The Importance of Leaving Footprints: The Lesson of the Slave Narrative and “Footnote Four”

By Mark Naison (November 11, 2019)

During the last few years, it has been a matter of extreme frustration to me that I have been able to do little to prevent our country from “going off the rails.” I saw what was coming four years ago, warned people about it, and had virtually no influence on anybody that didn’t already share my views

In the last few weeks, I have started to make peace with my ineffectiveness as a political actor when it comes to current events. My influence, such as it is, will be manifested over a long period of time, for the most part through the activity of the students I have taught, but also through my writings, my postings on social media, and the data base on Bronx and New York History I have created with my colleagues through the Bronx African American History Project

To explain why I think this way, I want to share two things that took place in the Great Depression that would have their greatest influence over thirty years after they were done

The first was an initiative of the Federal Writers Project, created by the Works Progress Administration, to conduct oral history interviews with more than 2,000 formerly enslaved people who were still alive during the great Depression. These interviews, conducted by scores of young scholars, were placed in the Library of Congress and were neglected for more than twenty years because historians of slavery, overwhelmingly white, only trusted written documents and were only willing to use as source for their accounts of slavery journals and letters of slave owners, newspaper articles, and a small number of published memoirs of former slaves. However, in the late 60’s and early 70’s with the rise of the Black Studies movement, these interviews were not only “discovered” they were transformed into the major source for an explosion of published work on what slavery looked and felt like to its victims. In the process students and the general public were given the first honest portrait of how Black people not only endured demoralizing and dehumanizing treatment, but resisted it in ways small and large.

The second legacy I want to refer to is a Footnote that a Supreme Court Justice, Harlan Stone, placed in a 1938 decision involving federal regulation of milk products. Frightened by the rise of Nazism and of Nazi like and white supremacist movements in the US, Stone suggested, in his now famous Footnote 4 that it was the responsibility of the Federal Jurists, appointed for life, to assume the role of “defender of minorities” as elected officials might well be prone to oppress minorities and deprive them of their rights. For many years, as the nation was preoccupied, first with economic problems and then with war, Stone’s comments attracted little attention. But in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when Civil Rights issues became the focal point of national politics, and in the 1970’s, when Affirmative Action became a hot button issues, federal judges, including judges on the Supreme Court, used Footnote 4 as a rationale for taking an aggressive stance in defending minority rights, especially in the interpretation of the 14th Amendment, that had never before been done in the Court’s history! Harlan Stone’s once neglected Footnote had helped change the course of US History

These two stories, which guide my teaching and my research,give me confidence in speaking out and recording oft neglected voices even if they might not change the world around me. Some day., who knows, historians and activists may see in this legacy a guide to action that with help them change the world they live in.


Letter to the President of Georgia Southern University Regarding Book Burning

By Mark Naison (October 13, 2019)

Letter to the President of Georgia Southern University regarding book burning at his school
Kyle Marrero
President, Georgia Southern University

Dear President Marrero

As a historian of race in the United States, who has written 7 books on the subject, and a professor for 49 years at one of the nation’s major universities, I am writing to express my extreme dismay at the burning of the books of a prominent LatinX author who spoke at your campus. In all my years of college teaching, this may be the single most disturbing act of racial harassment I have heard, both because of the specter of Nazism it invokes, and the chilling message it sends to students of color in an already highly charged political climate.

If students of color at your university are to feel protected from racial violence- and book burning is a violent act- and if your university’s reputation is not to be permanently tarnished, you must take much more dramatic action than you have so far done.

First of all, the book burning must be described as an act of racial violence and harassment, not as a manifestation of free speech. You must say, in the loudest possible voice, that this action has covered Georgia Southern with shame, and that it must NEVER happen again on your campus or at any campus in the nation

Secondly, you must take some disciplinary action against the students involved, ranging from academic probation to suspension. Your students of color will never feel safe unless those responsible for the book burning are punished

Let me close with one more reminder. There was another time when the state of Georgia was known for the use of fire as an expression of rage- the burning of Black bodies during lynchings. If you don’t believe me, look up the lynching of Sam Hose, who was burned at the stake in your home state after his body was dismembered

The history that comes before us should be a guide to greater wisdom, not an excuse for looking the other way when racial violence and harassment occurs.

