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African American, Current Events in Historical Context

The AHA has issued a statement urging a reckoning with the United States’ deplorable record of violence against African Americans, a record that stretches back centuries. The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers stands within this sordid national tradition of racist violence. It is past time for Americans to confront our nation’s past, using insights from history to inform our actions as we work to create a more just society.

98 scholarly organizations have co-signed this statement to date.

For insights into using this statement in your classroom, please watch the webinar hosted by AHA and the National Council for the Social Studies in June 2020, “Teaching the History of Racist Violence in the High School Classroom.”

Approved by AHA Council, June 2020

Everything has a history, including our nation’s deplorable record of violence against African Americans, committed either outside the law or in the name of law enforcement itself. George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers cannot be understood in isolation, as a tragic moment detached from a familiar narrative of “who we as Americans really are.” What happened to George Floyd stands well within our national tradition.

This sordid history stretches back centuries, from before Virginia’s first slavery legislation in 1662 through emancipation and beyond. Enslavers acted with impunity to punish and “discipline” enslaved people. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 extended the extreme violence of slave-owning by legitimating the hunt for human beings into states where slavery had been outlawed so they might be returned to their former owners. Reconstruction—the experiment that came after the violence of a Civil War—could not withstand the lethal combination of terrorism and voter fraud. Well into the mid-20th century, white supremacy was enforced by lynch mobs that murdered black men, women, and children on the flimsiest of pretexts or no pretext at all. In the late 19th century and beyond, convict laborers and peons, subject to whippings and other forms of physical abuse unchecked by either formal or informal codes of civilized conduct, had little recourse to the law and remained at the mercy of white sheriffs and landowners.

Deeply embedded cultural practices are difficult to change. Despite insistent calls for reform over generations, police departments and civilian review boards have largely sided with law-enforcement officers who violated norms not only of good policing but of human decency. What has changed is less the story itself than our ability to document and interpret stories with cell phones that generate immediate, previously unavailable historical records. Video footage of police brutality constitutes a new form of historical documentation and legal evidence with the potential to hold violent perpetrators accountable for their crimes.

As Congresswoman (and former police officer) Val Demings recently noted, law enforcement officers “are placed in complicated and dangerous situations” every day: “They respond to calls from people with their own biases and motives.” Over the past half-century, some police departments have made substantial improvements in their policies, training, and practices.

Still, reckless police actions have also triggered some of the most destructive episodes of civil unrest in recent history—from the raiding of an after-hours club in downtown Detroit in 1967 to the 1992 acquittal of the police officers who beat black motorist Rodney King in Los Angeles to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Then, as now, “outside agitators” were accused of infiltrating a community and inciting violence, an old canard familiar to historians of the anti-slavery movement, the Civil Rights struggle, and protests against the Vietnam War.

Even more evocative is the threat from the White House that protesters of all backgrounds, gathering on behalf of African American victims of violence, will be “greeted with the most vicious dogs.” This too has a long history, going back to the use of dogs to track down escaped enslaved people. In the 1960s, the nation watched on television as marchers protesting racial injustice were set upon by snarling dogs and baton-wielding police officers.

Police brutality in urban areas derives from well-known historical causes: generations-long patterns of residential racial hyper-segregation, a product of bank redlining and predatory lending; toxic forms of everyday policing tacitly approved by mayors, city councils, and state officials; and the practice by some towns and municipalities of relying on revenue generated by fines and court fees extracted from people arrested on minor offenses—arrests that often turn violent. Over the years, segregated black neighborhoods have suffered from white-supremacist cultures embedded in local police forces. The recent series of cases marked by severe, even murderous overreach on the part of police officers are part and parcel of historic trends. The killing of George Floyd stems from a constellation of structural injustices that are immune to the platitudes of anguish and concern that routinely follow instances of police-initiated violence against African Americans.

As a nation, we’ve shown a reluctance not only to learn our own history but to learn from it, which helps to explain why we continue to witness—and set aside as exceptional—egregious forms of human-rights abuses in case after case. Throughout our history, those trusted to enforce the law have too often acted lawlessly, while too many civilians have acted with the tacit approval of law enforcement in targeting African Americans just going about their daily lives. We are killing our own people. Even as we mourn the death of George Floyd, we must confront this nation’s past; history must inform our actions as we work to create a more just society.

The following organizations have endorsed this statement:

African American Intellectual History Society
Agricultural History Society
Alcohol and Drugs History Society
American Academy for Jewish Research
American Antiquarian Society
American Association for the History of Medicine
American Association for the History of Nursing
American Association for State and Local History
American Catholic Historical Association Executive Committee
American Conference for Irish Studies
American Folklore Society
American Journalism Historians Association
American Philosophical Society
American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies
American Society for Environmental History
American Society for Hispanic Art Historical Studies (ASHAHS)
American Society of Church History
Archaeological Institute of America
Association for Computers and the Humanities
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, History Division
Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action
Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
Association for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies
Association for the Study of African American Life and History
Association of Ancient Historians
Association of Caribbean Historians
Berkshire Conference of Women Historians
Bibliographical Society of America
Boston University Center for Philosophy & History of Science
Business History Conference
Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History
Chinese Historians in the United States
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History
College Art Association
Conference on Asian History
Conference on Faith and History
Conference on Latin American History
Coordinating Council for Women in History
Disability History Association
Executive Committee of the French Colonial Historical Society
Forum on Early-Modern Empires and Global Interactions
German Studies Association
Harvey Goldberg Center for Teaching Excellence
Haskins Society
Historical Society for Twentieth-Century China
History of Education Society
History of Science Society
Hungarian Studies Association
Immigration and Ethnic History Society
Indiana Association of Historians
International Society for the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning in History
Italian American Studies Association
John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education
Labor and Working-Class History Association
Latin American Studies Association
Medieval Academy of America
Midwestern History Association
Mormon History Association
National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum
National Council for the Social Studies
New England Historical Association
North American Conference on British Studies
North American Society for Oceanic History
North American Society for Sport History
Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture
Oral History Association
Organization of American Historians
Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association
Polish American Historical Association
Radical History Review
Scottish Association for the Study of America
Shakespeare Association of America
Sixteenth Century Society & Conference
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia
Society for Austrian and Habsburg History
Society for French Historical Studies
Society for Historians of the Early American Republic
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
Society for the History of Children and Youth
Society for the History of Discoveries
Society for the History of Psychology
Society for the History of Technology
Society for the Study of Early Modern Women and Gender
Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Society for U.S. Intellectual History
Society of American Historians
Society of Architectural Historians
Society of Civil War Historians
Southern Association for Women Historians
Southern Historical Association’ Executive Council
Southern Jewish Historical Society
Southern Labor Studies Association
Underground Railroad Consortium of NYS
Underground Railroad Education Center
Western Association of Women Historians
Western History Association
Western Society for French History
Working-Class Studies Association
World History Association