The timing of the event couldn’t have been scripted better.
“It’s such a wonderful thing for this to be happening right now – this week, Black History Month, all of these are just very powerful confluences of things happening right now, so I very much appreciate it,” noted civil rights scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw said upon receiving the C.-E. A. Winslow Medal Friday from the Yale School of Public Health.
(Click here for a YouTube video of the ceremony and discussion.)
Crenshaw, most noted for creating and developing the fields of critical race theory and intersectionality, is the eighth person to be bestowed with YSPH’s highest honor.
The February 3 ceremony at Harkness Auditorium took place amidst an intersection of highly relevant happenings: two days after the start of Black History Month; the day before the 146th anniversary of the birth of the man for whom the medal was named – Charles-Edward Amory Winslow, the “father of public health” and founder of what would become YSPH in 1915; and just two days after the College Board announced it was significantly stripping down the curriculum for its new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies following criticism from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, BA ’01.
In late January, Florida’s Department of Education blocked teaching the advanced placement course, claiming the program “significantly lacks educational value” and that it teaches critical race theory. Among the changes made by the College Board were eliminating Black Lives Matter as a required topic; deleting the term “queer studies”; discarding a discourse on reparations; severely watering down the history of Black incarceration; deleting prominent Black women authors including bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker from the curriculum; and renaming the unit on “The Black Feminist Movement and Womanism” as “Black Women and Movements in the 20th Century.” Florida is one of seven states that have banned the teaching of critical race theory, and 16 other states are considering banning it.
“Well, it’s been a week,” Crenshaw said with a laugh. “It’s been a week.”
In introducing Crenshaw and highlighting her work and how it pertains to public health, Pettigrew drew a straight line back to Winslow.
“Winslow sought to move the field of public health in new directions, based upon his belief that public health was not a static discipline, or a sanitary science, but rather a social science,” she said.
“The American Public Health Association has declared that racism is a public health issue,” Pettigrew continued. “And it is a public health crisis … Black History Month has just begun, and this is a time to pay tribute to the contributions and sacrifices that African Americans have made.”
Rather than give a formal acceptance speech, Crenshaw – who is both Isidore and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia University and Distinguished Professor of Law and Promise Institute Chair in Human Rights at UCLA – participated in a 45-minute discussion with Daniel Martinez HoSang, professor of Ethnicity, Race, & Migration and American Studies in Yale’s American Studies Department. Crenshaw and HoSang were among the authors of the 2019 book Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness Across the Disciplines.
A brief Q&A session followed, moderated by Trace Kershaw, department chair and Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Public Health (Social and Behavioral Sciences). After the ceremony, Crenshaw met with a small group of YSPH students in the Dean's Conference Room at the Laboratory of Epidemiology and Public Health (LPH). She finished the afternoon by hosting a teach-in for a group of students at Luce Hall, co-sponsored by the Yale Faculty Senate and Yale Educational Studies.
Crenshaw was honored with the Winslow Medal for her groundbreaking work on intersectionality – the ways in which systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class, and other forms of discrimination “intersect” to create unique dynamics and effects. She coined the term in a 1989 paper she wrote for the University of Chicago Legal Forum as a way to help explain the oppression of African American women.
Her conversation with HoSang focused primarily on that subject.
Among the issues the pair discussed were: how baseline assumptions in law have played a role in shoring up an inequitable status quo in the legal system; the double standards that exist when Black women file discrimination suits versus those filed by white men; how color blindness impacts and reinforces discrimination; and how standardized testing shortchanges Black students. Crenshaw also talked about the problems posed by the corporatization of higher education and the media, with its emphasis on bothsiderism – a common practice of including voices on both sides of a topic, however far-fetched, in news articles and on news shows in order to present the appearance of a balanced view.
Crenshaw said she has tried to explain that intersectionality is not a static idea, as some have misrepresented it to be, but that it’s “a prism” and a practice through which people can explore how some forms of long-standing discrimination are tied to each other, and how they can be addressed to achieve equity.
“In fact, the whole point of intersectionality is to invite interrogation of how systems continue to work,” she said. “It’s not just a static place. It’s not just a spot on a Venn diagram. It is a way of drawing attention to the dynamics that occur and impact people in particular ways, especially people who are subject to multiple forms of discrimination or subordination. So, it is an invitation to see the interactive effects of the various -isms that shape our lives. It’s not an assertion of some essential identitarianism, which it’s been framed (to be) by some of its detractors.”
As it was ending, HoSang’s discussion with Crenshaw circled back to DeSantis and the College Board’s new AP African American curriculum, which has been 10 years in the making.
Crenshaw said what happened was “nothing new.” She traced the watering-down of history teaching and textbooks back to the late 19th century, when the mythologization of the Confederacy took root.
“You need to have the materials that show the links between say, how college and grade school textbooks for most of the 20th century were shaped by an argument about enslavement and Reconstruction that was, basically, the Lost Cause – the idea that slavery wasn’t so bad and Reconstruction was terrible,” she said.
“These are ideas that were shaped by a dedicated small group of people in a particular region of the country that then got broadcast across [the entire country], because textbooks and other institutions had to, or felt they had to, abide by the lowest common denominator,” Crenshaw said. “So all of us were miseducated, because some subset refused to actually teach about the Civil War, teach about enslavement, genocide, in a way that actually was a straightforward look at what the realities were, and what the ideologies that supported these were.”
Crenshaw is concerned — and believes we all should be — because the College Board has eliminated all secondary material. Of even greater concern, she said, is the future of educational institutions. And it goes beyond any one governor or politician.
“You know that statement that those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it?” she asked rhetorically. “I’ll add to that. All it takes for evil to win is for people of goodwill to do nothing, or to abide by it, or to abet it.”
“I would say that the real challenge for us right now is not the DeSantises of the world,” she continued. “They’re going to do what they’re going to do. The question is whether our institutions will hold, if our institutions will see the consequences of books being burned.”
Said Crenshaw: “My sense is that this is a fight for democracy. It’s a fight for the values that we claim to hold dear. The trouble is always in the details. Everybody says we support it, but now is the time to really determine whether that support means that we’re going to say ‘No’ to this censorship, and ‘Yes’ to continuing the process of democratizing our education” and democratizing our country.