I am about to start a section in my Introduction to Philosophy class on race and racism in America and I am stymied about how to handle the topic with Obama on his way to the White House. Just days before the election The Economist endorsed Obama. Among the many fine and sensible things they had to say was what I think was this less than fine or sensible comment:
“At home he would salve, if not close, the ugly racial wound left by America’s history and lessen the tendency of American blacks to blame all their problems on racism.”
It would take a book to unpack the assumptions in that one sentence. For a start here are three: (1) That one man could lay hands on the US and heal its racial wounds; (2) That these racial wounds are relegated to US history and not contemporary US culture and institutions; and (3) that African Americans blame all their problems on racism.
These assumptions echo challenges I face in my classroom. Many of the challenges we face are dependent on the local cultures in which we teach. In my school, most of the students aren’t just White, they’re blond. In a racially diverse class at what I will call White U, there are at most three or four students of color.
In my local culture, being ‘polite’ means that Whites pretend that race (with no comprehension that whiteness is a race) does not exist. The trouble is that if race doesn’t exist, then neither does racism. Up until now, institutional racism was a relatively straightforward state of affairs to demonstrate. Statistics were my pedagogical ally: differences in arrest, conviction rates and penalties for crimes, differences in housing availability and pricing, differences in socioeconomic status. The numbers paint a racist picture that broke through my White students’ privileged shells. Denying the consequent ran its course.
I am afraid that the fact that most US voters picked Obama will swamp the history and the numbers, will erase the difference between personal and institutional racism and will reinforce what many of the White students who come to my classes believe, that racism is a sad part of our history, but not part of their present reality.
My question for you is about teaching. How do we celebrate Obama’s amazing victory, a victory for the United States and a victory for people of color in the United States, without minimizing the work that is yet to be done, and without erasing the racial injustices that are part of our everyday life and institutions?