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.