For nearly 50 years, Dean Anderson has studied how race, ethnicity, and cultural diversity have shaped American institutions, ideology, law, and society.
Dr. James Anderson is the Dean of the College of Education as well as a Professor of Education and an affiliate Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
Below, listen to the conversation or read the transcript, and hear Dean James Anderson’s thoughts on:
- The definition of institutional racism and examples, like education and housing segregation today (4:55)
- How not to lose hope when protesting injustice (6:47)
- The importance of Black Lives Matter (8:02)
- How to begin to dismantle systematic racism (9:49)
- The impact of voter ID laws and why voter ID laws hurt minorities (10:22)
- The 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment, discussing why it’s important and causes that made it happen (11:22)
- Historical methods used to disenfranchise black voters and voter disenfranchisement and suppression tactics in 2019 and 2020 (14:04)
- Benefits of making election day a national holiday (15:25)
Want to hear more from Dean James Anderson?
Coursera: [00:00:01] From Coursera, this is Emma Fitzpatrick, and today, I’m speaking with Dean James Anderson of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
There, he’s the Dean of the College of Education as well as a Professor of Education and an affiliate Professor of History. For nearly 50 years, Dean Anderson has studied the ways in which race, ethnicity, and cultural diversity have shaped American institutions, ideology, law, and society.
He’s known internationally as a groundbreaking scholar in the history of African American education and school achievement in the U.S. He’s also served as an expert witness in a series of federal desegregation trials.
We’re talking with Dean Anderson about the 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment, ways in which race still affects voting rights today ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and more.
So, let’s go ahead and jump in.
I’d love to hear more about your personal background.
So, after having literally written the book on The Education of Blacks in the South, how do you look back at your own childhood or schooling experience in Alabama differently?
Dean Anderson: [00:01:15] Well, I think growing up there, it was local, and in some ways, very personal. You knew the system, the superintendents, and you knew the difference between your high school and the other high school, which was all white. My high school was all in black.
In some ways, when you grow up, even in an oppressive environment and one that is very unequal, it’s nonetheless what is normal. That’s all you’ve ever known, and so that’s the way you experience it.
And you kind of knew it within that context, but once I began to study the question, I realized it was really a lot more organized, more impersonal.
That the state government and county governments had designed a system specifically to be an inferior system of education, I don’t think I realized that growing up. I just sort of thought of it as, well, this is the way it is. And we kind of know the differences.
We could always compare our high school, elementary schools to the others across town. The truncated curriculum: We had no foreign languages, and, in terms of courses like chemistry or physics, there were many things that we just did not have access to. The school facilities were vastly different in terms of inequalities.
We knew all that, and we thought that it was the local superintendent, the county, all internal–only to find out that it was not just my state, but 17 states with the same kind of system, with the same aims and outcomes.
But then after you study, you realize that things that didn’t make sense to you, all of a sudden start to make sense. And you get a much, much better picture, more comprehensive understanding of what happened to you.
Coursera: [00:02:47] Could you talk about what happened in 1967 and how it got you started looking historically at race in the U.S?
Dean Anderson: [00:02:54] I just finished my first year in graduate school at Illinois, and it was the fall that I went to Chicago to do my practice teaching on the West Side of Chicago.
And in that context, I observed gross inequalities, a system that seemed to care less about the future of his students, more concerned about order and control.
It was a big, high school, about 5,700 students when I was there. Very few students went to college.
And to see the rate of failure, the lack of interest: 5,700 students being channeled through a system, almost like cattle, in a way, you realize that that’s on another scale.
In some ways, it woke me up to a kind of deep systematic inequality that affected particular students of color, in this case, African American students.
And that set me to thinking about when did this all start? Why, how, and how might we think about it differently to do something about it?
Coursera: [00:03:48] Right. And throughout 1967, there were also so many race riots in Chicago and throughout the country. Did that also shape how you are looking at the educational system in Chicago?
Dean Anderson: [00:03:59] When I was there, there were a lot of walkouts. I mean, high school students were protesting the inequalities, and they had lists of demands. And it was very impressive because one of the demands that the students had was that they would be given more homework and other demands that they’d have a chance to study the history and culture of African Americans.
And it was just interesting to see the students really demanding the things that the system should have been demanding. They were the ones who were demanding more homework. They were the ones who were demanding more rigorous courses, and they were the ones who were demanding a curriculum that took their experiences and their history seriously.
So, those kinds of things make you think about what is the aim of the system as opposed to what the parents, community, and students really need and really want?
