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Midwest college gift shop removes display of dolls of Black leaders that were hanging from a tree

February 4, 2020, 7:53 PM UTC

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When you’re on the race beat, the news is rarely good.

Here’s the latest example: A gift shop on Michigan State University’s campus was forced to remove an array of felt dolls depicting prominent Black figures—Barack and Michelle Obama, Prince, and one which appears to be Harriet Tubman—because they had been displayed hanging from a tree. The dolls looked like they’d been lynched.

Except when confronted directly, the staff of the Wharton Center for Performing Arts, a center named for Clifton R. Wharton, a Black man and former Michigan State University president, just didn’t make the connection. Didn’t see it.

The school has issued an unalloyed apology and plans to offer bias-mitigation training to the Wharton staff (which is unlikely to work). This is more than just a Black History Month fail. It’s just one in a series of incidents at Michigan State which have made non majority-culture students feel unsafe. One Black student even reported that she found a toilet paper noose taped to her dorm room door.

A gift shop display at Michigan State University showed historical Black figures hanging from a tree-like rack.
Courtesy of Krystal Rose Davis-Dunn

The incident has gotten me thinking about why cultural and social justice ignorance persists, particularly in the education ecosystem. Why don’t the big themes about history and power and inequality stick?

I found this case study by Katy Swalwell, an assistant professor of education at Iowa State University, to be a helpful start. 

In “Mind the civic empowerment gap: Economically elite students and critical civic education,” Swalwell spent a semester studying students at an elite private school in their social studies classes to understand how they were absorbing the information about social justice, civic engagement, and inequality. The student body was 86% white and tuition was about $30,000 a year.

The social studies programs were varied, employing data and civic engagement exercises, and explored all sorts of issues, like those relevant to the LGBTQ+ community, incarcerated populations and beyond. They also presented information from a spectrum of perspectives including liberal and conservative. Yet, they were wholly unsuccessful in their primary goal of challenging the students to think more deeply about why inequalities exist. Overall, students were “fundamentally undisturbed” by the notion of systemic barriers, reports Swalwell.

“The majority of students saw their role as that of a ‘benevolent benefactor’ who simply needed to be generous and to do good deeds,” Swalwell said in the paper. “These kinds of responses maintain or even threaten to widen the civic empowerment gap by endorsing personally responsible or participatory models of citizenship.”

“I think [learning about injustice] can only help because we can reference it and sound really cool for saying it if people recognize it,” one student told Swalwell in an interview. “Otherwise, we can help educate people on the things we learned about that maybe they didn’t have the opportunity to learn about. Or, we just know it and that’s great for us. Either way there’s no downside to knowledge.”

Unless it’s not knowledge. What hit me in the Swalwell work was the inability of teachers to inspire students with wealth and power to think about their role in perpetuating inequality, or even caring about people who are different from them. If people don’t see lynching a doll of the first Black president as a problem, they’re not going to see any of the issues facing the Black community as a problem.

And that’s everybody’s problem.

“Regardless of their engagement, poor people have virtually no political power. The very wealthy are the ones with more political power and this gap is increasing,” Swalwell told Iowa State University News. “Research shows that the poor and middle class often only get what they want when their ideas align with very wealthy people.”

Ellen McGirt

On Point

So, the Iowa caucuses didn’t go well I’ll let the pundits and the trolls do their thing, but from an inclusion perspective, the Iowa caucuses have never gone well. The uniquely messy process makes it nearly impossible for working people or anyone with health, age-related, or mobility concerns to participate. The state bars formerly convicted felons from voting in one of the most restrictive laws in the country. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Iowans are shut out, reports The Guardian. “When you know you can’t vote, you remove a certain segment of people from the political process,” says one voting rights advocate.
The Guardian

The Trump Administration’s travel ban now extends to Nigeria Nigerians will be hit the hardest. On February 22, Nigerians will no longer be able to get the visa necessary to permanently relocate to the U.S.; Nigerians are the largest group of immigrants from Africa, and largely the most successful. It feels personal: Over the last two years, 57% of Nigerians applying for work visas, known as B-visas, have been denied. “African immigrants in general and Nigerian immigrants in particular are among the most educated and successful immigrants in the United States,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, in a statement.

Brooklyn Park to be named for LGBTQ+ civil rights activist Marsha P. Johnson Johnson is a long-overlooked legend, a trans woman who sparked the Stonewall Uprising, and founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, which worked to support homeless queer youth and sex workers. She died under mysterious circumstances in 1992. It will be the first park named for an openly LGBTQ+ person. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made the announcement during a speech at a speech at a Human Rights Campaign gala. 
NBC News

New study: YouTube funnels people to extremist videos More than 330,000 videos on some 350 YouTube channels were analyzed and labeled according to a system designed by the Anti-Defamation League—either verified news media, media, “alt-lite” intellectual dark web, or outright alt-right, promoting extremism, white supremacy, and a white ethno-state. Then they traced the authors of 72 million comments on two million videos to discover their online journey. The study found that more than 26% of people who watched and commented on alt-lite videos ultimately wound up on alt-rite site and commented there. The issue appears to be getting worse.
MIT Technology Review

On Background

Does Black History Month help or hurt? The debate on the merits of the month occur every year. This year, The Atlantic’s Melinda D. Anderson breaks down the pros and cons. Here’s the big one: It’s not the specialized month, it’s that schools don’t teach diversity and history as part of their core missions. And the whole thing stops with Martin Luther King. “If there is a concerted effort to approach Black History Month in new ways each year, then we can combat some of the issues of only highlighting certain movements, figures, and events,” says Raquel Willis, a writer and racial-justice activist in Atlanta—and example of an important voice who should be represented in this sort of journalism. “It shouldn’t have taken 20 years for me to learn about Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, and Marsha P. Johnson,” she says.
The Atlantic

Who died during the Chicago heat wave of 1995? Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Judith Helfand doesn’t bury the lede in her latest documentary, exploring why 739 mostly black, elderly, and poor Chicagoans died during the course of one week in the summer of 1995. COOKED: Survival By Zip Code, Helfand’s latest project for PBS, is unflinching in its assessment of what went wrong. Did they die of the heat or did they die of the social conditions? "Well, both,” says Steve Whitman, a Cook County epidemiologist who is interviewed in the film. “Even if they didn’t die that week they would have died too soon.” Primetimer’s Aaron Barnhart gives an in-depth review here, more on the film below.

How teacher diversity helps students of color This policy brief posits that moving away from a majority-white teacher workforce would bring three distinct benefits: Positive role-modeling, higher expectations for kids of color, and an inherent cultural sensitivity that would influence curriculum and instructional content. I would argue that white kids would benefit from all of the above, too.
Brookings Institute

Tamara El-Waylly produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.


"’White supremacy’ is a much more useful term for understanding the complicity of people of color in upholding and maintaining racial hierarchies that do not involve force (i.e slavery, apartheid) than the term ‘internalized racism’—a term most often used to suggest that black people have absorbed negative feelings and attitudes about blackness. The term ‘white supremacy’ enables us to recognize not only that black people are socialized to embody the values and attitudes of white supremacy, but we can exercise ‘white supremacist control’ over other black people."

bell hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black