Editor’s Note: Khalil Gibran Muhammad is the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard University, an organizer of the Freedom to Learn movement and co-host of the Some of My Best Friends Are podcast. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Black History Month, which gets underway this week, is a chance to give Americans the timely reminder that you can’t teach our history honestly without understanding Black struggle and triumph.
Take race and racism out of the American story and very little about the country is comprehensible. The way we elect our presidents. The civil rights enshrined in the 14th Amendment that gives birthright citizenship to formerly excluded Asian immigrants and grants marriage equality to same-sex couples. The nation’s intergenerational wealth accumulated during 350 years of slavery and segregation. And the outsize cultural visibility of African American creative talent on the world stage.
Because Black patriots have carried the flame of American democracy for everyone, and for centuries, Black people continue to be overrepresented in pro-democracy movements in the United States — the very movements that some people, particularly some top Republicans and leading figures on the right — seek so desperately to destroy in their zeal to pass voter suppression laws and their efforts to diminish freedom of speech and assembly rights.
Nowhere are these attacks more evident right now than on college campuses. Many academics who teach about the history of race and racism in America, as I do, are being unjustifiably blamed for the rise in antisemitism on campus and falsely accused of creating racial divisions in the country. This has had the undesirable effect of putting us in the crosshairs of some of the most powerful people in the country, including Republican politicians, conservative activists and billionaire donors.
Last week, at my alma mater the University of Pennsylvania, about 100 faculty rallied against what they decried as “anti-democratic” attacks on diversity, academic freedom and free speech. Faculty and staff at private universities across the country now face a similar plight, as do many teachers, librarians and academics at public colleges and universities who have been censored, harassed, physically threatened and fired for doing their jobs over the past year.
As these dangerous assaults move to private universities, many academics are preparing for the worst. I count myself among them. Last year, for the first time in my 25-year career as an academic historian, my teaching was singled out by a powerful politician for causing hate.
When GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx opened the December 5 congressional hearing about antisemitism on campus, she targeted a class taught by me as a “prime example” of a “race-based ideology” that has caused Harvard University to be “ground zero for antisemitism following October 7.” Foxx also cited two additional campus examples of “institutional antisemitism and hate” — a Global Health seminar on “Scientific Racism and Anti-Racism” and an initiative at the Harvard Divinity School on “Social and Racial Justice.”
Then, on January 2, just hours after Claudine Gay announced her resignation under pressure Foxx promised to keep her congressional investigation into Harvard going because “postsecondary education,” the lawmaker wrote in a statement, has been hijacked by “political activists, woke faculty and partisan administrators.”
If by “woke” Foxx means teaching the truth about American history, then I’m guilty as charged. There are few aspects of America’s past that haven’t been impacted by conscientious Black people and their resistance to systemic racism and illiberal democracy.
The charge against me of promulgating a “race-based ideology” that fosters antisemitic views is especially preposterous since the coursework I teach on the history of anti-Jewish hatred and discrimination shows how Blacks and Jews have common enemies in neo-Nazis, replacement theorists and white domestic terrorists in the US. Members of these same groups frequently voice support for the current leader of the Republican Party, former President Donald Trump, who has employed language that resembles the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler.
Right-wing office holders targeting academics is the latest battlefront in a three-year-old political war on education that started with Trump’s ban on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training in federal agencies, and then metastasized to numerous states criminalizing books and curricula on racism, gender discrimination and sexuality in public primary and secondary schools. Florida recently banned sociology from the core curriculum of the nation’s largest public university system, which serves 430,000 students, because “it has been hijacked by left-wing activists,” according to the state commissioner of education.
Foxx and her political ilk want people to believe that what happens in my classroom and the classrooms of many other academics across the country is a part of a woke conspiracy meant to indoctrinate White Americans to hate themselves and their country. They want the public to believe that those of us who teach the truth about the history of race and racism are the real racists and antisemites in America, as these enemies of racial progress and democracy attempt to stand reality on its head.
The situation at Harvard has been made more dire by the university’s failure to push back sufficiently against broader political attacks. In his first university statement as interim president, Alan Garber issued a broad affirmation of the university’s commitment to “free inquiry and expression, in a climate of inclusion and mutual respect.” But as the new semester got underway in January, there was no written statement by senior university officials assuring faculty who teach about racism or staff who hold various functions in the area of DEI that we are safe to do our jobs.
Boilerplate assurances of academic freedom were commonplace before Gay became president and certainly were issued frequently before October 7, when antisemitism became weaponized against anyone teaching about racism or colonialism or who dared to speak about the history of Israel’s occupation of Gaza. And to be clear, I mean anyone — not just Black faculty. Just last week, on the first day of the spring semester, President Garber came under fire for appointing Derek J. Penslar, a prolific and well-respected scholar of Jewish history, to be the co-chair of Harvard’s reconstituted presidential task force combating antisemitism.
Penslar is accused of being soft on antisemitism by Bill Ackman, the billionaire donor who says DEI is the “root cause” of Harvard’s alleged antisemitism and is a prominent supporter of Foxx’s congressional investigation. Another vocal critic of Penslar is the former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who was also an outspoken opponent of Gay’s. He wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter) that Penslar’s views are disqualifying because he has invoked “the concept of settler colonialism in analyzing Israel” and has labeled it “an apartheid state.”
The tragedy is that the academics most committed to learning from the past — who have dedicated their entire careers to staring into the abyss of oppression, in an effort to teach the concept of “Never Again” and how it applies to all people — are the ones least protected in this moment. Black faculty and staff feel especially vulnerable. As my friend who is a Black staffer at a Florida community college told me recently: “I am on the opposite end of the educational spectrum than Harvard, but our realities are the same in many respects.”
Some Black colleagues on my campus have told me they are concerned about the risk to their careers and reputations from “teaching while Black” in this climate. Even some Black alumni are weighing whether it is safe to speak up about Gay’s swift demise as Harvard’s first Black woman president, especially in light of what was believed by many of us to be a political hit job for her commitment to DEI. “People are afraid,” one alum told me. “If it can happen to her, it can happen to any of us.”
If the oldest, richest and most powerful American university won’t defend its own people and resist political efforts to interfere with unvarnished truth-telling and academic freedom, then shame on Harvard. As an academic institution, we should be leading the resistance to these assaults on higher education, not bowing to them.
Silence is a failure of leadership in times like these. Harvard, with its motto “Veritas” — truth — owes it to all of us on the frontlines of these false attacks to defend us for teaching and practicing the very values it claims to uphold.
And for those of us who believe that a rigorous, equitable, inclusive and above all else honest education is the only kind worth having in a multi-racial democracy, we must be courageous, stand together and continue teaching the truth.
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