Institutionalized Racism in Housing and Housing Segregation Today
Coursera: [00:04:41] Right. That’s the perfect segue from talking about some of these personal experiences you’ve had to social institutions. So, could you talk through a few of the most consequential ways you see institutional racism play out in the U.S. today?
Dean Anderson: [00:04:55] Well, there are a lot of ways. I think one of the really big ones now is the institutional racism that was reflected in the voter ID laws.
Because a disenfranchised population not only can’t influence the laws, the legislation, and the politics of the country, but it also affects their educational opportunities because legislators and leaders are not responsive to a population that is disenfranchised.
So, I think those laws and all of the studies that we’re seeing–and some of the testimony of people from the inside at North Carolina and Florida as well as Pennsylvania–continue to remind us that those laws are passed to disenfranchise particular populations of color.
And I think it’s a form of institutional racism, where it’s not overtly racist. They never say they’re passing a law to disenfranchise, say African Americans or Latinx populations. But people on the inside who were involved in those, closed meetings have come forward, like Jim Greer, who was head of the Republican party in Florida, and tell us that the purpose was to disenfranchise black voters.
So, it’s a kind of an institutional arrangement that has a disproportionate and adverse impact on people of color.
That’s one of the big ones. Another one is housing discrimination. Recently, it was revealed in a documentary, and a study of Long Island, that there is widespread housing discrimination against African Americans and other minorities in New York suburbs, and we wouldn’t know that except for that kind of undercover investigation.
But when you have real estate agents that are steering people to neighborhoods based upon the color, it doesn’t just result in segregated neighborhoods–Because segregated neighborhoods are tied to the kind of schooling that you get as well as other opportunities.
We had the Open Housing Ordinance in 1968, and for a long time, we thought we’d gotten past a kind of overt discrimination in the housing area. That’s not the case. New research, new documentaries show that it is still a form of institutional racism that has a major impact on the opportunities of people of color.
Coursera: [00:06:47] Right, and it’s so frustrating that so many of the things that you were talking about happening in the 60s are still happening in some way, shape, or form today.
So, how do you not lose hope, or how do you keep fighting those things when it seems like, yes, progress is being made, but there are still so many issues at hand?
Dean Anderson: [00:07:04] Well, I think growing up when I did and going into college at a very young age at the height of the civil rights movement and having lived in an environment where you thought things would never change–and then to see the leadership of Martin Luther King and others, what happened in Selma, what happened in Montgomery, what happened in Birmingham, all around where I grew up, and to see the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and to see a lot of local things change as well.
You realize that persistent struggle against oppression, against inequality, can work. And so you don’t have a kind of hope based upon just faith. You have a hope based upon social movements that you’ve seen make a difference.
Coursera: [00:07:45] Yeah, that’s a great point. And I know we’ve seen a lot of activism specifically from the Black Lives Matter movement about police brutality, but also about a lot of other issues affecting the African American community.
So, do you see that movement as a reaction to institutional racism systems that you still see today?
Dean Anderson: [00:08:02] I see it as comprehensive. I see it as a movement that’s been long in the making, and in some ways, we should be a bit surprised that it didn’t come sooner.
But one of the things we are seeing with this generation is looking back and seeing and recognizing the cumulative effect of murders –whether the extralegal or by police– it’s been happening for a long time in American history.
I recall at the time of the Emmett Till trial. When he had been murdered, they pointed out that in the state of Mississippi, no white person had ever been convicted for the murder of an African American at that time. And then the people who murdered him after being acquitted, in order to get money from, I think it may have been Life magazine, then confessed to the murder. And then there was nothing that anybody could really do about it.
And so what I see in Black Lives Matter is to say, enough is enough. Going back for many decades, and many centuries, in which black lives were just taken without regard to the sanctity of life.
And I don’t think it’s just about the recent ones. I think it’s the whole history that they are finally responding to.
Coursera: [00:09:00] Right. And I saw that you recently wrote a paper about institutional diversity, which was a phrase I haven’t really heard mentioned before. But I thought it was a really interesting counter to institutional racism. So how do we build institutional diversity?
Dean Anderson: [00:09:16] Institutional racism, which in most cases is not based on law, are routine organizational practices that have an adverse and disproportionate impact on populations of color.
And we have to go through and systematically unravel those things.
If you take the Long Island situation as an example, we now know how it operated. But what about the accountability? Should these real estate agents remove the people who engage in this kind of routine discrimination against populations of color?