Please consider what I say very carefully, because it is in the minds of thousands of my peers who teach at universities around the nation


Mark D Naison

Dr Mark Naison
Professor of African American Studies and History
Founder and Director, Bronx African American History Project


Advice to Young People: Don’t Normalize Racism

By Mark Naison (August 19, 2019)

If there was a piece of advice I would give to young people, it would be the following:

Don’t normalize racism.

Speak out against it and challenge it wherever you see it, whether it is in a classroom, a dormitory, a locker room or at your family dinner table.

Do so with kindness when possible, but fierce determination when necessary.

This country’s future depends on the best impulses of its people coming to the fore. This is something that has to be done every day, not just when there is an election. Be the moral compass your school, your community and your country desperately needs

Peace. The future is yours to shape and enjoy if you have the courage of your convictions.



Direct Action Will Work Against ICE

By Teka Lark (June 24, 2019)

Direct action is a tool that should only be used when it needs to be used. Protesting with a permit is not direct action. Anytime you appeal to authority in a way that puts them in the position of reasonable, you’re not doing direct action.

What is direct action? When you resist with your body or with your wallet. The Montgomery Bus Boycott is an example of direct action.

The most effective direct actions understand that the system is corrupt and unreasonable, not parts of the system, the ENTIRE system and people resist accordingly. i.e. You can’t call the police on ICE.

I have been involved in three direct actions in my life, both involved law enforcement and children. I taught little kids in the fall, but in the summer I taught bigger children. When I went from teaching in the wealthiest schools in LA to some of the most economically oppressed, I realized I needed some kind of code to guide me, one of them was I don’t help the police and I don’t help LA Migra (now ICE), because I was not in education to make things worse.

One time I refused to let the police interrogate my student, even after the police got in my face and told me I was “a ‘stupid’ woman for dealing with ‘thugs’ and to not call them when I found that out who I was dealing with.” I told the police and my principal that they weren’t going to violate my student’s rights and they explained, “We can interview minors without a parent present.” And I said, “The laws of this stolen country don’t guide me and I do not consent to a searching of my classroom.”

I didn’t know whether that was within my rights or not, but I just knew they weren’t questioning my student alone while I was in charge. We already know what happens to teenage Black boys when the cops think they did something. To my surprise the police actually left, they left pissed, but they left, all because I said no, because they so rarely hear no, at least from a Black woman with a college degree, who was supposed to be vetted to be “one of the good ones.”

Another time was when I was teaching poetry at a community day school. The police came in my classroom for a student who was in the bathroom. They said, “Where is James?” And I said, “He didn’t come to school today? Is there a message you have for him?”

The third involved La Migra and a parent and I can’t discuss it.

I do not believe in the prison industrial complex and I will not cooperate or abet in putting someone in the hands of the police.

In my life I have always thought if I could just convince more people to stand up with me, we could really do so much to prevent injustice.

This brings us to current day. The #ICERaids are delayed, but they aren’t stopping, they never will. The point of #ICERaids is to terrorize people into shutting up, so they can be exploited. As Adam Serwer said in regards to Trump, “The cruelty is the point.”

What I really want you to do now is to understand your power. When you are on social media, when you watch the news, what they are trying to do is take away your courage, take away your power, to convince you that YOU CAN NOT make a difference. I know for a fact that is a lie.

If we all understood our power, we could stop injustice. When ICE comes for your neighbor (regardless of who is president), I don’t want you to go on FB Live and record them taking your neighbor away, then edit music into it, and share it with thoughtful words of how angry you are, what you need to do is to STOP them.

We all occupy different spaces in oppression, currently your job is this, if ICE comes for someone in your physical space you need to do whatever you can to stop them from taking away the person in their custody. Get creative, but we need to all mentally prepare ourselves that ICE doesn’t work, because we’re not going to let it work.

We all say:
If it was during Jim Crow, I would have…
If it was during Slavery, I would have…
If it was WW2, I would have been fighting the NAZis like Josephine Baker…

Here is your chance to put on your best lipstick and do something. They can’t arrest everyone, not if we all decide that no one is going anywhere.

Direct action, it will work, if we all agree that is what we’re doing.

So you agree, right?


Why Teachers are Rising

By Mark Naison (April 3, 2018)

For the last twenty years, beating on teachers has been the national pastime, as popular among Democrats as Republicans, among liberals as conservatives. Teachers have been the nation’s most convenient scapegoat for rapidly rising levels of inequality and have been the target of an immense array of accountability measures which funnel profits to test companies while depressing teachers salaries and crushing their morale.

