NMSU professor grew up segregated and thrives as international spokesperson for multicultural education
H. PRENTICE BAPTIST
By Mike Cook
As a child growing up in Beaumont, Texas, H. Prentice Baptiste could hear the lion roar at the zoo a few blocks from his home. But he and his siblings never got to see the lion. Only whites could visit the zoo.
“We couldn’t go to that zoo because of the color of our skin,” said Baptiste, who grew up in a segregated neighborhood.
Now 83 years old, Baptiste celebrates his 25th birthdaye birthday at New Mexico State University, where he is a Regents and Distinguished Achievement Professor. Throughout an academic career that began more than 50 years ago, Baptiste has taught, written, and lectured about the overt and systemic racism that continues “in neighborhoods across the United States and even in Las Cruces. “.
He is also a nationally and internationally renowned author and speaker on multicultural education.
And like the roar of this lion, Baptiste speaks with a voice that travels.
He is co-founder and past president of the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME), which has been advocating for equity and social justice in the United States since 1990. He is the author or editor of seven books, including textbooks, as well as more than 125 articles, papers and book chapters on multicultural education. He has presented papers and led multicultural workshops in the United States and in Nigeria, Egypt, Germany, Jamaica, Kenya, Morocco, the Netherlands and Cuba.
Cultural Diversity in Mathematics and Science
Part of Baptiste’s focus is the lack of cultural diversity in science and math education in schools, colleges, and universities.
“Sometimes we forget that the science has been around for a long time,” he said. “Africa, Asia and other parts of the world were doing science long before the European reform. They knew quite a bit about astronomy, the movement of the planets, the moon and the stars. They used science, trigonometry and other mathematical operations in building the pyramids and other people made structures.
“Few people are aware of the Alvarez hypothesis proposed by Mexican scientists Luis and Walter Alvaraz,” Baptiste said. “They use data collected from a meteor impacted crater that causes dust and debris to be released into the atmosphere, causing severe climate change that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.”
In the United States, Native Americans were already farming when the Pilgrims came to America, Baptiste said, and understood mixed farming and plowing to conserve water. In the South, agronomist George Washington Carver (1864-1943) introduced peanut plants to cotton fields to maintain nitrogen in the soil and increase cotton production.
Black inventor Louis Lattimer (1848-1928), a contemporary of Thomas Edison, also developed a filament for light bulbs, but the history books “don’t give him credit for what he did”, said said Baptist.
“Many groups of people have contributed to the development of science and mathematics,” he said.
But even today, “we teach (that) science and math come from the same culture,” Baptiste said.
One of the principles he teaches is that “knowledge is socially distributed. What you know is what you have been allowed to know. The way you control people is by taking away their knowledge, not letting them know their own story,” he said. “It leads to the belief that only some people have the intelligence to do math or science. This has been proven time and time again not to be true.
But curricula and textbooks continue to “communicate a monopoly of science and math by a particular group of people,” Baptiste said.
“Some people get credit, some don’t,” he said.
Racism, sexism and poverty
The exclusions are based not only on race, but also on gender, Baptiste said, noting that for many years people “didn’t think women had the intelligence to make higher calculations.”
Discrimination can also be based on economics, he said. In Las Cruces, for example, some schools in poorer neighborhoods “tend not to have the same kinds of resources” as schools in more affluent neighborhoods.
“To me, it speaks to systemic racism,” Baptiste said. “It talks about taxing everyone, but not everyone can harvest that particular resource.”
Having some degree of wealth is one of three social values that fuel systemic racism, he said. The other two are white and male.
“If you own all three of them, you’re fine,” Baptiste said. “If you only have two, you still have some opportunities. But if you have only one – or none – of the characteristics, you are not considered worthy.
This, in turn, creates a mood within the oppressed group, Baptiste said, citing “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” written in 1933 by Carter G. Wilson, the son of former slaves, who says, in part, “When you control a man’s mind, you don’t have to worry about his actions. You don’t have to tell him not to stay here or go there. He will find its “true place” and stay there.
And because Jim Crow laws (enforcing racial segregation) are still in effect “to some extent,” Baptiste said, a black man still doesn’t have the same opportunities as a white man.
“It will become a point of contention because what he’s saying is systemic and institutional racism is there,” he said, “that allows the individual to do racist things without even think.”
