Why ‘Racism’ Should Be A Subject In Every American School

I taught US history at a high school in Maryland for a brief period after college.

When we got to the topic of slavery, which didn’t take long in terms of the chronology of American history, a student raised his hand and asked me perhaps the most difficult question I received teaching that course:

Why did they [the slave owners] think this was OK?

The young man was recognizing how immensely inhumane the institution of slavery was and couldn’t comprehend how it ever existed.

His inquiry was both natural and profoundly complex.

To this day, I’m certain my answer to the student was insufficient.

As I recall, there were about five minutes left in class. Within that amount of time, how could I have possibly explained the abhorrent mindset that condoned the enslavement, torture, lynching, segregation, disenfranchisement and oppression of other human beings?

I said some along the lines of,

The slave owners allowed themselves to believe they were superior, and they robbed people of their freedom and humanity for the sake of their convenience and profit.

But, years later, my response still bothers me and doesn’t feel like enough. My students deserved more on this issue, but time and the curriculum would hardly allow it.

Among many other reasons, this is why I believe it is time for us to begin teaching racism as a subject in schools.

We are not living in a post-racial society, as some would like you to believe.

Indeed, there continues to be systemic racism in the United States of America, many years after the abolishment of slavery and the eradication of Jim Crow.

The ingrained prejudice in our society is perhaps most evident in our criminal justice system, which disproportionately impacts minorities.

There are also enormous racial disparities in terms of economic opportunity, and we simply have not yet established a society where the notion “all men [and women] are created equal” is upheld in practice.

It’s no coincidence a United Nations expert panel recently called out the United States for its insufficient efforts to address the legacy of slavery and even urged American legislators to seriously consider the subject of reparations.

These UN experts traveled around the US throughout January, assessing the progress America has made addressing racial injustice and protecting the human rights of African Americans.

Mireille Fanon Mendes France, the head of the group of experts, said,

Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights of African Americans today.

The persistent gap in almost all the human development indicators, such as life expectancy, income and wealth, level of education, housing, employment and labor, and even food security, among African Americans and the rest of the US population, reflects the level of structural discrimination that creates de facto barriers for people of African descent to fully exercise their human rights.

Education will not fix all of the problems in our society, particularly in relation to race. And, as this panel of experts from the UN expressed, there needs to be more legislative efforts in this regard.

But the foundations of a more enlightened and tolerant society begins in our schools. Right now, however, there’s evidence we are failing to properly educate America’s youth on the subject of race.

It’s 2016, yet we just saw a group of white students in Arizona spelling out the N-word in a yearbook photo.

And not long after, news broke a white male high school student in Maryland recorded a video in which he said black lives don’t matter because they’re an “inferior race.” The young man asked why he should care if a black man dies and went on to call Abraham Lincoln a “traitor to the white race.”

But, sadly, we should hardly be surprised at any of this given there have been efforts to whitewash American history in schools across the country.

For example, in 2015 lawmakers in Oklahoma sought to eliminate AP US History because it doesn’t focus enough on “American exceptionalism.” Correspondingly, Texas is utilizing textbooks that refer to the slave trade as the “Atlantic triangular trade.” 

It appears there are many in this country who are content with ignoring the ugly aspects of our history, seemingly to fool America’s youth into thinking they’re the inheritors of an infallible state. The dangers of this cannot be overstated.

On top of all this, it seems America’s schools are as segregated as ever.

Over half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, white and black students in the US are rarely attending school together. This translates into troubling disparities in terms of the resources provided to black and white students.

In many states across the country, schools with high minority populations receive less funding and have less qualified teachers. And black students graduate at a lower rate than white students. This is all related.

If we don’t make an effort to promote diversity and inclusiveness while being honest about the past and its continued impact on the present, how can we ever expect to establish a truly equal and progressive society?

While it’s a painful subject to address, racism has had an overwhelmingly powerful effect on the narrative of the US. This is true in terms of the treatment of not only blacks but also other minorities, particularly indigenous groups and immigrants.

American high school students should be confronted with this history and urged to discuss how it’s influenced the present and what we can do as a country to work to change the present-day issues.

Simply put, it’s time for racism to be a subject in American schools.

Building a better future is largely a matter of being ruthlessly honest about the past in order to ensure humanity’s gravest mistakes and crimes are never repeated.

The truth can be difficult and controversial, but that’s never justification for ignoring it.

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John Haltiwanger