly, the required focus class guidelines are extremely vague. “Every course satisfying the requirement must devote substantial, but not necessarily exclusive, attention to the required content.” During the winter 2019 semester, I took “Women’s Studies 220: Perspectives in Women’s Health” out of genuine interest and found out recently, to my surprise,  that it counted towards the Race and Ethnicity requirement. While I thoroughly enjoyed this informative class, it devoted only one week to racism in health care — a topic that could be and deserves to be covered in much greater depth over an entire semester. I am not alone in this opinion. In 2018, The Michigan Daily Editorial Board voiced the same concern and discussed how “substantial” is not clearly defined in the guidelines. The Editorial Board wrote, “This, along with the extent of classes which fulfill the requirement, provides too much room for vague connections to race and ethnicity rather than a structured focus.” Given the lack of attention typically given to current race issues in K-12 education and in the wake of the nation’s current political atmosphere, it is important now more than ever for students to be as educated as possible about systemic, environmental and institutional racism in the U.S. Classes that devote little, if any, time to these issues or treat them as an “afterthought” fall incredibly short of what students need and deserve from their education. 

Thirdly, The Michigan Daily Editorial Board also noted that the Race and Ethnicity requirement is only mandatory for LSA, the Ford School of Public Policy and the School of Art & Design students. Expanding this requirement to all undergraduate schools can only benefit students, whose diverse careers are certainly not exempt from race and ethnicity issues. These topics appear in nearly all fields of study and aspects of life. Furthermore, cultural competence and the ability to interact with diverse groups of people is important-regardless of the field of study. The board also suggested ways that the requirement could be easily worked into each school’s existing requirements and how each school could have a Race and Ethnicity course focused on how diversity can and will impact their future field. Personally, I think having an introductory first year Race and Ethnicity course required for all students, followed by an upper level Race and Ethnicity course that is focused on a student’s own interest or future career field is a great improvement from the requirement’s current set-up. 

Lastly, one class is simply not sufficient, especially given how badly K-12 education systems have failed to educate students. Despite writing essays throughout middle and high school, the University still requires LSA students to complete a first-year and upper-level writing requirement in order to ensure students can write in diverse academic contexts. Students are required to take or have credit for at least four semesters of a foreign language to guarantee a deep awareness of linguistic and cultural differences and a means to bridge them. Frugality is entirely unwarranted when students’ fluency in tolerance and anti-racism is concerned. Many students have had racist, xenophobic or sexist sentiments ingrained into them for years. Unlearning these ideas and becoming more educated and open-minded is a long, arduous process that needs much more guidance and support than what is currently being offered to students. 

The University cannot claim to be home to the leaders and best by allowing students to shield themselves from some of the biggest problems plaguing our country today. Racial injustice doesn’t disappear by not acknowledging it. Ignorance only allows it to fester and grow. Without adequate educational reform to properly educate this generation, we cannot pin our hopes on a socially just future. 

The wide array of engaging and informative anti-racism classes that the University does offer are unfortunately only sought out by those who care to learn about these issues or are affected by them directly. Concrete change, starting with amending the Race and Ethnicity requirement to address how this system tolerates ignorance is long overdue. 

I am hopeful that putting the University’s inaction into the context of a larger failure in educational entities in this country emphasizes the clear need for strong and outspoken leadership to spearhead educational reform at the college level. Without change, we risk letting cycles of injustice continue and allow history to repeat itself again and again.

The University of Michigan has taught me so much these past two years. I have been inspired and grown greatly as a person. As a result, I have deep respect for what this school has to offer and what it stands for. It is from this place of respect and good intention that I am choosing to voice these concerns and to recognize the University’s potential to be even better and do more. To be frank, there are many issues to address when it comes to actively combating racism on this campus. Let’s start here. 

Members of the Michigan Daily Summer Statement team collaborated to create this Race and Ethnicity requirement petition. If you are a student, professor, or in any way affiliated with the University and agree that changes need to be made to the requirement, please sign this petition to show your support. There is power in numbers: http://chng.it/YBg5gQ8v

Yashasvini Nannapuraju can be reached at ynannapu@umich.edu