Race in America

In both my U.S. and world history classes, I have always told my students that within the United States the issue that will continue to define us as a nation is race.

This was certainly exemplified by Hurricane Katrina. The nation was exposed to the dramatic inequities within American society. At my high school we have had a race problem since I was hired ten years ago. About eight years ago this manifested itself when an African American marine was paralyzed in a fight at a local party. Before his friends were able to grab his broken body and take him to a hospital, a ring of young men (a number of them had attended the high school I teach at) yelled racial slurs as they kicked the life out of him. The school responded by starting a massive stop the hate campaign. It promoted tolerance, understanding, and actively fought against the white supremacist groups that had infiltrated the campus. While it didn’t fix the problem completely, outward gestures of racism practically disappeared. However, over the years, a number of students confided in me that they were harassed for any number of reasons, including race.

We knew it didn’t disappear. In the last ten years the student population has diversified, if only slightly. The Caucasian population decreased to just over 80% of the school (down from the mid-90’s). Tensions between different racial groups have increased. A couple weeks ago an off-campus incident involving a local white supremacist gang and a minority student resulted in a massive police presence. Twelve police officers patrolled the campus during lunch.

Within my classroom, tolerance is an ongoing theme all year long, but in both my courses I spend a considerable amount of time in one unit exploring this issue. In U.S. History it comes during the Civil Rights unit and in World History it takes place in my Holocaust unit. A couple years ago, to my amazement, I actually had a student argue that the facts I was teaching regarding the Holocaust were wrong. He claimed the Holocaust was an exaggerated event coordinated by Jewish leaders for financial gain. He brought up several points, each of which I was able to dismiss through a thorough knowledge of the subject and the denial/revisionist arguments. Strangely, I actually had a decent rapport with the student, even after calling people who believe in this sort of ideology to be fundamentally un-American (I added a word or two to emphasize my point). He later argued that others stereotyped him for having certain beliefs and a shaved head, he was just doing the same thing they were.

This ramble was sparked by a very powerful and intense movie I saw this weekend called Crash. Ideas of race, racism, and interaction among people of different ethnicities were crafted together to show how groups are stereotyped and discriminated against in a way that is almost natural. Ironically, most of the individuals that were wronged because of their race, wronged another.

This movie reminds me of the importance of what good teachers do. We are on the front lines of this battle. We have to fight traditions, cultures, parents, friends, and stereotypes. We do it through example and through our lesson plans. Can we win? I think I convinced that student the Holocaust did occur, but does he still hold his racist beliefs? Probably.

3 thoughts on “Race in America”

  1. So for some reason, I mentioned the Holocause deniers in my women’s studies class the other day, and my kids could not believe it. I imagine that google was real busy on this topic as soon as they got home. One of my kids told me she had actually stumbled across a website about this at school, which should be impossible because of our firewall.

    When talking about race relations in America, however, I always want my students to understand that this is not simply an American problem, which is all the more troubling, in a way. We have had recent and horrifying ethnic and racial conflicts in places such as France, Rwanda, Liberia, Indonesia, the Sudan, and Mexico, to name a few places.

    Racism is, unfortunately, a human problem. We want to be able to define the “other” and this often leads to denigrating, fearing, and even hating that other.

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  2. I realize that you posted this a while ago, and that I still have to wait for you to allow me to post. However, I was scanning through more of your entries and found them to be fascinating. So I just had to comment here.

    I am currently involved in my multi-cultural field experience, where I spend two months in an urban school. This has been an interesting experience, as the school population is almost completely African-American, and we are in the inner-city. I am Caucasion and from more rural area, so I tend to stand out a bit.

    The main thing our field experience is striving for is to help us understand how to be better teachers in a diverse classroom. Well, the classes themselves are not necessarily diverse, but it is still a different setting from what most of the people in my class are used to.

    Anyway, I found your whole post interesting, but it was the last paragraph that made me stop and think. I am not a teacher yet, but the reason I chose it as a career (besides loving history)is that I want to make a positive impact on students, and I have seen teachers do this. And I agree with you that one of the most important impacts teachers can make is in current/traditional cultural issues and teaching students how to really think through them. I am a realist, and understand that I cannot change the world, but your post has made me all the more anxious to get in the class and make a darned good attempt.

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  3. Teach tolerance? Why yes, that’s why I went into teaching in the first place!

    We are on the front line. The way I try to teach tolerance is by constantly calling into question “received wisdom” and presenting as many sides to each issue that comes up in my classes.

    I think one reason that so many public school teachers tend to be liberal in their politics on the issue of tolerance is because of the historical role of American education as a tool for assimilating new immigrants. Because of this role, most of my students come away with the idea that tolerating differences is VERY American; many understand this from the get-go.

    I recently read a great many essays by my students on the topic of hate speech. They read two articles, one on French laws against hate speech and another about an American neo-Nazi who sent racist propaganda to Germany, where he was finally arrested, while he’d been no criminal in the USA because of the 1st amendment. It was encouraging to note how many truly believed in both freedom of speech and — at the same time — tolerance of racial differences. This was especially encouraging since most of these kids are suburban, middle-class and white.

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