Welcome to Race on Campus. Leonard N. Moore teaches the undergraduate course “History of the Black Power Movement” on a campus where only 5 percent of undergraduates are Black. He’s picked up a few lessons about teaching Black history to white students along the way. Our Katie Mangan spoke with him about what he’s learned and about how people can be good allies.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

Understanding the Black Experience

Many of the white students who flock to Leonard N. Moore’s course on the history of the Black Power movement start the semester at the University of Texas at Austin saying they don’t see race. He makes sure that by the end of the semester, they do.

Moore, a professor of history and former vice president for diversity and community engagement at the flagship campus, shares his approach in a new book: Teaching Black History to White People (University of Texas Press, 2021).

In it, he weaves personal anecdotes — about being mistaken for an assistant basketball coach and having his campus parking privileges challenged — with lessons about Jim Crow laws and voter suppression. Racial reconciliation will only come about, he argues, with an understanding of Black history and an appreciation of the Black experience.

“History of the Black Power Movement” is one of two undergraduate courses Moore teaches that last fall enrolled around 1,000 students, more than half of them white. The other, which he’ll teach again next fall, is “Race in the Age of Trump.”

I spoke with Moore about his approach to teaching those courses on a campus where only 5 percent of undergraduates are Black and where some white students have told him their parents were worried he’d turn them into liberals or make them feel guilty about their race. (Neither, he said, has happened.) The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been teaching Black history to white people for more than two decades. Why write this book now?

Particularly in the aftermath of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders, there was a lot of talk about race in America, and we don’t have a good historical context for that. Many well-meaning white people believe that there are no longer any racial barriers, and I understand that. From where they sit, they may not see them. I remember an older white gentleman saying, “Leonard, man, I don’t see all the racism that Black people are talking about.” I wrote the book to show how impactful a course on Black history can be.

Most of the kids, when they say they don’t see race, on one hand that could be applauded. What they’re saying is, “I don’t stereotype people based on race.” I tell them that in America it’s all about connected individuality. I need to see race. I need to see difference.

Every year in my Trump class, I have about 10 Muslim women who wear a hijab. I need to see them because their experience is probably unlike any other at the university. In another class, I have 30 to 40 undocumented students. I tell people that if you’re an undocumented student, whenever somebody walks into the classroom in the middle of the lecture, you’re thinking, is it ICE? Whenever you get a text message, you’re wondering, has my uncle or grandmother been deported? That’s why we have to see individuals. I don’t treat all students the same, but I do treat all students fairly.

What effect has the controversy over the teaching of critical race theory, which has been particularly explosive in Texas, had on your classes?

I haven’t had any pushback toward Black history in 25 years, but some of the pushback toward CRT is starting to bleed over into Black history now. People don’t want to be told what they need to believe. My approach with a lot of my white students has been, “I don’t care who you vote for. I don’t care about your political ideology. But if you want to be competitive in a global job market, you have to be culturally intelligent, and in America, that starts with understanding the Black experience. I know some of you want to go work on Wall Street. What if your boss is a Black woman who has a Black Lives Matter sticker on her desk? Are you gonna quit?” It’s about getting them to understand the value in other people’s perspectives.

In my “Race in the Age of Trump” class, I tell Black students that even though I voted Democrat my entire life, I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh because I valued the perspective he brought. By listening to him, I understood that the January 6 riot had been building up for 20 years. We typically start with 9/11 and make our way to January 6. Whether you agree with it or not, here is why some white people feel their world is coming to an end.

I tell people I don’t teach critical race theory. I teach critical race facts. For 24 years in all my classes, all I use are autobiographies. When teaching about the Black experience, whatever discipline you’re in, you have to put the theory away. Just take students through the narrative of the experience, which can’t be questioned. Why would I use a secondary source when I could just bring the voices and the lives of those authentic people into the classroom?

How have you seen efforts to improve racial climates backfire?

When I was vice president, we had something called a campus-climate response team. If a professor or student said something in class you didn’t like, you could call this hotline. We’re not talking about sexual harassment or inciting violence. It had no disciplinary component, but just getting a call, “Professor Moore, this student said you made this comment in class and this is how it made this student feel.” Well, she can come and tell me! I don’t like that stuff. The left has just created this hypersensitive environment where the classroom isn’t nearly as exciting as it should be.

Some people on the right do have a point. They talk about the university being left leaning and that people who have more-conservative opinions don’t feel free to voice their opinion, and I completely agree. From the first day of class, I tell my students, you can say whatever you want in here. This is not a safe space. It’s a college classroom. You can’t get mad if somebody expresses a view you disagree with. Those of us on the left have to remember that the college classroom is the last place we can have open and honest dialogue and debate. I told my students on the woke left that if all you do is surround yourself with people who think like you, you can’t grow.

What else can white students learn in your class about how to be good allies?

Allyship is not assuming you know what Black people want. Four or five years ago at the University of Texas, white students issued some demands wanting all the Confederate statues removed, the names of buildings changed. When it was released, you would have thought it was from the Black students. And the Black students are like, “Removing the statues was maybe 10 on our priority list. We want more Black students. We want more Black scholarship money. We don’t need you to think for us.” Allyship is, why don’t you come ask us, “What can I help you fight for?”

Read Up

  • The word “Caucasian” is rooted in taxonomies that were used to justify slavery. So why are scientists still using it? (Nature)
  • Some women at historically Black colleges and universities face a difficult situation when they report sexual assault or harassment, especially when they report it against Black men. This podcast episode explains those dynamics. (New York Magazine)
  • Colby College’s nondiscrimination policy now bans discrimination based on social class, or caste. The Maine college is one of the first institutions with such a policy. (Associated Press)

—Fernanda