Is it any wonder that there a nationwide teacher shortage and that teachers are fed up with their stagnant salaries, diminishing pensions and plummeting levels of respect, conditions which have made them have to work several jobs to stay afloat and has saddled them with intolerable levels of stress?

No one is off the hook for this state of affairs, from Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken on one side, who never saw an accountability measure they didn’t like, to Betsy Devos and Jeb Bush, who are seeking to privatize what was once a public trust.

And teachers know this. Which is why they are rising up all over the country to demand that their salaries elevate them above poverty and that they be treated respectfully by Governors and Legislatures.

It’s long overdue!

Remember: Teachers working conditions are student learning conditions.


We Need to Teach People How to Share Power

By Irami Osei-Frimpong (March 19, 2018)

I think that a whole lot of political problems come from an inability to share power with genuine people you may not necessarily like. This barrier is baked into our political culture, though I will say that there are marked differences between subordinate and dominant groups, for a variety of reasons.

Well-ordered democracies concern how we share power with strangers across competing interests. Political power is one of these strange spirits that grows if you share it– but not in an obvious way, and there is an ethic to it, and if we don’t take that ethic seriously, it’s really easy (and popular) to abuse power, but if we embrace the vulnerability entailed in sharing power with due humility and a good sense of humor, you can get this right and win freedom for everyone involved. (Though some people are going to sorely miss their privileges.)

We don’t institutionalize teaching the importance of sharing power– which means that we don’t institutionalize the principles of wielding it justly– but we have a very rich discourse concerning property rights, so it’s not surprising that are bad at wielding power justly. People think of their share of political power as merely their property to use to seek their private interest, then everything gets confused.

To be clear, I think the blocks to, and conditions for, sharing power account for all sorts of structural racism. (This is one reason why integration fell flat. We let white people think they could integrate without sharing power with people they don’t like.) In general, this inability to take the work of shared power across difference seriously also accounts for screwed up relationships: intimate, working, and academic.

For example, I read a LOT of people who think that black people are idiots. I read a lot of people who think that black men are apes. Folks ask me, “How can your read them!” To which I answer, “Those people are very smart on OTHER, more basic issues, and I think I can separate out their bigotry and misandry.” Taking time to read them is a form of sharing power with people I don’t particularly like. I didn’t realize how much it habituated me to sharing power.

I get a lot of flack for being such an integrationist. But yeah, I think the only way we will be free is when we take the principles of shared power seriously, institutionalize teaching people how to share power the same way we institutionalize teaching people Geometry, and we realize that freedom is more important than the comfort shared power compromises or the vulnerability shared power entails.

What’s fascinating is that there very little that leads me to believe that victims of abuse of power are necessarily much better at sharing it, unless there is more to the story in the form of a political or structural or intellectual intervention. (To be honest, this is what worries me about safe space discourse in politics, but that’s fodder for another post.) This growth does happen, so that not all victims are necessarily potential abusers, but enough of them are that I always ask my students, “So, who taught you how to wield power?”

If the answer is “nobody,” then we consider why that may be a problem. If the answer is “My parents”, then we consider whether they think their parents wield power justly.


Interview: Lani Roberts


After twenty two years of award-winning teaching of moral theory, feminism, and ethics of diversity at Oregon State University, Dr. Lani Roberts retired and eventually moved to eastern Oregon. Soon after she moved there, she began teaching again, but this time, she taught citizenship classes as a volunteer for the largely Mexican immigrant community of Hood River, Oregon. She also helped to create a local chapter of the international group, Women In Black.


What are the sorts of experiences in life that led you to become an activist?

I would say the underlying principle that guides my (political) activism is “silence is consent” and I do not want to be seen by anyone as a consenting to the wrongs I am able to address. This, I believe, explains my continued activism even in retirement. My politics is who I am and I have not ceased being that woman in retirement. One of the highest values I hold is integrity.

I was raised in a home where no racist language was permitted whatsoever.  That doesn’t mean my parents weren’t racist in some sense because they did not see the treatment of the local Indigenous folks for what it was even given the “No Dogs No Indians” signs in local stores. The utter degrading harm done by the isms has always been in the forefront of my awareness thanks to my parents, thus my focus on the philosophy of oppression through my career.

During high school, I hung out with a group of friends (some are still friends to this day) who were in a borderland between the Beat generation and before the Hippies. We talked politics all the time. This was in the early 60s, and our awareness included the civil rights movement.

