In a time filled with challenges to diversity and academic freedom, Black educators find themselves at the forefront of a battle for educational integrity.
“We have entered into an entirely new political war over the teaching of the past,” Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard University, said Wednesday on Boston Public Radio.
Muhammad's course came under direct scrutiny during a high-profile hearing on campus antisemitism, where Rep. Virginia Foxx singled the class out as a “prime example” of "race-based ideology" that led to the tolerance of antisemitism on the campus following Hamas' attack on Israel that took place on Oct. 7.
He called out the silence of Harvard's influential alumni and donors after Foxx’s claim. He argued that their failure to speak out conveys a lack of courage and ownership of the university's commitment to diversity and academic freedom.
“The silence leaves a kind of national impression that Foxx is onto something, that Bill Ackman (a billionaire against DEI efforts) is onto something, that something is going wrong at Harvard,” Muhammad said.
Controversy over Black studies and the teaching of slavery and segregation is not new — Muhammad references Texas, where there have been many efforts to minimize the tragedy of slavery — but he notes a recent shift toward legislative action, which he said is led by the Republican Party.
“For this to rise to the level of legislative action that distorts what can actually be taught in schools, that criminalizes the teaching of race or gender discrimination … is an entirely new phenomenon,” he said.
Over the years of teaching, Muhammad said each year his new students tend to know less about racism and history. His concerns are echoed by reports indicating a decline in students' understanding of U.S. history. In 2023, the U.S. Department of Education reported a significant drop in eighth-grade students’ knowledge of U.S. history.
Muhammad also expressed concern over changes in Harvard's policies regarding protected categories, which now includes political beliefs. He said with that change, he feels much more likely to be accused of discriminating against someone with conservative beliefs.
“If I were to challenge this person's facts in such a conversation, I worry right now, this semester, that I could be accused of discriminating against that person for holding conservative views. That's new,” he said.
Regardless, Muhammad is committed to teaching his History, Race and Public Policy course and will continue to do so.