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Memory and Racism

In refusing to let America forget her asthmatic father’s death at the hands of a New York cop using an illegal chokehold, Erica Garner seized the narrative that writes history. Dead at 27 after a heart attack, her persistence and zeal apparently has taken its toll.

You see, racism has reverberations that go far beyond an event. Racist acts, like the choking death of Eric Garner, incite ongoing anger, frustrations, fear, depression and health complications. We don’t know for sure what Erica Garner’s health story was, but in the wake of the deep injuries of racism, we can say for sure society has a way of forgetting the most egregious acts of Black suffering.

So in this sense, forgetting is a key component to anti-Black racism.

Dr. Anthony L. BrownDr. Anthony L. Brown

What we remember or forget about racism gives meaning to present-day issues. For example, without knowing the long U.S. history of housing segregation, one can presume the lack of diversity in schools and neighborhoods is a matter of choice. Forgetting is particularly problematic for young people of color. Without a collective memory of racism’s impact on income, housing and education, young people assume what they lack in learning or economic opportunity, and access is their fault or that of their communities.

I see this play out in my classroom at the University of Texas at Austin when I ask students if they’ve ever heard about Rodney King, kicked 56 times in 81 seconds by four Los Angeles police officers in 1991. Viral footage of the beating was one of few times violence toward an African-American male was so plainly captured.

An overwhelming number of them have never heard of King: So that means they didn’t know about the cops’ acquittal nor the six days of unrest that ensued afterward when L.A. burned, 63 people died, 12,000 were arrested and property damage topped $1 billion.

This always stands out because it illustrates how one of the most effective ways to mold public perception is to allow the past to fade from the consciousness of future generations.

Scholars of K-12 history curriculum have documented for decades the ways racial violence directed toward African-Americans tends to vanish from the historical record. The most striking example is our lack of teaching about lynching, a great American pastime at one point. Significant events are watered down, too, such as confining the negative impact of slavery to 250 years ago, as if we don’t live with ramifications today.

These histories are omitted because forgetting is racism.

Forgetting powerfully removes the past by silencing or modifying present-day concerns. Racism is not only represented by the actions of history (e.g. Middle Passage, slavery, lynching) it is the process of remembering and forgetting that helps to insidiously separate America’s racial past from ongoing racial inequalities.

Author Jacqueline Goldsby calls forgetting dramatic histories of racial violence a “spectacular secret.” It’s hard to fathom with all the media attention on the deaths of unarmed black people in the past five years that this history in the next twenty-five years could disappear from the public imagination. But if we use the history of American school curricula as a guidepost, it is very likely.

The call to #SayHerName in remembering Black women and girls taken by a racist police and justice system is a powerful way of remembering. As is Erica Garner’s wholehearted commitment to avenge her father and advocate for police accountability. So let us remember our children, including Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Jordan Edwards and the men and women whose lives also ended too soon, such as Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown and now Erica Garner. Let’s say … and write … and never forget.

Dr. Anthony L. Brown is a Public Voices Fellow, and an associate professor of curriculum & instruction in social studies education at the University of Texas at Austin.  


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