As an example, Baptiste cited a fight in a New Jersey mall in February between a black teenager and a white (Hispanic) teenager. The two white police officers who responded tackled the black teenager to the ground and handcuffed him, while the Hispanic teenager was taken, uncuffed, to a bench to sit down, Baptiste said.
“To me, it’s a representation of systemic racism,” Baptiste said. “The whole idea of the stereotype that ‘we have to fight this black kid on the ground, but we don’t do anything with (the other) kid,’ even though both were throwing punches.
“There are many examples that we see happening every day,” he said.
As another example, Baptiste said, most American high schools reflect Western culture to the exclusion of African or Asian heritage. And some high schools with high percentages of students of color continue to offer fewer science classes, “telling a lot of students they don’t deserve to know anything about physics,” Baptiste said.
In New Mexico, he said, cultural pluralism is enshrined in the state constitution, but has been “ignored by the powers that be about what should be in schools and the education system.”
For example, Baptiste said, the New Mexico Constitution codifies teacher preparation as being bilingual in Spanish and English. Therefore, both English and Spanish speaking students will benefit from effective teaching.
And it’s not just schools, he says.
“Don’t let religious institutions off the hook,” Baptiste said. Churches often value men more than women, he said, citing “the way nature intended” as justification.
“It’s not nature,” Baptiste said. “It’s people.”
Baptiste said his own daughter, now an adult, decided at age 5 or 6 that she wanted to be a Catholic priest when she grew up.
“She realized very early in her life that women could not be priests,” he said. “The logic of that, she couldn’t understand. I had a hard time trying to explain it.
“We have certain values that we tend to promote and our institutions tend to promote,” Baptiste said. “Unless you do something to directly oppose it, you really support it.”
Change the story
“I’m trying to change the narrative,” Baptiste said.
He is part of an international editorial team led by Dr. Mary Atwater of the University of Georgia, “which examines science and mathematics globally in terms of what is being done in multicultural ways”, a- he said, and expects to publish a book on the subject in May. In his book, “The Lion Roars”, Baptiste will examine “the manifestation of racism”, giving both historical and personal perspective “to what is happening”.
Baptiste remembers taking a bus trip from Beaumont to the University of Notre Dame in 1964, when he was 25 years old. The bus stopped at a cafe in Jackson, Mississippi and Baptiste got off. After seeing the walls of the cafe, he decided not to enter the cafe and instead got back on the bus. The cafe signs that directed whites and blacks to different bathrooms had been removed, but their imprints were still clearly visible on the walls.
“The most interesting thing, for me, is that blacks and whites were going to their respective toilets like before desegregation,” Baptiste said.
Baptiste came to NMSU 25 years ago because of its multicultural environment, he said.
“I liked what I had seen and observed with the people who were to be my colleagues at the College of Education,” he says. “It was something that drew me to New Mexico.”
Over the past quarter century, NMSU has made progress toward multiculturalism, Baptiste said, but “at a slow pace.
“Yes, it’s going in the right direction, but it’s very slow,” he said.
“How much patience do you have to have?” Baptiste asked.
Within NMSU’s College of Health, Education and Social Transformation (HEST), “we have struggled to keep a pluralistic faculty available,” he said.
“It has to go beyond the numbers,” Baptiste said. “It must be through a philosophy that relates to the central tenets of multiculturalism. This is where we catch up. We talk about it, but we don’t really have the philosophy in place. We don’t want to be uncomfortable,” he said. The hope is to “keep things in such a way that inequality will continue to be, racism will continue to be, sexism will continue to be so that you can be comfortable”.
“We can’t keep everyone comfortable if we want to strive to create a society that benefits all members,” Baptiste said. “The central core of education is uncomfortable.”
Baptiste said he does not plan to retire anytime soon.
“I am on this journey, on this battle. There is still a lot to do. I will continue to do so,” he said. “I am an optimist, for in my 83 years I witnessed the Supreme Court ruling of May 17, 1954 which began the dismantling of de jure segregation; civil rights legislation; and to others of my color, progressing successfully in desegregative educational institutions. Recently, I witnessed the election of a black pheno male as President and an Asian/African female elected Vice President of my country, USA. Also, the election of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the United States Supreme Court gives me hope that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live in a land of equality and freedom for all.