My political activism began in fall 1964 when an instructor in Writing 121 assigned this question:   What do you think about what’s going on in Viet Nam?  I went to the library at the University of Oregon and did research and came to the conclusion that it was a civil war and we (the US) had no business being involved there.  It was mostly young men in my age group who were being drafted.  So, I became an antiwar protestor, marched in the streets, often taking my older son along with me, from the time he could first walk.  Since then, it’s been a matter of moral integrity to me to resist wars.

For a while, I did research for the San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1970.  It was a cooperative where everyone earned the same, and it was a small amount. Part of our obligations was to attend a Mao meeting every Sunday afternoon.   Mostly, I researched the life of Che Guevara at the Cal Berkeley library for one of the playwrights.  It was all done on microfilm in those days.

My Hippie/Counterculture years introduced me to, and made me a believer in, growing our own food, communal living, cooperative stores, home birthing, taking care of the natural world, etc.  It amazes me sometimes how much the Hippie culture is widely embraced today.

I went back to school in my mid-30s after my mother’s death when I fully realized or groked (Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land) that life was finite and I’d better get busy. I began my Ph.D. program at age 40, as a single mom to my younger son. Even though Epistemology was my first love in Philosophy, I consciously decided to focus on Ethics, as a sort of counter balance to what I saw around me.  Studying moral theory only heightened my desire to act against wrongs and for the good, as well as giving me good reasons for doing so.


Since you retired, you started teaching citizenship classes and started standing with a group of women called the  Gorge Women in Black, in Hood River, Oregon. What motivated you to get involved in this work?

I started standing as part of the international Women in Black at OSU within one week of the United States bombing in Afghanistan just after the 9-11 event in NYC. I was distraught that we were destroying peoples who had nothing whatsoever to do with 9-11.   A friend asked me if I knew about Women in Black. I looked it up and it was a perfect fit. We stood once a week for 10 years at OSU until I retired.   Standing with Women in Black is me using my own body to interrupt the unconsciousness of passersby, to call attention to the wrongs and pains done to other folks.  It is also a focused meditation for me. A friend here in Hood River and I were agonizing over the world wide war the US was waging and I mentioned Women in Black to her. We began standing weekly on the main street downtown in February of 2015 and continue today with others joining us. For me, it is entirely voluntary with no obligation for anyone, including me. It is one of the best things I do for myself and others on a regular basis.

women in black gorge

Teaching the citizenship classes here (just finished the twelfth one) is one way I can use my skills as a teacher, do something I love, and make a concrete, real difference in peoples’ lives.   It does not suit me to attend meetings and talk about things.   But, when there is something real and concrete I can do to make a difference, that’s when I get involved.  I have also been tutoring English learners at the community college here, twice a week when classes are in session for the past six years.  It’s another concrete action that makes a difference.  I also get to use some of the linguistics I studied as an undergrad.


What gives you hope for the future?

I have been struggling with this given the state of affairs in the US today, but it is young people who have compassion and a consciousness of the harms we (United States) do both here and abroad.


What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social justice in the future?

Lack of awareness and compassion for others.


Are there any lessons you think you have learned from all these years of sustained activism?

I think the thread throughout my now 50 plus years of political activism is concreteness– embodied action that makes a difference, whether helping folks become citizens or interrupting the thoughtlessness of most people’s lives.


Interview by Joseph Orosco March 2018

Education No Longer the Sure Way in Our Reality

By Ana Castillo (August 4, 2017)


Sadly, I know of whence she speaks. It is a reality in this country that defies the belief that education is a sure way for all to climb up the economic ladder.

Instead, college grads are in debt, taking on jobs not related to their fields in order to make ends meet, must take more than one job to do so, relocating and leaving supportive communities not for a professional position but to try to put a sustainable life in place, some keep dreaming of start-ups or ‘branding; merchandise with little business savvy and/or little to no collateral or promising business plan.

We look at a world today where millions of human beings are risking their lives immigrating from home to try to survive and help families and are persecuted in every manner by authorities, where babies and children are dying of starvation because the greed of powers that be deny aid, where millions are suffering and dying from treatable diseases for the same reason, and above all, most tragically and shameful, all this should not have been.

