'I don't need white folks to feel guilty': A Texas professor's guide for why everyone needs to understand Black history
UT Austin professor Leonard Moore decided to take 25 years of classroom teaching to the world after the police killing of George Floyd.
When Leonard Moore first started teaching Black history at Louisiana State University, his classes were filled primarily with Black students. But that soon began to change.
“What I really found was that, you know, white people, they really, really want to know about the Black experience,” Moore said.
He says he makes Black history accessible by being clear that he isn’t try to change the way someone votes or feels about certain issues but he wants them to respect and understand other peoples’ perspectives.
“I don't need white folks to feel guilty, you know what I mean?” Moore said. “I just want them to understand the history because, to be honest with you, you can't really understand the history of America or understand the history of this state until you understand the history of Black people.”
Moore’s new book Teaching Black History to White People opens his classroom teaching to the world. Listen to the Texas Standard interview with Moore above or read the transcript below.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: Tell me a little bit about the thinking behind the title because, obviously, it draws you in.
Leonard Moore: When I started teaching Black history, my goal was to go to university, and I thought I'd be teaching primarily Black students. But I would say by my third or fourth year at LSU – 2002, 2003 – I noticed that my classes were about 50-50, half white and a half Black. And when I got to Texas, I teach a thousand students in the fall semester, it just ballooned when I got here to UT. And what I really found was that, white people, they really, really want to know about the Black experience. I think a lot of white Americans understand that they have been taught to look at Black people through the lens of a stereotype. And I think, you know, they really want to know the historical experiences of Black folks in the U.S., and I'm glad that I'm able to provide it for them.
From your perspective as a teacher in the classroom, did you perceive that things changed with the police killing of George Floyd?
When the George Floyd piece happened and, at the time, I was in the role of vice president for diversity at UT. I knew the university needed some kind of broader response, more than just a statement. And I did like this little Black history workshop trying to explain Black frustration. And we had over 4,000 UT faculty and staff on that Zoom – overwhelming majority white people and I decided, hey, let's just try to teach an abbreviated version of my class. So I taught a five-week Black history class. We had about 1,500 to 2,000 people on every week, and so I knew there was an interest in Black history, particularly among all adults and older white folk who didn't have the opportunity to take a Black history class when they were in college.
What do you feel is missing from the popular narrative about the history of Black people in the United States?
I'm just convinced that... that world has never been opened up to them. And the first thing I tell people... whether it's adults or students, and when I say this one statement, the guards come down. I tell them, "I don't care who you vote for." And I think so much of the controversy around teaching race or teaching history is that people feel like you're trying to get people to change their political affiliation. I listened to Rush Limbaugh almost every day for 20 years and me and Rush didn't agree on anything except Jesus. What I tell them is that you have got to understand other peoples' perspectives. And I don't care if you agree with it or not. But you got to respect it and you've got to understand it.
The final chapter in the book is called "Teaching White Liberals." And you raise this political dimension here. Why do you think that group needs a specific chapter here?
Because I think white liberals have a whole bunch of blind spots. They aren't as liberal on race as they claim to be. They're liberal around sexuality, the environment, trees, plastic bags in Austin and stuff like that. But they have a lot of blind spots. But here's my number one biggest issue with white liberals: they assume that they know what's best for Black people, and that's why I titled that chapter specifically for them.
What's an example of a way someone should open themselves up to Black history?
We still have to grapple with the legacy of Jim Crow and segregation and how it still affects us. So let me give you this Monopoly example. I'm a big time Monopoly player. I think I'm good. So let's say me and six of my white colleagues sit down to play the game Monopoly. You know, we we pick a piece. Somebody is the horse, somebody the shoe. You know, everybody gets $1,500. They give me $750. And then, before the game starts, they say, "Leonard, we have a special rule for you." And I'm like, "What's the rule?" "The rule is, Leonard, you can't buy any property until you roll for the 20th time. But you can go all around the board, you can pay rent, you can pay taxes and, of course, since you're Black, you can go to jail. But, Leonard, you can't buy any property, til you roll for the 20th time." So now when it's my time to buy property, guess what? There is no more property available to buy. And now, people observing the game say, "Well, Leonard, why don't you have any property or money?" And I'm like, "No, the rules of the game were tilted against me." They're like, "No, Leonard, that's an excuse. You just want the government to take care of you. You didn't want to work." So that's part one.
Part two, let's say me and my six white colleagues are playing the game. We get up, go to dinner and our children take our place. And so my daughter Lauren takes my place. My colleagues, their kids, take their place and they pass down to them, the property and the money. My daughter Lauren doesn't have any money, and so her friends say, "Lauren, where's your money?" And she says, "Well, no, y'all discriminated against my daddy. That's why I don't have any money or property." And they say, "Lauren, that happened a long time ago. You can't blame us." That right there explains, I would say, particularly the Black experience in the South since the Civil War.
I've heard what you're describing as sort of systemic racism. Are you comfortable with that term?
The difference between Jim Crow and everything else is that Jim Crow was state-sanctioned discrimination. Black folks can't go to UT, they can't go to A&M. So that is systemic discrimination. So we can debate all day whether or not systemic discrimination still exists. But what is undeniable is that the legacy of it still exists.
I like to tell a story of of an African-American family trying to buy a house in the Highland Park suburb of Dallas in 1950. Unable to buy the house in Highland Park, they were able to buy a house in Oak Cliff, which at the time was a middle-class neighborhood. Now they still bought a house, but they weren't able to buy the house they wanted to buy because of racism. The house they wanted to buy, now may be worth $3.5 million. The house they were forced to buy because of racism is only worth $500,000 . So when you talk about the legacy of segregation and Jim Crow, you have to remember that for 60 or 70 years in the state of Texas, Black people were prevented from operating in the economic mainstream.
Where do you see this book in the education of Black history for white people?
Here's what I tell people. I'm not a CRT [critical race theory] person. I don't even know what the hell CRT is and I've been a professor 24 years. I'm not an anti-racist educator. I don't even know what that is. So I see a lot of books out there with all these buzzwords and a lot of stuff I think is trying to make white folks feel guilty. I don't need white folks to feel guilty, you know what I mean? I just want them to understand the history because, to be honest with you, you can't really understand the history of America or understand the history of this state until you understand the history of Black people.
Now, I'm a Black evangelical guy. You know, I spend some time in white evangelical circles. And what amazes me is they say, "Dr. Moore, I don't know if we should talk about slavery and lynching." And I take [them] to the Bible. I say for those of us that are believers, Moses and the Old Testament, the ugliness of his life is in scripture. He killed somebody.
You go to David. The ugliness of David is in scripture. And then the Apostle Paul. He was a killer of Christians. So here's what I tell them, my white evangelical friends, if the Bible that we believe is to be the infallible word of God. If God had ugliness in scripture about people in scripture we revere, how come we can't talk about the ugliness of American history?
Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.