#Next20: 'There is no American history without Black people's contributions to it.'

By: Rebecca Nicole Laming

Hear from Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad on the importance of studying Black history to dismantle the systemic racism we are facing today.

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"How did we get here?" That was the first question David Hubbard, Vice President of Legal and Public Policy at Verizon, asked when he interviewed Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School for episode 3 of #Next20: American History 101.

Khalil's tenure as both a professor and acclaimed author has focused on the intersections of race, democracy, inequality and criminal justice in modern U.S. history. As one can imagine, recent events have fueled conversations around discrimination on the basis of race. However, Khalil's body of work and study reminds us that these are not new injustices. They are centuries-old and have evolved into systemic and institutionalized oppression.

"What we have here are systems of racism that were built intentionally, a long time ago. They have been the focus of reform and attention time and time again. They have been durable, and they have evolved. They're not the same, they don't look the same," Khalil shared. "And so the conversation today is as much about understanding how these systems were built, as they are giving us a blueprint and the possibility for dismantling them."

History as a blueprint for an equitable future

In a standard social studies class in the U.S., Black history may be featured as a few chapters in a textbook and isolated as part of a month-long celebration in February. However, what we learn is not even a layer deep into the depth and breadth of Black contributions and experiences. When history glazes over the truth or leaves it out altogether, there is a cascading effect that impacts how we govern, legislate and lead.

"What our students ought to be learning, and the opportunity that is in front of us right now that we can opt to choose to teach them, is that there is no American history without Black people's contributions to it," Khalil shared. "We've got to get our history right. It is the possibility in front of us that will give us a new origin story of America; that will actually help America be a better place."

The first step forward, according to Khalil, starts with having an honest dialogue on how to address the ongoing racial disparities in areas like the distribution of wealth, our definition of talent, as well as access to education and equitable resources. For example, the Fair Housing Act was signed into law in 1968, but today's Black-White homeownership gap is greater than when housing discrimination was legal. With homeownership as a stabilizing force in communities and a critical step in wealth building, systemic racism prevents people of color from attaining a significant financial asset and generating intergenerational wealth.

"Racism is a very complicated thing, in terms of proximity and intimacy. It was fine for Black folks to be around, it was fine for Black folks to live in the neighborhood, as long as they live in a garage or in the basement, or in a coach house. They could not live next door to you as citizens with jobs and independently owning their own property."

When the data doesn't tell the full story

In the age of Google graduates, you would be hard-pressed to find a conversation where someone doesn't jump to share proof points that justify the vilification of specific groups. When discussing the staggering statistics around the incarceration and crime rates of Black community members, Khalil is quick to caution that we should not base our opinions and beliefs solely on the numbers. First, we must understand why that data was collected.

"I'm not suggesting that all numbers are lies. But what I am suggesting is that certain kinds of numbers exist in the first place because they do a certain kind of political work. They express certain kinds of ideas. It's not to say that every statistic of a black criminal is some measure of racism or that every black person is innocent. It just means that the point of having that data in the first place was really never about individuals' innocence or guilt."

We need to go beyond the numbers or risk perpetuating an accusation that specific populations are predisposed to heighten criminal activity. Racial profiling and the criminalization of communities of color is the root of many of the systemic issues we are facing today.

"Young people aren't waiting for permission."

As a father of three and a university professor, Khalil is surrounded by young visionaries. With the merging of movements and rapid global mobilization, Khalil is certain the next generation is not only dreaming of an equitable future, they are already building it.

To close out the conversation, Khalil referenced the journey the late U.S. Congressman John Lewis endured when he decided to become a civil rights activist instead of a chicken farmer. It's that boldness we must foster in tomorrow's leaders to drive actionable and sustained change. "We have to have the faith, the courage, and the commitment to support our young people because in the end, if we don't support them, then we will leave the world worse off to them."

Want more? Listen to Part 2 of American History 101

After listening and then re-listening to the conversation between David and Khalil, one thing is certain—you can't cover more than 400 years of American history in a mere 30 or 60 minutes. Given the importance of the topic and how it supports our ongoing dialogue on racial justice, we didn't want to pare the discussion down for those who want to learn more.

Check out Part 2 on our Up To Speed podcast as Khalil dives deeper into:

  • The differences between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement
  • The complicated history of America’s founding fathers and the story behind the confederacy
  • How to disrupt implicit bias in America’s classrooms
  • Why he says that understanding U.S. history is “lifesaving”
  • And the specific actions that individuals and businesses can take to create an antiracist society

And here’s Part 1 if you want to re-listen on the go!

Need to catch up on #Next20?

Don't worry, we've got you covered with the latest episodes:

What is #Next20?

Episode 1: Criminal Justice Reform

Episode 2: Making Every Vote Count

Change starts with honest dialogue and recognizing where and how we need to improve so that equality isn't selective. Hosted on BUILD by Yahoo, HuffPost, Up To Speed and other Verizon channels, #Next20 will feature young visionaries and groundbreakers to explore the inspiration behind their ideas. This is #Next20—the voices of the future.

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