With or without substantial income, we may use our learning, our creative minds, our hands joined with hope to continue a resistance of activism and spiritual fortitude. We may do this because there is no other way. No one can stand alone as the vicious agenda of a future dictatorship based on White Supremacy, misogyny and homophobia, xenophobia and further castigation of the growing have-nots grinds forward.

ana castilo

How the Democratic Party Fatally Damaged Itself by Attacking Public Education

By Mark Naison (June 27, 2017)

Ever since the Clinton Presidency, the Democratic Party has been an advocate of top-down school reforms whose goal has been to make the nation more economically competitive and reduce inequality. Not only have these policies failed to achieve their stated objectives, they have destabilized communities where Democrats have traditionally found support, created widespread distress among teachers and parents, and given credence to the conservative critique of the DP as the province of technocratic elites who impose policies on people without really listening to them

Every Democratic politician who has promoted the following education policies, I would argue, has been complicit in the Party’s decline

1. Promotion of national testing and test based accountability standards for public schools.

2. Closing of schools which are deemed “failing” and removal of their teachers and administrators.

3. Preference for charter schools over public schools, especially in high poverty areas.

4. Support for programs like Teach for America which de-professionalize the teaching profession.

These four principles have been pillars of the Democratic Party’s education policies on a national level, pushed by President Obama and supported by virtually every major Democratic politician in the nation including figures on the left of the Democratic Party such as Elizabeth Warren, Patti Murray and Al Franken.

What have been the results of these policies?:

1. The have inspired a national parents revolt against excessive testing

2. They have produced a sharp decline in teacher morale and inspired the creation of teacher activist groups like Save Our Schools, BATS, and the Network for Public Education

3. They have promoted an mass exodus of the most talented veteran teachers and led to a sharp decline in the percentage of Black teachers in cities like Chicago, New Orleans, Washington DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where teacher temps from programs like Teach for America have become the predominant labor force in the newly created charter schools.

4. They have accelerated the gentrification of the nation’s major cities and diluted the political power of working class people, immigrants and people of color.

5, The have accelerated the shrinking of the Black and Latino middle class, and the weakening of the nation’s unions.

If you are looking for an explanation of why the power of the Democratic Party has declined sharply in a state and local level during the past eight years, the promotion of these disastrous education policies has to be part of the explanation.

No better example can be found of the Party’s adherence to the voice of billionaire contributors and technocrats over its traditional constituency into working class and middle class Americans than its disastrous foray into School Reform.

And unfortunately, the current leadership of the Democratic Party shows no willingness or ability to change course on these issues.


How Neoliberal Austerity Politics Exacerbates Inequality: U.S. neocolonial edition

By Chris Lowe (May 30, 2017)

I first ran across the term “neoliberal” in the context of being a scholar of Africa in the 1980s when neoliberal economists and policy makers took over the World Bank and IMF under Reagan and Thatcher, and began imposing what were known as “structural adjustment” policies on poor countries seeking to renew loans. For context, structural adjustment is what early modern autocrats and religious fanatics did to their enemies when they put them to The Rack.

Basically in return, not for debt relief, but just for debt extensions that did not get countries out of the problems they faced nor out from under the coercive power of the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) governments were called upon to privatize many public institutions, and to slash spending for other basic public services, particularly in health and education. In Africa, it quickly put an end to broad gains that had been made since independence in literacy and life expectancy, despite all of the political and proxy war and civil war travails of many African countries. The emergence of the HIV and AIDS pandemic was heightened by the consequences. The absence of effective public health infrastructure in the West African Ebola crisis a few years ago was another consequence. Effects in much of the Caribbean were similar. The approach was spread to the former Soviet Union and Soviet Bloc with “shock treatment” in the 1990s that devastated their economies while creating new corrupt and corrupting oligarchies with privatized public wealth setting up today’s authoritarian governments.

Somewhat different forms of neoliberalism have been extended in the continental U.S. and in the EU.

The key rule of neoliberalism is that debt must be repaid, no matter how odiously acquired, no matter if the debt was redirected to private benefit from its ostensible public purpose, no matter if it was promoted on false promises, and no matter the social harm it causes or the obstructions to economic growth it imposes.

What is happening in Puerto Rico resembles the neocolonial structural adjustment version. The social implications of the destruction of the University of Puerto Rico reported in this story are just devastating.

Why Elites Have to Destroy Public Education

By Mark Naison (March 11, 2016)

I just had an epiphany. I’ve been thinking about why our economic and political elites are devoting so much energy to destroying public education. What’s in it for them, other than the profits to be made from investments in technology, software, real estate and other direct benefit to corporations from testing and school privatization? Continue reading “Why Elites Have to Destroy Public Education”