Teaching about racism in an Obama USA

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?

14 thoughts on “Teaching about racism in an Obama USA

  1. I like thinking about the questions you asked. Here are some passing thoughts to consider.

    1) Perhaps you could expand their concept of being black in America. For instance, with all of the same qualifications, would an Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, or a very very black skinned black man have won?

    2.) Have you considered discussing with them the internal or emotional experience of being black in America. They may be surprised at how similar their emotional experiences are to black america.

    3) Lastly, yes Obama is one amazing victory. Can they give an examle of any other issue, where one victory is seen as enough of a sample to make a broad generalization like this ends racism. If you win one game, does that imply you’re the best and don’t need to play again. If you pass one class, do you get a degree. If one kid in the school is a skin head, does that mean the whole school believes in skin head values?

    I’ll be interested in reading what you do.

  2. I am facing this issue in teaching winter term in a philosophy of oppression class. I can hear, already, the claims that Obama was elected proves we no longer have racism in our society and so we should move on and quit living in the past. Thus, I have been constructing my position which I will offer the first day of the term and whenever called for thereafter.

    I will ask the students if Obama’s election seems exceptional to them and I assume they will say, “yes.” Then I will introduce the idea of the exception being an exception because the normal case or the rule is something altogether different. This is as far as I’ve gotten in my preparation. I am eager to hear other ways of approaching this dynamic, in addition to statistical evidence, personal lived experiences, et al.

  3. I might try not to let the assertion that the US has reached post-racism shape the discussion. So I might start here:
    with an Idaho mayor apologizing for the virulently racist chanting that went on in a school bus. Other thoughts:
    – ask the students to think of how racism got disguised in the election; that might be very hard for them, so you might have some examples. He was often described as a mysterious, deceptive outsider. He was seen by McCain as merely an entertainer.
    – look on youtube for racist tapes on Obama. (The major might also be on the web somewhere.)
    – have them take the IAT test after class – not to reveal their scores but to see if it was suprising.

  4. Thank you all for the good advice so far. I am super interested in striking a balance between showing the students that Obama’s election is not a sign that we are in a post-racist America _and_ marking the fabulous and historic nature of his election. If I could, I would serve champagne in class. I never thought there would be a Black man in the White House in my lifetime.

    This is a concern that I have been struggling with for years when it comes to teaching and talking about feminism. How do we mark what in some cases has been amazing progress without losing our ability to demand more or different kinds of progress?

  5. Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, is, he says, aimed at the myth of the “self-made man.” Super success takes talent, hard work and some good features in the environment. It’s clear the US was more ready than many of us dared hope for a minority president, but not everything that contributed to it was good. E.g., his ratings, I think, got solidly positive only after the economy tanked. And Palin helped him too, one suspects.

    Maybe there’s some way of getting a conversation going on that sort of theme. Would Obama have had a chance if we were out of Iraq and the economy was floushing? What elements totally out of his control helped? What was in his control or at least down to him – e.g., superb campaign, message, intelligence, radical calmness when attacked. What accounts for some of the very negative reactions still around, etc. Maybe it would work to try to get them to see also that there aren’t simple things like “racism is over” that get at what is going on.

    Just an idea….

  6. one of the best articulations i saw during the campaign of the need to combat the racism at the root of all of these proxy assertions about obama was given by richard trumka, the secretary treasurer of the afl-cio, speaking at a steelworkers’ meeting in july. it is both elegant and passionate, and it should still be out there on youtube somewhere.

  7. A quick thought in response to one of JJ’s suggestions: It might be a mistake, I think, to have them take the IAT after the class. The best way to get bias not to show up on the IAT is to look at images of impressive black people. I can’t help but think the mental images they’d be conjuring up throughout the discussion might temporarily dissipate any biases they had coming into the discussion.

  8. What about tying in the ugly way racism raised its head after (supposedly) 70% of African-American voters voted for Prop 8 in California (thus outlawing the right for LGBT people to marry, if they so choose)? This would clearly show what work still needs to be done! In addition to talking about the obviously racist stuff that bubbled to the surface, you could even talk about marriage itself (see this great statement) and also skepticism about numbers published by the media. CNN’s sample size is tiny; their sampling is non-random for people (they sampled precincts randomly); and they’re the only exit poll collectors.

    Possible questions to discuss: Did CNN publish that 70% on purpose? Was there an attempt to divide the LGBT and African-American communities? Assuming that the number is close to the “truth,” how can the LGBT community reach out to African-Americans? How can they address their own racism? And why did African-Americans vote so overwhelmingly for Prop 8 (again assuming they really did)? Was it race or religion that drove that? Why do we think African-Americans should support gay marriage? Is such an assumption in itself racist? Can you tell I have a degree in marketing research? ;-)

    (If you do decide to take on this topic, I’d love to hear about the discussions & approaches!)

  9. I am running into similar problems with teaching about racism. Technically, I’m teaching Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, but it has opened up a somewhat disturbing can of worms as I am confronting statements that Black stereotypes are created by Black people themselves, that if they do not receive an adequate education, it is their own fault, and a host of other blanket generalizations. Since simply sharing my opinion will not change theirs, I thought about gathering together a panel of different Black women from the U.S. and the country in which I’m teaching, all of which come from different educational or socioeconomic backgrounds who can come and share their experiences. I have also been scouting around on WordPress to find out blogs that have dialogue on race and how it plays out in cultural bias or assumptions. What I find, I plan on copying off and printing for further classroom dialogue. In the process, I find that I myself am learning much. I agree with you–once we start saying that racism is dead, we are in denial. It is dangerous to think that racism is obsolete in the U.S. or anywhere in the world. It is important that we keep challenging ourselves to recognize our own biased attitudes and continue growing in this area.

  10. Anna,
    I usually start off teaching about racism with a discussion of oppression that starts with Iris Young and Marilyn Frye. I find that I need to get the structural and institutional stuff out there big time right at the beginning. In order to demonstrate structural issues I usually start with a story like this one, which is fictional but realistic for the Washington DC area. You probably want to check the numbers.

    2 veterans return to the US after serving their country in WW2, one Black and one White. They both apply for no down payment low interest mortgages through the GI Bill. They buy houses in neighborhoods where they are welcome, the Black man and his family in a Black neighborhood and the White man and his family in a White neighborhood. They buy their houses for about $6,000.00. Skip ahead to the turn of the century, both men have recently died and their grandchildren are selling their houses. The Black veteran’s house sells for $180,000.00 the white veteran’s house sells for $500,000.00. That money gets split among the great grandkids to pay for college. The Black man’s great grandkids can afford community college. The White man’s great grandkids can afford an exclusive private school. Both sets of great grandkids are smart and hardworking and none of them dislikes people of other races because of their race.

    But, the White kids have significant advantages in life, just because they are White. The Black kids have significant disadvantages in life, just because they are Black.

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