Editors’ note: Lawrence Blum will speak about his new book, High Schools, Race, and America’s Future: What Students Can Teach Us About Morality, Diversity, and Community, at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Tuesday, November 27 as part of OSI-Baltimore’s Talking About Race series. Read more about this event.
Eric Holder, President Obama’s Attorney General, said “We, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial.” I agree. We generally don’t even think of “things racial” as something to talk about, especially with people of other racial groups. We think race is something to avoid, or pretend not to notice. Even President Obama avoids talking about race.
This situation is very unfortunate. In fact there are vast racial inequalities and increasing racial separation, in neighborhoods and schools. There is plenty to talk about! But we don’t know how to do it. We lack a basic racial literacy in this country that would give us each a knowledge base to have intelligent and productive conversations with each other about race. We are not practiced in learning from one another across racial lines, or asking each other intelligent and well-informed questions about each others’ race-related experiences. All this is most especially true of white people, but it is really true of all groups to a significant extent.
I taught a course on race and racism at my local high school (four times). My students were from all racial groups. We studied some basics—about where the idea of race came from, and how it was bound up with attempted justifications of American slavery. After a while, the students could talk with each other about very charged and sensitive, but important, subjects—is lighter skin valued over darker; whether black and Latino kids are followed around stores by security personnel; whether your racial identity mattered to your moral responsibilities. By the end of the course, students were on their way to a secure knowledge base about race in America (and Latin America also), greater comfort and less tension with those of other races, and more experience engaging those of other races than most American adults. We can learn something from them. And we need to bring racial integration of schools and classrooms back on the agenda, so all students have the possibility of this kind of civic education.