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"Race, Anyone? High School Students Can Show the Way,"

by Lawrence Blum May/June 2013 issue of Poverty & Race

“Why would slaves be interested in Christianity when we saw that slave owners used Christianity to justify slavery and oppress black people?” asked Hannah, a white student. “Jesus too was oppressed, as blacks were, and God was on the side of oppressed people who would eventually triumph over their oppression with God’s help,” Sherilyn, a black student, replied. “Maybe the slaves saw something different in Christianity, something the slave owners missed,” added Jean-Paul, another black student.

The three students were in my high school class on race and racism. I arranged to teach that course after many years of teaching on this topic at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. The high school is very mixed—racially, ethnically, linguistically, economically (45% low-income). That was why I wanted to try my hand at teaching there. The school administration agreed that we should try to put together a class that roughly mirrored the school’s demography. Blacks were in the plurality, but were also the group most turned away, since they tended to overenroll in much higher numbers than other groups. Whites averaged about 30% of the class.

In the school as a whole, as in so many high schools across the U.S. with mixed populations, in the advanced courses—Advanced Placement or Honors—white students predominated. Black and Latino students’ capabilities of doing intellectually demanding work are frequently left underdeveloped, affecting where they attend college (if at all), how well they do in college, and what careers are open to them. I did not want my own class to contribute to that inequity dynamic.

Also, the few Black and Latino students in my class who had ventured into the advance-track classes at the high school experienced these courses as small minorities in those classes. I wanted my class to give them something different—a high intellectual demand class where they (or at least the two groups together) comprised a majority of the class. We occasionally discussed these students’ experiences in those classes. One student, Ahmed, said, “When I am in an advanced placement class with mostly white students, I don’t speak because I am worried that people will wonder if I belong in the class—if I am smart enough. I am worried they will take what I say to confirm their suspicions.” Tenzina, one of the most accomplished students in the class, said she felt comfortable being in a white-dominated class but not saying something that disagreed with the white students. I think the black/Latino majority in my class dispelled, or at least greatly weakened, this “stereotype threat,” as the psychologist Claude Steele has called the fear of confirming a negative stereotype of your group, for the black and Latino students.

Finally, I worked with the guidance counselors to send me students who hoped to go to college, but were not from families where everyone took it for granted that they would. I didn’t want students who were already “on track” to elite colleges. I wanted ones who were at best heading for state universities, and if possible non-elite ones like my own. I could not completely control this outcome, since students could choose to sign up for the course independent of what their guidance counselor advised. But for the most part I ended up with the desired “mid-range” students, with a very few heading to elite colleges at one end, and a very few not going to college at all at the other.

The subject matter of the course was the idea of race itself. We looked into contemporary science’s rejection of the classic idea of race (the revival of quasi-racial thinking based in contemporary genetics has become more respectable since I stopped teaching the course). This then motivated the historical core of the course—where the idea of race comes from. We looked at the historical developments in expansion, colonialism, and slavery, supplemented by developments in the natural sciences that from the late 1600’s through the late 1800’s led to the progressive development of the race idea and framework for thinking about human biodiversity. For example, we explored the role of Christianity in providing a religious justification of slavery (Africans are “heathens”) that then had to give way, under pressure from the conversion of most blacks to Christianity, to a more distinctly racial one (Blacks are inherently inferior and are capable of no better than being slaves). And we looked at various forms of resistance to slavery—especially slave revolts, runaways, and the Abolitionist movement. Finally, we spent some time on the Latin American and Caribbean experiences of slavery, and the conceptions of race that emerged from them, compared with the United States. This comparative perspective helped the students see how race was not just a fact of nature but was understood differently in different national and regional contexts. Since several of the students’ ancestry lay in Latin America or the Caribbean, this perspective also helped them understand the common mismatch in the ways they or their parents understood race from their home countries with the racial order in the U.S.

The exchange at the beginning of this article was from our unit on David Walker, an influential (but still too-little known to most Americans) black Abolitionist whose militant anti-slavery agitation, expressed in his 1830 treatise, The Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, gave the students the opportunity to see a black committed anti-racist using ideas to fight against slavery. Walker urged blacks to read Thomas Jefferson’s writings arguing for the innate inferiority of black people and to develop their own arguments against him. (We also read those writings of Jefferson.) Walker was also a deeply religious Methodist, and Sherilyn and Jean-Paul were able to see how he could view Christianity as a philosophy of liberation. Walker wedded words to organizing by arranging to have copies of his treatise smuggled into slave territory; his success in doing so led several Southern states to tighten their laws against both slave literacy and “seditious” literature.

As part of that discussion, we looked at Walker’s criticism of Jefferson for saying that blacks’ skin color is “unfortunate.” Walker is outraged by this statement and says that blacks are pleased with the skin color God gave them. I asked the students whether they thought Walker was saying that everyone should be proud of their skin color, including whites. Their response showed their deepening reflectiveness about racial issues:
Clara (Latina): It should be the same. But pride in being white has a more negative connotation, because it is always connected to being superior.

