When I first started teaching at the age of 25 or so, I would say I was fairly culturally aware for a white male who came from a lower-middle class upbringing in California. I knew racism was wrong, had studied it intensively as a history major and thought myself somewhat of an expert on the topic. I certainly was aware that racism was a social construct, but my knowledge extended mainly to the theoretical rather than the practical experience.
I remember watching the “Blue Eyes vs Brown Eyes” by Jane Elliot’s class from 1968 during my teaching credential program as the first time I was really exposed to this topic in a way that I really understood. In the experiment, the students in this third grade class were told in the morning that blue eyed people were better than brown eyed people. She reinforced this throughout the morning by blaming things on brown eyed people, ridiculing them and treated them as generally inferior. The blue eyed kids initially resisted but as the morning wore on, echoed the sentiment of their teacher. For the afternoon session, roles were reversed and the teacher treated the blue eyed children as inferior. Again, it wasn’t long until everyone was playing their role. I think of America as that classroom right now in some ways. Some are given superior status, others inferior and everyone acts their part.
Today, watching protesting, reading social media comments filled with hate, and seeing all the destruction left in its wake, I wish everyone in the U.S. could take a moment and watch that experiment. Racism is something we have created. It is not something that naturally exists.
As a teacher, I have asked my students what race is. They have never told me it is something that is not real. It is always a description, usually laden with stereotypes, of a group of people. Essentially, it is just the “Blue Eyes vs. Brown Eyes” experiment on a larger scale. The crazy thing is, no one actually starts life this way.
Working with students of all backgrounds, sizes, shapes, colors, disabilities, and personalities has taught me that so much of our society’s normative values are things that have to be taught, essentially learned behaviors. They are not innate in any way. Babies are not born with a desire to form groups based on skin color, eye color, diaper color, etc. It is something that we teach them as they get older. Depending on the environment, role models, economic conditions, and experiences of each individual these views get formed.
This is not to deny that there are vast differences between people and groups of people. The word that should be used here is culture, not racism. Culture accounts for different ways of dressing, speaking, eating, interacting, customs, values, beliefs, etc. These are all unique and should be respected. We should all strive to better understand cultural differences because that is what our civilization needs right now to tackle the problems it faces. All people face the consequences of over-consumption, climate change, economic inequality, nuclear proliferation, and disease.
Racism has plagued the United States in particular since its inception. It was used as a way to get rich for plantation owners who endorsed the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Most “whites” had been trained that African slaves loved being slaves or that they would murder their masters and massacre villages in the middle of the night if left unchecked. Whites were taught in white only schools that all other races were inferior, for hundreds of years. All other races were taught they were inferior explicitly or implicitly. Those that bucked this status quo could find themselves being ridiculed, persecuted, or even murdered by organizations such as the KKK. In the 1920’s KKK membership was estimated between three and eight million people. Considering the U.S. population was 106.5 million in 1920, this is an astounding number.
Lynchings had been a normal occurrence in the South particularly, but also throughout the rest of the country up until the 1950’s. The lynching of Emmett Till, a young African-American boy in 1955 from Mississippi received intense national attention from the media. Emmett was kidnapped from his Uncle’s house in the middle of the night, savagely beaten, murdered and then thrown in a river. An all-white jury found the murder’s who would later confess not guilty. This motivated many African-Americans and anti-racist Americans of all cultures to support the Civil Rights Movement which eventually got many of these issues addressed after great sacrifice and dedication by protesters. Many people think that the Civil Rights Movement was the end of racism, but alas it clearly has not been.
I never thought I would see the day when an African-American would become President of The United States of America, but I was wrong. Barack Obama’s election in 2008 gave me hope that perhaps we were going to let racism be more a part of an ugly past, than our new future. Yet even Obama, could not keep deep social divisions from boiling over with protests over the Treyvon Martin shooting in 2012. This shooting where a white man, George Zimmerman, killed Treyvon Martin, 17 years old at the time, along with the subsequent acquittal of Zimmerman set off waves of protest and gave momentum to the Black Lives Matter protests. In addition, there was the Michael Brown shooting in 2014 in Ferguson Missouri which led to protests and rioting as well.
These are only a few of the better known cases of this nature. There have been countless more that have never been given a national spotlight. According to The Guardian, one of the more independent leaning major news networks in my view, 1093 Americans were killed by the police in 2016. In 2015 it was an even higher number at 1146. Police have a difficult job and we all can certainly understand how in certain situations they have little choice but to use lethal force on an American citizen who presents a threat to their lives or the lives of others. Considering the U.S. population in 2016 was 323.1 million people and the majority of these deaths were probably justified, the average American’s chance of dying at the hands of the police is .000034 or .0034% just or unjust, in a given year if we go by 2016’s numbers. Heart disease by comparison kills Americans at a robust clip of about 2% a year.
As I have been monitoring social media and discussions on Facebook in particular. I keep hearing the same responses from individuals akin to, why one instance of police brutality needs to be protested so vehemently. The answer is, George Floyd’s death was a tragic loss, but it is far from the first and sadly probably far from the last. As much as we would like to ignore it, this country has a legacy of racism that goes back to its inception as a colony. Native people, former slaves, and other ethnic minorities have had to struggle for a some semblance of equality in this country at least that long. It is not the event itself only, it is the painful memories it revives. If we want to move past this, I believe this must be acknowledged by all citizens of this country as our shared history and shared reality. Without that acknowledgment we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.