Same thing with a voter ID. People who engage in those kinds of activities: should they get away without accountability?
We have to start by unraveling routine organizational practices that adversely affect populations of color.
And then on the other side, we have to be proactive. When you’ve discriminated against populations, whether it’s in voting, whether it’s in education, whether it’s in housing or in health, decade after decade, at some point, you have to say to them, “It’s a new day that you are welcome; that we do want you to be included. And we’ll design policies and programs that actually bring you into the fold with the same kind of equality that everyone else has enjoyed for a long time.”
The Impact of Voter ID Laws and Impacts on Minorities
Coursera: [00:10:23] You mentioned the voter ID laws, and in the 2016 presidential election, it was actually the first time in 20 years that black voter turnout had declined. Do you see the resurgence of voter ID as a reason for that potentially?
Dean Anderson: [00:10:40] We don’t have a full understanding of the impact of these laws. People who’ve done analysis know that 25 percent of African Americans nationally do not have the ID that is being required by these new laws.
We know that some of them who were born in the Jim Crow era didn’t have birth certificates, and now, they have to pay to get a birth certificate in order to vote.
We yet to have a full understanding of what is the overall impact. I think there’s been persistent efforts to vote, in part going back to the civil rights movement and the voter registration drives of the 60s, that’s carried over into the present.
So, there are a lot of individuals a lot of communities, who feel a responsibility to vote because of the price that they paid at an earlier time. But nonetheless, these laws do have an impact.
Causes of the 15th Amendment and Why It’s Important
Coursera: [00:11:23] Of course. And I feel like we can’t talk about some of the systematic ways that race is affecting the voting system today without talking about the historical context behind that. Could you talk a little bit more about the Fifteenth Amendment–what it meant, how it came about?
Dean Anderson: [00:11:37] Well, I have a different perspective. I actually view the Fifteenth Amendment as a kind of an appeasement amendment, in light of the tragedy of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Because I know from my own study that the Fourteenth Amendment was an apportionment amendment before it was transformed or compromised late in the spring of 1866.
The intent was to enfranchise the African American population and to protect their right to vote. Eventually, the 39th Congress could not bring itself to do that, so it dropped the apportionment part of the Fourteenth Amendment. And then it became equal protection under the law and due process.
But what we have to remember is that they actually said on the floor of the House and Senate that they were not going to secure the right to vote for the African American population. And they understood at that time that there were states like Louisiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi, where you had black majorities.
And if they had the right to vote, if it had been secured. Now, what do I mean by secure? And what was the big debate?
The debate was whether you would transfer the qualification of voting from the states to the federal level, and they decided not to do that. And they knew when they didn’t do that those Southern States eventually would establish qualifications to vote that would disenfranchise the black population. And that’s precisely what happened, as they anticipated.
So, the Fifteenth Amendment is weak when we know that the real question is not the right to vote, but the qualification to vote.
So, these voter ID laws do not really respond to the Fifteenth Amendment. It responds to the Fourteenth Amendment that left in the hands of the states the authority to determine the qualifications to vote.
Voter Disenfranchisement and Voter Suppression Tactics
Coursera: [00:13:10] Right. So, are there any other historical or recent issues that have really been top of mind for you as you think about the presidential election coming up this year?
Dean Anderson: [00:13:20] Well, actually, this was something that came from the 1965 Voter Registration Act. There was a lot of work that was done, and the attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach at the time, was looking at all the disenfranchisement.
And he actually said at the time that what this nation needs is a constitutional amendment that established the qualifications for voting for all of its citizens–and not leave it to states to have voter ID laws or change the dates of voting or early registration. Do all the sorts of things that they do in order to keep people from voting.
And I think about it a lot. I do think that eventually, in order to have citizens who have access to the tools of government, who have the freedom and equality to participate in our government, we would need a constitutional amendment that establishes their qualifications to vote, irrespective of states.
Voter Disenfranchisement Examples (2019 and 2020)
Coursera: [00:14:05] So, you think something needs to happen at the federal level to knock out some of these voter ID laws?
Dean Anderson: [00:14:10] In Texas and North Carolina and Pennsylvania, sometimes it’s the voter ID laws, but it’s not just the ID laws. They will change the date.
For instance, there was this thing in African American history, and it happened with both of the Obama elections, which was called Souls to Polls, where the churches on the Sunday before the Tuesday election would have church and take literally large amounts of people to vote.
