PROFESSOR CHANNON MILLER DIVES DEEP INTO SYSTEMIC RACISM
The enthusiasm that interdisciplinary Black women’s historian Channon Miller, PhD has for her field of expertise is boundless. The rapid-fire speed of her thoughts — informed, complex and backed by meticulous knowledge — makes for a conversation that lingers in the mind long after the last word fades away.
This academic year, Miller (pictured above) will be teaching courses in American Women in History, African American History and African American Women’s History. She sat down with USD Magazine in July to talk about the issues affecting the Black community and what the path forward might look like.
Q: Can you tell me about your background? Where did you grow up?
A: I’m originally from Hartford, Connecticut. It’s where I learned the value of really being active about creating the type of change that you need and want to see in society. My desire for African American history and Black life in general begins in Hartford, which has a significant Black population. That’s where I really cultivated a deep desire to learn more about my history, my family’s history and Black history at large, with the help of other people who were passionate about that.
Q: What do you find most surprising as your students digest information that may be brand new to them?
A: We have a great deal of interest and outrage at not knowing this history before. For example, in African American History, when we talk about the institution of slavery, we talk about it from the experiences of African Americans. I’m less interested in what the presidents and the dominant white society was doing in the antebellum period. I’m interested in, ‘What were Black women, men, children doing? What were they thinking? What were their beliefs?’ So the students are really struck by this idea: ‘Wait. For the first time we’re really seeing enslaved people as human.’
The students are also really open to hearing the myths that they’ve had about history broken. They really are intrigued by, for example, things they’ve heard about the Civil Rights Movement and then learning, ‘Wait a minute, it didn’t actually look like that? That it wasn’t this very peaceful, tranquil time; it was filled with violence and turmoil and severe loss and trauma?’
Q: When it comes to broadening the conversation about race, can you talk about the difference between being race conscious as opposed to colorblind?
A: The colorblindness, or a commitment to colorblindness, really erases the complex humanity of Black peoples and others who are of color. Their realities — the day-to-day from home to work to the neighborhoods in which Black people live — everything about their lives is shaped by color. So to not see color is to deny that part of their reality, to deny or refuse to be involved in taking down the systems that do clearly see and practice forms of race-based discrimination.
Colorblindness is harmful. It doesn’t help lend to solutions against racism, but rather tries to suggest that it doesn’t exist at all. It’s also troubling when institutions claim to be colorblind because it prevents them from interrogating the ways in which they do in reality practice racially discriminatory practices or policies.
Being race-conscious is the opposite of that. It’s actually centering and understanding how central a racial hierarchy is in the U.S., and has a commitment to understanding and addressing it. The reality is that improvement is impossible without actually talking about, thinking about and challenging racial inequality.
Q: It seems to me that systemic racism really roots from economic inequity and the ways that Black people specifically have been cut out of earning and keeping wealth.
A: Economic inequality is critical. Economics is the vehicle through which racism is typically manifested or institutionalized and maintained. When you think about the founding of the United States, the enslavement of Black people and the deliberate development of laws that suggested that Africans were not citizens but rather lifelong laborers to be enslaved clearly led to their economic exploitation.
Keeping African Americans out of economic opportunities, primarily using them as a labor pool and exploiting this population economically has been a major tool and part of their experience in the United States.
We also have economic inequality experienced by Black Americans when it comes to housing. There’s a history of redlining or being excluded from the opportunity to have assistance with mortgages or being excluded from home ownership, which definitely prevents or has long prevented African Americans from being able to develop a safety net. Not only are they being underpaid and overworked in their jobs, not only are they being relegated to low-wage jobs and forms of employment, but they also are unable to afford stable homes. But even if they can afford homes, middle-class African Americans, those who have done the ‘right things’ and are able to enter into middle-class or upper middle-class forms of employment, are blocked out and closed out from those things can really build economic equality.
Q: Can you talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately impacting the African American community?
A: Although they’re 13% of the population in the U.S., (in early June) African Americans represented 30% of COVID cases. This is partly due to their exclusion from stable employment and equal pay. That’s the economic piece. But a significant portion of these African American families are essential workers. They do work in those positions that tend to deal with or include a lot of human interaction and aren’t jobs that allow them to work from home.
Q: The protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death have been happening in all 50 states. What’s different this time?
A: The reality is, before George Floyd, Black communities have consistently been talking about police brutality. It’s a part of the Black community’s everyday lives. Black Lives Matter has never stopped, but the nation’s attention to it stopped. The same can be said for prison abolition, or those who’ve worked towards being a part of releasing non-violent offenders early. But a lot of this work has been continuous and enduring.
Q: I imagine you’re bound to have some students involved in the protests. How does that inform them?
