Q&A with Professor Paul Ortiz

photo by Alonso Hernandez

In fewer than 300 pages, professor Paul Ortiz tries to regain years of African American and Latinx misrepresentation in U.S. history by highlighting the resilience and struggle of prominent activists. Ortiz is an associate professor of history at the University of Florida and the author of “An African American and Latinx History of the United States.” Ortiz previously taught in the community studies department at UC Santa Cruz from 2001-08. College Nine hosted Ortiz to discuss his new book and discuss issues of race and educational inclusivity.

City on a Hill Press:
What is “An African American and Latinx History of the United States” about?

Paul Ortiz:
The book is based off of classroom experiences. [I work] a lot with first-generation college students […] in LA, Miami or Dade. These students are Haitians, Latino students, a lot of East African students, they do not see themselves reflected in the curriculum around the history of the United States. We see ourselves as excluded, as outsiders in U.S. history […] We’re not telling a compelling story about U.S. history. U.S. history is dramatic, it’s tragic. It should move you to tears, it should move you to laughter. It should get you to think about the dilemmas of the human condition. And that’s what I try to do in this book. It’s designed to tell a more inclusive history.

You mentioned that students of color feel left out of U.S history, what other problems do you see students of color facing in education in general?


Most of the events I’ve done surrounding this book have been organized by high school teachers and high school administrators. What they tell me over and over again is, “Paul, what we need you scholars to do is to provide us with materials that we can give to high school students, middle school students, K-6 where they can see themselves as being active citizens.” Right now they see themselves as passive, as not really having any impact on politics, culture or U.S. history. […] You learn about all these iconic figures, but then you don’t learn what you can do to impact this society. […] I think that’s not only true to students of color, I think it’s true for everyone.

You’ve written about Jim Crow laws in the past, what similar laws are in place that continue this systematic discrimination against people of color?


As a historian, I look not only at the current laws but the laws that we were founded with. So if you look at the U.S. Constitution, it created a naturalization law, the naturalization law that was connected to the U.S. Constitution said that to become a naturalized citizen you have to be white. […] Obviously you don’t need to be white to become a citizen today but whiteness and U.S. citizenship are directly tied together, so tightly, that we have decided to keep 12 million people disenfranchised and outside of citizenship. We don’t even give them a pathway to citizenship and the reason we don’t is not simply that we have some people in places of power that don’t want to give them citizenship, it’s that we have a history of denying basic human rights and U.S. citizenship rights to people who do the hardest work in this society. […] On one hand you have a nation which says it values hard work and yet it keeps its hardest workers disenfranchised. It did that during slavery, we did it during Jim Crow and we do it now.

As a community what can we do to end the cyclical nature and consequences of racial discrimination?


We have to have a more just system of employment, we need to treat workers with dignity and respect, instead of dissing them and underpaying them and undervaluing their labor. When you have been undervalued and underpaid and treated with a lack of respect, that begins to filter down into your social relations with your family, with your community, so on and so forth. What I try to do in this book is talk about how ordinary people, people who are missing from most history textbooks today, change the world during the times that they did, and they really made the world a much better place.

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