Delving into the History of Social Inequalities

An assistant professor at Tufts describes the questions and answers—and additional questions—that have led her to research the history of Black and Indigenous education in the U.S.

Sarah Fong remembers the precise moment when she knew she had to switch majors.

It was her first year of college at American University, and her plan had been to major in sociology. “For a long time, I had been interested in questions of social justice or social inequality,” Fong explained. “I wanted to know why there was hierarchy in our society, and I thought sociology was the way to answer that question.”

But one day in a course called White Privilege and Social Justice, she suddenly perceived a contradiction in her attempt to understand inequality through sociology.

“It was a pivotal moment for me,” said Fong, an assistant professor in Tufts’ Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora in the School of Arts and Sciences. “I realized, ‘Oh, what’s going on here is that the canon of this field is built on the perspectives of white men,’” Fong said. “It was white men who were the authors of these things that I was expected to study and use as the basis for analyzing and interpreting society. I knew then that I would have to step outside of sociology in order to look critically at the field.”

Fong left American University and returned home to California, where she spent a year working at a clothing store and earning credits at a community college. Ultimately, she enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, with a major in ethnic studies; while there, she spent time volunteering at a nonprofit that served children in foster care. That experience, in turn, brought her to her current area of focus: the history of Black and Indigenous education in the United States.

U.S. Federal Boarding Schools: Places of Education?

Thinking she might become a social worker herself, Fong wanted to understand the causes behind a phenomenon she witnessed during her volunteering: the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous communities in the foster care system.

She studied social work literature to see if she could find an explanation, but she came away unsatisfied. Rather than explanations, she mostly found ideas about how to train social workers to become more culturally aware and less prejudiced.

Continuing to seek answers, she enrolled in the American Studies doctoral program at the University of Southern California and planned to study contemporary social welfare. But the questions kept coming.

Fong recalled wanting answers to questions like, “How did we get here? How did this system come to be? What has happened to make us think that taking children away from their families is ‘in the best interest of the child’?”

The persistent search for answers led her “back and back and back” into American history, until she eventually zeroed in on the middle of the 19th century. For two reasons, the 1860s emerged for her as a key moment in the establishment of contemporary inequities in education and in the larger social system. First, it was around that time that the U.S. federal government removed Native American youth from their homes to boarding schools built specifically for them, Fong explained. During the same timeframe, the government established residential boarding schools for Black youth who had been enslaved.

Fong’s research has led her to conclude that the government boarding schools were deeply invested in “managing” Black and Native people during the tumultuous time after the Civil War. “The U.S. was still expanding westward and trying to use education as a way to make Black and Native people more manageable,” she explained. “That’s the best phrase we have to describe it: education as a form of managing young people. Instead of going to war with Native people, and instead of trying to re-enslave Black people, some social reformers figured that educating Black and Indigenous youth would keep them going along with the program, and that way the country could avoid war and avoid continued, violent suppression.”

However, education in these government institutions often was just another form of violence, one that attempted to wipe out all traces of the cultures Black and Indigenous people came from. Students often were exposed to direct abuse, Fong explained. Native students had their hair cut and their clothing replaced when they first arrived at school. They were prohibited from speaking their languages and engaging in their religious practices. They were required to learn English, study the Bible, and dress in western clothes. And physical, sexual, and psychological abuse was commonplace at federal boarding schools.

Moreover, Fong said that while students at primarily Black institutions were given a choice about whether or not to enroll, Native students were not. Often, they were also forbidden from leaving school to visit their families.

“As a general rule, government boarding schools believed that Indigenous youth should be kept away from their families and communities as much as possible to prevent them from returning to what officials saw as the ‘uncivilized’ cultures and practices of their people,” Fong said. “Keeping them away from their communities was seen as important to their progress towards ‘civilization.’”

Following the Questions

There are two schools Fong has uncovered in her research that are particularly interesting to her: the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute—now Hampton University, a historically Black college in Virginia—and the Haskell Indian Industrial Institute, now Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas.

As they exist today, these institutions, Fong explained, differ greatly from what they originally were. “They’ve transformed and they have a different set of political and pedagogical goals now,” she said. For example, when it was founded, Haskell University existed to eliminate Indigenous languages and culture, but today, Fong said, it is “deeply invested in the protection and vibrancy of Indigenous culture.”

In a course called Colonial Schooling in Comparative Perspective, Fong delves into the histories of these schools and explores their current incarnations, and she is working on a book on the topic. From this ongoing work, it is her hope to eventually make connections from the histories of these institutions to the state of the social welfare and foster care systems today.

In the meantime, for all the answers she has unearthed from her study of the nation’s history post-Civil War, Fong still has questions. “The idea of letting my questions direct where I go is central to my research and teaching philosophies,” she said. And the questions she is asking today are ones that she hopes will continue to lead her back to where she started as a first-year college student, with those initial queries about the origins of social inequality.

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