A: It’s actually been amazing. After the murder of George Floyd, I had several students reach out to me via email and say ‘If I did not take your class, I would not know why there is so much outrage. I would not know that George Floyd is one out of millions who have in American history been assaulted, harmed and killed by police. I would not know that the state has functioned in ways that have harmed African Americans. I would not know that this is part of a systemic issue that has deep historical roots. That is a part of issues that remain unresolved.’ To have students reach out and share that they are so glad they did the readings to have the understanding of the history that has allowed them to navigate these times has been great.
Q: Do you feel like there’s been a sea change? Seeing these millions of people marching in the street who aren’t just from one particular group: white people, Black people, indigenous people … does this moment feel different to you?
A: I think that does signify a tremendous change. But how we’ll really know if things change is if policies change. There are clear platforms that the movement for Black Lives is arguing for. Change is now dependent on our state leaders, our city leaders and our federal government to take heed and make change. They need to institutionalize the change that’s being asked for. That’s when we’ll really see mass transformation, if it begins to affect policies and lives. But these protests are definitely the sign of a changing climate.
Q: Do you think that the fact that everybody has a video camera on their phone with them at all times has opened up a lot of people’s eyes? Now there are people bearing witness.
A: There are more people bearing witness, for sure. And I think that it shows us that these reform efforts that have been made over the past several years, since the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 and beyond, are not enough. Black people are still dying. We want to get to a point where we shouldn’t have to capture George Floyd being murdered on film. That shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
We need to move past reform; we have body cameras, great. It points to the fact that we can’t just advocate for the police to practice things differently, because they’re not doing that. They’ve been asked to wear body cameras, there have been review boards in place, and they’ve been asked to be mindful of how they interact with folks of marginalized backgrounds. There have been tons of videos before George Floyd, but it still happened. It tells us that there’s something inherently wrong with policing in the United States. That policing, in and of itself, has to be drastically changed because lives are still being lost.
Q: Do you ever get students who are stuck in their beliefs? For example, someone who says, ‘It’s fine to say Black Lives Matter but don’t all lives matter?’
A: The great thing about the college classroom is that they are surrounded with the reading and the scholarship. It’s not just Dr. Miller with this assertion that Black lives need to explicitly be advocated for. It’s that this has been said by activist organizers and scholars, for decades, for hundreds of years.
With African American history, we really begin on the bottom of slave ships. We begin in the middle passage. The students can see, when they start with the perspective of African Americans, that by the time we get to 2020, it is very hard for them to argue that Black lives need not be center. When we go through enslavement, through Jim Crow, through the challenges of the Civil Rights Movement, that it was not an easy road. It had its successes, but it also had pushback and failures.
So when questions like that come up, I say, ‘What does the text say? How would this historical figure respond to your question about all lives mattering? What do you think Frederick Douglass would say about this?’ So bringing them back to the history and to literature is an effective way for them to challenge and rethink some of those ideas.
Q: For white people that want to be a part of the solution, who want to be true allies, what advice would you have?
A: There are so many ways to get involved and to raise consciousness within yourself and within your communities, within white spaces. Of course a lot of folks suggest, rightfully so, doing research, doing the reading. I always encourage really looking at the works of historical figures. Look at Frederick Douglass’ speeches, such as ‘What to the Slave is the 4th of July?’ Look at Angela Davis’ first book, Women, Race & Class. Look at some earlier works that really grapple with these issues. How did we get here? How do we get to 2020? What types of systems have been in place that have created our present reality?
You also need to practice these politics in your day-to-day lives. That means that your Black colleagues, your Black coworkers, your Black neighbors, the Black individual who’s your store clerk at the grocery store: How are you responding to and conversing with that individual? At the mall, do you demean Black employees or Black pedestrians walking about? At work, is there a Black individual who wasn’t hired or provided a certain opportunity that they deserved? It might be important to speak to the boss about that. Maybe a white individual has a position that they think they probably should give to a more qualified Black coworker. Sometimes it’s really in your day-to-day that that work can be done.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t discussed?
A: For parents, make sure that your children, at the college-level or even at a high school level, are taking Black history and Black studies courses. It’s important to deliberately decide that it’s a part of their curriculum. And if you don’t see it as a part of your school’s curriculum, ask questions and advocate for that. Our school systems are a critical part of shaping growth and perspectives.
If you have a student in college, ask them, ‘Did you sign up for a Black history course yet?’ You can be a business major or science major, any major, but it needs to become custom to see these types of classes as mandatory. In high school, ask them the same thing. As for the the younger age groups, figure out how elementary school teachers can do a better job of engaging these really interesting stories. — Julene Snyder
Photo by Tarsha P. Jones