Americans, especially white Americans, don’t like to talk about race. And they generally don’t think they need to know anything about it, either. Many Americans think we are in a “postracial” society, partly because a black man is president, so they don’t need to give much thought to race anymore.
This view is completely and deeply wrong. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke the truth when he said in 2009, “We average Americans simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial.” What he didn’t say is that in order to talk productively about race, we have to know something about it. “Things racial” are not just matters of opinion and feeling. They are also matters of knowledge and insight.
For four semesters I taught a course on race and racism at my local high school, Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Cambridge, Mass. At the University of Massachusetts Boston, I am a scholar of race, especially race in the United States, and I wanted to bring that expertise to a high school audience. I saw the course as an exercise in teaching racial literacy. Just as students should know about the branches of government, the Civil War, and the Great Depression, they should know some basics about racial history in America.
Racial literacy is not the same as telling students how to think about politically controversial racial topics like racial profiling and affirmative action. But without an accurate understanding of race, they cannot have an informed opinion on those issues. My students—a very racially mixed group—were eager to learn about race and excited to talk with each other about what they were learning.
If students leave high school informed about the history and social reality of race and enabled to discuss it with other students, especially of different racial groups, they can avoid the strain and discomfort that so often accompanies race talk. They will be better able to have the conversations Holder says we need to have. They will be better informed citizens and more comfortable and constructive members of our multiracial and multiethnic democracy.
Here are five things about race that I think no high school student should graduate without knowing:
1. Race is a constant influence in our history, society, and relations with others and cannot be ignored.
The traditional, classic 19th-century idea of race is scientifically invalid, yet the legacy of this idea—the social and historical meanings around race that it created—influences us, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. The groups known as whites/Caucasians, blacks, Asians, and Native Americans are not substantially different genetically; although individuals differ genetically, the range of variation is pretty much the same within each racial group. Nevertheless, the idea that there are mental and psychological differences among the races rooted in genetic differences has shaped the lives of all Americans, going back at least to the late 17th century. Blacks were regarded by whites as an inferior race of beings, and the widespread acceptance of this idea plays an important part in explaining why blacks as a group are still a comparatively disadvantaged population. Unless students and Americans in general understand the origins and lasting impact of the 19th-century idea of race, the foundation for intelligent discussion of racial issues is absent.
2. The first step toward racial literacy is to understand the history of slavery.
Ira Berlin, one of the foremost historians of American slavery, shows, for example, that the plantation image most students have of slavery applied only to a certain time period and to certain regions. Before the English colonies fully embraced the African/Atlantic slave trade, people of African ancestry were often not worse off than white indentured servants, and a few of them were landowners themselves. By studying changes in the character of slavery in the United States from its origins in the early 17th century until the Civil War, students come to understand that it was not a matter of fate that blacks became slaves in the Americas but a historical process that could have turned out differently. My students were fascinated to learn about Anthony Johnson, an African who became a landowner in the Chesapeake area in the 1630s and had a slave of his own. It helped them to understand this historical process and to see that “black” does not equal “slave,” an implicit belief that many of them hold in relation to the slave era.
3. Race is fundamentally an asymmetric category.
The whole idea of race, an arbitrary means of classifying people by skin color, was created to rationalize slavery and to privilege white people over all other groups. That was the historical purpose of the invention of the idea of race. Thus, the prejudices and stereotypes associated with being white or black (or Asian or Latino) are not morally equivalent.
Here is an example from one of my classes. Hannah said that she felt uncomfortable as the only white student in one of her classes. Some black students said they had similarly felt uncomfortable as the only black student in an honors class. Another black student, Mirvole, however, said the two situations were not the same—“It would be different kinds of uncomfortable.” She said that in the black student’s case, some of the white students might have felt that she was not up to the intellectual challenge of the class, whereas the white student did not labor under a comparable stereotype of her intellectual inadequacy. The vulnerability to being thought intellectually incapable is racially asymmetrical, and our study of racial history shows why black students are vulnerable to this discomfort in a way that whites are not.
At the same time, the asymmetry does not mean that whites cannot be hurt by racism or that “students of color cannot be racist,” as some people say. If a white student is a minority in a given situation, he or she can suffer from racial exclusion, rejection, and stereotypes (if not the particularly devastating one of intellectual inadequacy). All students are hurt by racism. Understanding the asymmetry sensitizes us to the different forms and degrees of hurt.
4. The historical study of race in the United States is not the same as multiculturalism.
Multiculturalism is indeed important. All ethnic groups should be recognized and celebrated for their struggles, accomplishments, and heritages. But race is a different lens. It foregrounds the ways the dominant white group tried to keep other racial groups in an inferior status and how those groups fought back against that injustice. For example, the black struggle for freedom helped to set the terms for and to inspire comparable struggles of Asian Americans, Latinos, and even Native Americans. At the same time, each racial group has its own distinctive history.
My students were fascinated to learn of the 1922 case of Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant at a time when naturalized citizenship was restricted to whites and persons of African ancestry. Ozawa argued that he should be regarded as white, but the Supreme Court rejected that claim. Many students originally approached this case with the multicultural mindset that it was terrible that Ozawa denied his Japanese heritage, but they ultimately recognized the racial lens—that this was the only way he could try to become a citizen under the laws of the time.
5. Race is about more than skin color.
Everyone who is black doesn’t share the same history and may or may not face the same obstacles. For example, recent African immigrants and African Americans are both black. But Africans who immigrate to the United States are, as a group, a relatively advantaged population, with an average higher educational level on entry than European and Asian immigrants. Just as Asian Americans have often been inappropriately pointed to as a “model minority”—often an oblique criticism of native blacks and Latinos—so is the success of many African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants unfairly compared to that of native blacks. On average, immigrants are a self-selected group with documented motivational advantages over native groups. It is unrealistic to expect native-born blacks to miraculously acquire these cultural advantages. Yet, race is indeed one facet of the immigrant experience, and immigrants often face race-based hostility.
By the end of my course, the students had recognized that race can be an area of serious study. They grasped that their own experience of race grew out of a historical background. They learned some things about that background and developed their abilities to talk productively about racial matters with peers of their own race and others. They were pointing the way to a racial literacy all Americans could benefit from.
Lawrence Blum is a professor of liberal arts and education and philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is the author of High Schools, Race, and America’s Future: What Students Can Teach Us About Morality, Diversity, and Community (Harvard Education Press, 2012). The syllabus for his high school course, “Race and Racism,” can be found here.