The Classical Association of the Atlantic States (CAAS) recently held a virtual workshop on anti-racism, titled “A Way Forward.” CAAS is one of the main organizations in the field of classics, along with the American Philological Association (APA), which in 2013 rebranded as the Society for Classical Studies (SCS). One need not dig too deep to find the roots of the SCS, a professional organization for teachers and lay supporters of the study of Greece and Rome. Basel Lanneau Gildersleeve, a scholar of Greek and Latin and veteran of the Confederate States Army, founded the APA in 1869. The field would seem to have come a long way since then, and even since it disinvited the Black classicist William Sanders Scarborough from its segregated conference in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1909. This January 2021, the SCS welcomed its first African American president, Shelley P. Haley, Edward North Chair of Classics and Professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College. The CAAS workshop was consistent with these major changes in the academic field.
The current state of play in this particular academic field of study, electing a president to its première national organization, who happens to be Black, and beginning 2021 with an anti-racism Zoom session attended by over 100 people, reflects some promising trends across the country. After the brutal killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution declaring racism a public health emergency. Many other cities and organizations followed suit, including Richmond, Virginia, where mayor Levar Stoney acknowledged racism as a national epidemic and tore down some of its prominent symbols across the city, the Confederate monuments that line one of its main thoroughfares. Across the country, the focus of major news outlets such as Business Insider on race and anti-racism has been persistent.
Anti-racism seems to have found its moment, although Classical Studies in specific has some heavy lifting to undo the role of its legacy as a bastion of White supremacy. Vassar College classics professor Curtis Dozier acknowledges this and has an online platform, Pharos, whose “first purpose is to document appropriations of Greco-Roman culture by hate groups online.”
There remains, however, much work to be done, not only in the academy. After George Floyd was killed, outgoing National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien denied that there was such a thing as systemic racism, and his perspective is no doubt shared by millions of people. What is to be done? Is there a way forward? Below I list three necessary focal points if we are to heal the damage of the past:
Acknowledgement. To paraphrase the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, difficulties cannot be overcome by keeping silent about them. I am hopeful that Americans, indeed, contemporary people across the globe, will come to a recognition that White supremacy is the default position of our existence, not an abnormality. Ever since Carl Linnaeus separated homo sapiens into distinct, sub-races, a hierarchy has been inscribed. David Hume rationalized divergent creation stories to explain differences in skin pigmentation and phenotype. In the United States, the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 did not only justify segregation, but it reinforced harmful distinctions that extended the logic of Black African transatlantic slavery well into the 20th century. Research on the pernicious impact of this everyday White supremacy was infamously evident in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court argument in 1954, the psychological harm of non-White children choosing White dolls over those that looked like them.
White supremacy is quotidian, and it is also operative in what New York University professor Cristina Beltrán sees as the “multiracial” coalition that led to the Jan. 6, 2021, siege of Congress. If we accept that race is a harmful social construct that we must dismantle, then we would also concur with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, that in order to do so, we have to take a stand. If racism is the default, then we all have a bit of a racist inside of us.
Support. An ongoing dynamic that was on display during the CAAS workshop I mentioned at the start of this article is the emotional disparity between how we experience and talk about race. Non-whites — as those drawing the short stick of a random, racial hierarchy that functions like fate — are accustomed to disparagement. We are also used to talking about it. At the CAAS workshop and in classrooms and boardrooms across the country and world, we speak up and testify. This is a heavy burden. In a recent meeting where I was the only executive not to raise my hand in the affirmative when asked if I would take the COVID-19 vaccine, I was silent when asked why I was hesitant. (Disclaimer: I am not an anti-vaxxer; my fears about the vaccine owe to a history of Black bodies being used in medicine.) I was not in a vigilant mood and did not take on the conversation. I know that many minorities across all walks of life share in this existential fatigue.
Because of this state of play, White people need spaces where they can talk about race and racism, independent of the dominant presence of non-Whites. Whites need to gain facility in surfacing their own, invisible experiences with race and ask important questions — First time you knew you were White? First non-White friend? First non-White teacher or boss? What have been your feelings and reactions about these things? These conversations need to take place in safety and deep confidentiality. I know that many will say that all space is White space, but Whiteness needs to be denaturalized. This can only happen with support.
Coalition. Once we have lain the foundation of acknowledgement and support, we can begin to build strong coalitions to undo the reign of race over our lives. If race is at the root of modernity (Linnaeus, Hume), slavery was only one of its many rotten fruit. Non-Whites could not independently dismantle the slave trade. Rather, the abolitionist movement mobilized powerful, majority people across industry, education, and the justice system. We need a new abolitionist movement to dismantle race, racial thinking, and racism. This is not as easy as declaring a post-racial era; we have to work for it.
If it is truly time for anti-racism, I see two ways forward, each of which must be taken. The first is backwards, to an understanding of our history and past, the pathways that led us to this time and place. This is personal and public work, individual and collective. Classical Studies and other academic fields that study the past are in excellent positions to help. Secondly, a way forward is inward, to know ourselves. Each of us has racial experience, whether we are White or non-White. We can bear witness to one another’s experiences, which means everyone speaks up, and lends support.
Patrice Rankine is Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences and Professor of Classics at the University of Richmond.