And a lot of states realizing that and not wanting African-Americans to vote would eliminate those days–say you can’t vote on these days, or early registrations you can’t, or early voting. They would look at those kinds of things where populations of color–same thing in Texas with Latinx population.
How do they behave in terms of voting? And then eliminate the very things that they counted on to get their votes accounted for.
So, how do you avoid that? You avoid that with a constitutional amendment that says states cannot take away the right to vote by using qualifications that are targeting populations.
And in North Carolina, the North Carolina Supreme Court said that African Americans were targeted with surgical precision in order to keep them from voting.
I don’t think this government should stand by and let that happen, year in and year out.
Benefits of Making Election Day a National Holiday
Coursera: [00:15:17] And in the same vein, do you think something along the lines of a national holiday for voting days would help ensure that everyone can get to the polls?
Dean Anderson: [00:15:26] I think so. I think we should have a national holiday that people can come out and vote, and I think Nicholas Katzenback was right. He said it should, of course, be the age to vote and a residency, and other very simple qualifications, that should be established. And we should have a national holiday.
If there was something that we should be concerned about, that would be different because we’ve had studies now of voter impersonation, voter ID fraud, and things like that. There was one study that looked at one billion votes over a ten year period. There were only 31 votes where there were some questions about whether they were qualified to vote.
The president established a committee to look at voter fraud, and the committee abandoned its mission because they couldn’t find any evidence.
In Pennsylvania, when the court asked, “Do you have any proof of voter fraud?” They said, “No.”
So, we don’t have proof of any significant voter fraud, or that undocumented immigrants are voting.
These laws in these states are put in place to target populations of color to make sure that they don’t vote.
Coursera: [00:16:23] And hearing you talk through that, I think it’s a tactic that we’ve seen a lot over the last several years, over decades, where you don’t overtly talk about the issue.
You don’t say these laws are to disenfranchise populations of color. You say,” Oh, we just want to make sure everyone’s voting right– that we aren’t getting duplicate votes, et cetera.”
Dean Anderson: [00:16:42] Yes, it is going back to mostly subversive ways of disenfranchising populations, and it’s not that different from the Jim Crow era.
States for a long time had what they called the white primary, and that was struck down by the Supreme Court. And they said, “Well, you can vote, but you can’t vote in the Democratic primary because that’s private.”
Well, it was a time when the South was solidly Democratic, and you knew that a Democratic candidate would eventually be elected. If you couldn’t vote in the primary, you couldn’t really have any impact on the outcome.
They’ve used these tricks for a very long time, so these are not new tricks. It’s just that after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, with the pre-clearance criteria, they have moved to different and new ways of disenfranchising populations.
[17:26] And I think that voting is just symptomatic of a larger issue of whether the nation is committed to freedom and equality for all of its citizens–or actually fears that if some citizens really participate and are really active if somehow it goes against the interests of the dominant political party or the dominant population.
This fear that somehow as we become more diverse demographically, that a way to maintain power is to disenfranchise those populations that are literally growing by leaps and bounds.
[17:56] And so as a nation, we’ve had a big decision to make for a long time. It was a decision in the Reconstruction era. Are we going to be committed as a nation to freedom and equality for all of the citizens, or are we going to have some kind of Herrenvolk democracy?
Some kind of democracy where some have privilege and some have the right to participate. And others are barred and disenfranchised.
[18:16] One of the things I do in the course on race and culture diversity is to try to help everyone understand how did we get to be the way we are?
I mean, it’s not that institutional racism or overt racism or these different ways of excluding disenfranchised populations is something that is inherent. It’s not in our DNA.
[18:35] We made choices along the way, and I really want people to look at the choices they made because every time we made a choice, there was on the table, a different choice. Even with the amendments of the Reconstruction era, there were counterproposals, proposals that were anti-racist, and proposals that were much more protective of the freedom and equality of all people.
But we made choices in a different way, and the choices that we make accumulate over time until the problems that we have today.
[19:02] I think one thing that’s required of all of us as citizens is really to have the courage to face our past and our present squarely–not to run away from it, not to feel that we have to deny it or conceal it or distort it for politically motivated purposes.
But just to say, well, does it really hurt to know? But this sort of sense that I don’t really want to know because I like it the way it is because it’s somehow giving me a privilege or advantage that I otherwise wouldn’t have. I think that’s what we want to get away from.
Coursera: [00:19:33] To keep learning from Dean Anderson, go to Coursera.org today to enroll for free in his course, Race and Cultural Diversity in American Life and History.
And as always, thanks for listening and happy learning.