New Course Introduces Students to US Anti-Black Racism

Protesters hold a sign in support of Black Lives Matter during the Commitment March on August 28, 2020 in Washington, DC.
A new course at UConn will help students understand the larger social forces that underpin the Black Lives Matter movement and the events of the past summer. (Photo by Natasha Moustache/Getty Images)

In the months since Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were killed by police last spring, public outrage over anti-Black racism has inspired widespread protests, conversations and calls for reform. It is a movement with origins both recent and centuries old, and continues to spark in protest, as in the recent case of Jacob Blake, a black man shot by police in Kenosha, Wis. For students at the University of Connecticut, a new course will introduce them to the foundational history of systemic and anti-Black racism in the U.S. that underlies the current movement.

The course, U.S. Anti-Black Racism, is a 1-credit hour offering. It will be available as a free, online course to UConn students with plans to open the course to other members of the UConn community.

It came into existence during a virtual town hall hosted by UConn’s African American Cultural Center in July 2020. Two students, Guymara Manigat and Wanjiku Gatheru, pointed out during the town hall that the University responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a 1-credit hour course, but had not done something similar to address the pandemic of anti-Black racism. President Tom Katsouleas promised to make such a course part of the curriculum, an effort that has been led by partnerships between several faculty and University offices.

The new class, which will begin later in the fall semester, is meant as an introduction to concepts of systemic and anti-Black racism, not a comprehensive history.

“There’s no way we could fit in issues of anti-racism on a larger scale. There is a long, storied history. And it’s also a global history. The black-white binary is important; having a foundation in anti-Black racism helps understand broader racism,” says David G. Embrick, associate professor of sociology and Africana studies.

The coordinators for the course are a team of three faculty of color at UConn, including Embrick, as well as Shardé Davis, assistant professor of communication, and Milagros Castillo-Montoya, assistant professor of higher education and student affairs.

“I am immensely grateful to the students, faculty and staff who have made this course a reality. They are exceptional scholars and leaders who have put great care into the structure of this course. And while I am very pleased we are offering this course at UConn, I do want to acknowledge this is long overdue. Anti-Black racism is pervasive in our country and has been for centuries. This course is just the beginning,” says UConn President Thomas C. Katsouleas.

The course will span nine weeks, starting later in September. It will be delivered entirely online with modules consisting of songs, art, TED Talks, recorded lectures from faculty, films, readings, and other multi-media resources that discuss Black culture and social experiences. Topics will include the history and concepts of systemic and institutionalized anti-Black racism, as well as Black resilience and resistance, and intersectional solidarity.

One of the notable features of the course is the range of faculty commissioned to create the modules and overall course structure. A total of 16 predominantly Black faculty members are developing content for the course’s weekly modules. Their expertise represents a breadth of perspectives, including history, law, sociology, political science, psychology, nutritional sciences, psychiatry, higher education, communication, Africana studies, and curriculum and instruction. The course centers the expertise, knowledge, and experiences of Black people and culture and involved various persons across UConn’s campuses.

“I am really thrilled to support our faculty scholars who are developing this course. They are interrogating critically important issues in an innovative way. By including faculty from multiple and diverse disciplines, each of which has a different view into anti-Black racism, they are highlighting the broad reach and interconnectivity of these issues in our society,” says UConn Provost Carl W. Lejuez.

During a few of the modules, students will have the opportunity to choose particular sub-topics within the module’s focus area. For example, the module on Black health and wellness offers options to learn more about mental health, physical health, and/or disparities in public health.

“The variety and expertise of the scholars contributing to this course is incredible. It is a rare privilege for our students to be exposed to so many renowned Black faculty in one course,” Davis says. “We have not before seen a university-wide project that unapologetically centers Blackness at UConn, which makes this particular course historic.”

In addition to gaining a foundation in systemic and anti-Black racism, the course coordinators also hope students will discover new courses, majors and minors to explore that they may not have otherwise encountered. The course will also highlight various resources on campus that are committed to subverting anti-Black racism.

“We are building this course so that it is a starting point, not an ending point. We hope students coming out of this course will be interested in learning more and pursue opportunities available to them at UConn to learn from the phenomenal faculty teaching these modules as well as many other UConn faculty who focus on issues of racism, anti-Blackness, and other forms of oppression,” Castillo-Montoya says.

Alongside the faculty coordinators, the course’s development has been supported by an advisory board including Frank Tuitt, vice president and chief diversity officer; Willena Price, director of the African American Cultural Center; Melina Pappademos, director of the Africana Studies Institute; and Peter Diplock, associate vice provost for the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Students from the NAACP have also weighed in during the course’s development.

The course coordinators also have plans to expand access to the course in future semesters to reach a global audience. Their proposal to FutureLearn won a grant of $13,000 to develop the course as a MOOC, or massive open online course, which would make the material available to anyone around the world and in doing so, will make this course UConn’s first MOOC course.