Student Responses

Pema (Asian-American): White isn’t seen as negative. If you look in the dictionary the definitions of “white” are all positive—like lightness, sun, purity. Black is connected with dark, something you’re afraid of.

Adam (white): Whites have power, and white pride is connected with that. But still, saying you are proud to be white isn’t necessarily supporting white superiority.

Sherilyn (black): If a white person said, “I’m proud of being white,” my first reaction would be, “Are you saying you are better than me?”

Pema (Asian-American): Even if you should be able to say you are proud of being white, if somebody said that to me, I’d react against it.

Tenzina (Asian-American/Latina): What are you actually proud of? In the case of blacks, it is empowering to take pride in your skin color.

Anna (white): You don’t have pride in your skin color. You have pride in your culture.

Jacques (black): You can have pride in your skin color if there is an ideology that says your skin color is bad, like Jefferson’s view. And then you can have pride to reject that ideology.
You can see the students struggling with a very complex issue that confuses a lot of Americans—that race is symbolized by skin color, but it involves a complex set of meanings that are both placed on and yet go beyond skin color, and that reflect history and inequality between the races. Understanding how that inequality mattered for current issues of race was a constant issue in the class, coming up in a range of contexts—from whether Latinos making fun of a white couple at a Latino dance had the same significance as whites doing the same to a Latino couple at a mostly white dance, to whether a white student’s discomfort in an otherwise all-black class had the same character as a black student’s discomfort in an otherwise all-white class.

We had conversations like this all the time. Students in general are, I think, hungering for a safe and educationally serious space to explore and to engage with one another about racial issues. Many teachers are fearful of venturing into this territory. My students told me they had taken classes in which a racial issue would come up and they felt that their teacher would have liked to keep the discussion going, but, the students said, did not know enough to make that happen. I agree that teachers really do need a solid base of racial knowledge to teach these subjects. But they might also be worried that this material is just too hot to handle, especially in interracial classrooms. But my experience is that the students really want to learn about it, not just go after each other, or worry about being “politically correct.” Secondary students are generally not aware that race is an area of serious study, like chemistry or literature, rather than something you just have experiences and opinions about. I found the students’ openness and interest in this material exhilarating. It brought students together rather than pushing them apart. Many more teachers are capable of providing the educational experience about race students are eager to have.

I think my experience also points up a tremendous lacuna in education reform today. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA has done a terrific job documenting both the increasing racial separation in schools—partly due to judicial retreat from the goal of integration, culminating in the appalling 2007 Parents Involved decision—yet the benefits of integration (of both a race and a class character) in reducing racial achievement disparities. Currently popular corporate and market reforms cannot show such clear benefits. But arguments about the achievement gap do not articulate the civic benefits of integrated education. They cast the educational benefits only to the disadvantaged by race and class. But the civic educational benefits accrue to all students. All of them gain from learning to listen and learn from others from different racial, ethnic and class backgrounds, acquiring the skills of engagement across social divisions, experiencing a sense of community that grows from a well-functioning and diverse class. The achievement gap focus misses the vital civic purposes of education, purposes that are themselves also inimical to market and corporate reform.

In 2009, Eric Holder said that America was a nation of cowards regarding “things racial”—that we do not know how to talk about race with one another. This is exactly right, and schools have a responsibility to make sure the next generation does a better job of it. I saw my course as serving this function in two ways. It taught students a basic racial literacy about the role of race in American history and its legacy in the present. This is not the same as providing policy prescriptions for complicated public racial issues; but it provides a backdrop to those issues without which they cannot be intelligently debated.

This racial literacy can be taught to any classroom demographic—all-white, all-black. (Perhaps a class with a small percentage of students of color in an otherwise white class might be an exception. The hypervisibility of those students might render this particular configuration one to stay away from.) These same-race groups are not homogeneous and the material itself will generate great discussions, and the students will gain important civic knowledge. But learning in a racially mixed setting such as my class was, provides for the development of civic capability in a multiracial democracy that is difficult to achieve in one-race-dominant settings. We have to get integration back on the “reform” agenda. Only with both a basic racial literacy and the capability of engaging across racial lines about racial issues can we meet Holder’s challenge.


David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, edited by Peter Hinks (Pennsylvania State Press, 2000 [originally 1830])

Audrey and Brian Smedley, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, 4th edition (Westview Press, 2012)

Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Harvard Univ. Press, 1998)

Gary Nash, Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early North America, 6th edition (Prentice-Hall, 2009)

Jeannie Oakes, Martin Lipton, Lauren Anderson and Jamy Stillman, TEACHING to CHANGE the WORLD, 4th Edition (Paradigm, 2012)

Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching (PRRAC, 2004)

Lawrence Blum is Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and author of High Schools, Race, and America’s Future: What Students Can Teach Us About Morality, Diversity, and Community (Harvard Education Press, 2012), which describes the class and the students discussed here.

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