Education and Racism in the United States and Namibia

Education and Racism in the United States and Namibia

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Education and Racism in the United States and Namibia

Formal, lawfully shaped education is an intimate and delicate tool of human influence. It is therefore immeasurably dangerous. In light of our human history, no tool has been more effective at both propagating and dismantling national ideologies, often regardless of the content or meaning of what national ideology demands of its people. In the histories of the United States and southern Africa, formal education has been used to reinforce the political, social, economic and psychological effects of racism. Yet today, education is the prime tool of dismantling the consequences which racism begat. In studying human discrimination and aggression, systems of education become mouth pieces for power and authority. Investigating structures of education is key to understanding why things were the way they were, and why we are the way we are today.

Understanding colonialism is fundamental in understanding why these two nations exist in this world the way they do. Both the United States and southern Africa share legacies of European colonists entering into land occupied by native peoples, and dominating these peoples through superior weaponry, disease, and doctrines of superiority; in short, through structures of racism. Today, in classrooms throughout Namibia and the United States, racism is a recognized and standard term of inequity and human injustice. In the States, racism “not only refers to personal prejudice toward people of other races, but also to the way that US institutions give power and privilege to white society while denying this same power and privilege to people of color” (SAN). In southern Africa, the modern understanding of racism is embodied in understanding the political movement of apartheid, and the legally enforced separation of non-whites from whites within society. The parallels between these two systems of human categorization and fundamental separation are startling; legally binding systems of racism developed into massive bodies of conflict and hate that stood firm until the 1960s.

While South African apartheid was formally established as the law of the land in 1948, the same year saw the Civil Rights movement in the United States poised to grip the nation. At this point in time, the psychological effects of racism had turned into an enabling anger and resistance; people gradually were banding together to forcibly demand a new way of life. Segregating non-whites from whites, and offering whites better economic opportunity and improved education, effectively created societies of intense disparity along racial lines.

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Though in the Untied States some forms of segregation had been outlawed previously, including residential segregation in 1917, the thing of racism was still alive and kicking in the mid-twentieth century. Children of an emerging post-war era knew racism to be wrong.

Beginning in the 1950s, black and white citizens alike initiated protests, demonstrations and court battles demanding that all Americans receive equal rights and integrity under the law, especially in formal education. The issue of education became a catalyst in the movement for racial justice in the States. When in 1954 the Supreme Court ruled to ban the segregation of public schools, some US citizens rejoiced, but others brutally condemned the decision. In the behavior of some of some of its brutal, zealous citizens, America witnessed the ugliness of racism, as televisions broadcast white on black violence and unrestrained aggression. Black people were beaten, harassed, and shot with blasts of waterhoses before the eyes of a disbelieving nation, thanks to increased television media. As schools for children opened their doors to non-whites, the decision of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka exposed the ugly white underbelly of our nation; racism as a social structure could not be denied in America.

In the land of Namibia, themes of colonial oppression were coming to a climax in the 1950s. During early colonial times, “traditional social structures were destroyed to try and make Namibians subservient colonial subjects” to the Germans, and later to the South African forces (Katjavivi 11). Destruction of the validity and worth of ethnic groups came about through forced native labor on white land, in white mines and white industries, but the momentum of social destruction was reinforced by the informal native education proffered by the colonial missionaries. The psychological effects of racism once more were fueled by existing political and social realities. “Teaching was in German and was very elementary, focusing more on German language and culture and on Bible study” (Katjavivi 27). Missionary schooling enabled governments to use and intimidate the education system to the benefit of the colonizers by making non-whites inferior and less deserving of rights than whites. With the Bantu Education Act of 1953, Dr. Verwoerd, Minister of Native Affairs, sought to legally bind government education to standards congruent with the ideology of the South African Regime. Under this Act, nonwhite children legally received only as much instruction as befitted menial economic status within European communities in Southern Africa. In short, under Bantu education, non white children learned how to be obedient to apartheid.

Resistance to the system of oppression in the land of Namibia paralleled the movement of the United States. When the Acts of the 1960s took hold in the states, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act which required equal access to all public facilities, peoples from all over Namibia were forming political families and solidarity groups, and pushing a liberation movement into national consciousness. In standing together in the movement for independence, Namibians were able to rise above the unequal opportunity and racist legislation foisted upon them by the South African government. They were able to demand freedom, and demand their own equality as people, just as oppressed groups within the United States were able to do.

Though now free and independent as a nation among nations, as consequence of the Bantu Education Act, even today Namibia “remains one of the most educationally disadvantaged” countries in Africa (Katjavivi 28). In this manner, systems of racism still hold sway in southern Africa. Similarly today in the United States of America, “although the system of slavery was officially abandoned in 1865, other means of economic and political domination have continued to the present day, resulting in high poverty and unemployment and substandard housing and inferior education for people of color” (SAN). Yet in both nations, emerging modern systems of education serve as instruments of the destruction of racism and human animosity towards one another. The morality and character fueling a system of education determines the value of its service to a people; education prepares individuals in a society to be effective and reliable members of what a society embraces.

Critically understanding the proclaimed intention for a nation and its people goes beyond reading its constitution; one must investigate the justice of a nation’s educational system and the opportunities it offers its people. In seeking to understand systems of education, one can judge clearly the path of a nation’s future; education intimately influences the future of our human family.


Fredrickson, G. M. White Supremacy; a Comparative Study in American and South African History. Oxford; Oxford University, 1981.

Katjavivi, Peter H. A History of Resistance in Namibia. Paris; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1988.

Kuser. Historical Timeline of Namibia. 1996.

Minow, Martha. Between Vengence and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence. Boston; Beacon, 1998.

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me. Siman and Schuster, 1995.

Southern African Netwrok of the ELCA. “Face to Face, Race to Race; Comparing the Effects if Apartheid and Racism.” Chicago; SAN, 1994 (?).
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