"Victims' History": Its Value and Use in A Race-Conscious Society; New York as A Case Study

Article excerpt

"Victims' History": Its Value And Use In A Race-Conscious Society; New York As A Case Study

Diane Ravitch would propose that we not teach victims' history because it would only "become a tool to stir racial hatred."(2) It is her contention that if such a history is taught, children would be instructed to psychologically identify with their ancestors. Such an approach to education (especially from a multicultural perspective) she argues, would create a vicious cycle of hate, and eventually "destroy the bonds of mutuality and cohesion that our diverse society needs."(3)

Some scholars would differ with Ravitch in her rejection of victims' history. Their position rests on the assumption that if U.S. society is to truely reform and/or transcend in terms of race relations, then the descendents of the historically oppressed and oppressors need to confront that history. To continue to avoid to teach victims' history is to continue the self-denial of any connection with a historical past that laid the basis for the contemporary impasse in race relations. To avoid victims' history is to give students in general, but white students specifically, a false sense of guiltlessness for historical precedents. As the writers of a 1991 Newsweek article on race relations discovered, whites have no difficulty in disassociating themselves from the historical past of their fathers. One interviewee retorted to a query: "Historic discrimination wasn't imposed by the people [white] being passed over for promotion today. What did I have to do with slavery? Why is the little guy paying the cost?"(4)

More and more students are finding it easy to disassociate themselves from the unpleasantries of history. Of course it is a truism that one can lose sight of the future by getting bogged down in historical jargon. But it is even more of a truism that unless one uses history to avoid the mistakes of the past, the future may simply become a liteny of repeat performances. To avoid historical repetitiveness, in terms of race relations, students need to confront an aspect of victims' history that is very seldom touched upon, if at all, and that is the historical violence acted out by white America against African Americans and other people of color. To teach this aspect of the victims' history is to put the country on that path to a truely "kinder and gentler America." To teach victims' history is to acknowledge a continuity with events of the past; and it is a gesture of reconciliation to the victims of the sins of the fathers as well as a means towards a reclamation of a suppressed humility. But ultimately, to teach such a history is to put tomorrow's leaders in a stronger position to transcend the impediments in American race relations.

The value of such an approach to education is a heightened awareness among students of the legacy of human oppression that continues to weigh heavily on the American conscience, creating impediments to a clearer understanding of race relations. This approach to victim's history does not absolve African Americans [in this paper the victims] or any other people of color from historical acts of violence. Similar to white violence, acts of violence by people of color need to be examined in and taught from a historical perspective if we are to fathom the meaning and role of such violent acts in American history.

To teach victims' history, as argued by Ravitch, "would create a vicious cycle of hate." What she failed to mention in that statement is that just such "a vicious cycle of hate," on the part of whites, was the levelling force in New York race relations for over two hundred years of the state's history. It contributed, then, to the great schism in race relations between Blacks and whites, and its legacy, today, still haunts those relationships. But because of the passionate desire not to teach victims' history, serious impediments to bridging the increasing gulf between Black and white grow ever more insurmountable. …