Exercising Judgment in Teaching Politically-Charged Topics

My department has run a number of workshops (organized by grad students) on “teaching about race.” They asked me to speak about what the rules are about what we can and cannot say in the classroom. I was pretty sure I knew the “rules” but asked our Provost for the official statement. Interestingly, there was none, but the question was referred to the Legal department. After a  delay, Legal Affairs sent back an email citing Wisconsin state statutes and linking to some policy statements. I’ve pasted the original correspondence below.* First a student and I translated the legalese into English bullet points. Then I wrote an essay about how to think about the authority and ethical responsibility in teaching controversial topics. This was recirculated this fall and as I’ve gotten positive feedback about this, I decided to post it here, with a few more edits, in case it is helpful. There’s always more to say, and legitimate disagreement about how to handle some things. Feel free to use the comments to expand on these points. Continue reading “Exercising Judgment in Teaching Politically-Charged Topics”

Revisionist history

The scary thing about this post from We Are Respectable Negroes describing history as the Texas and Arizona legislatures want it taught is how closely it approximates history as it is actually taught in a lot [a majority?] of our public schools. It’s funny, but it’s not.

Edit: I realized a short quotation to give you the flavor would be useful.

1607– Jamestown founded. Capitalism, which can trace its roots to the Bible, is now firmly rooted in the New World.

1660-1800–Triangular Atlantic trade continues to bring wealth and prosperity to America while giving opportunities to new immigrants.

1776–War for Independence against the tyrannical, evil British empire. Colonists suffer oppression that is unprecedented in human history. Minutemen singlehandedly defeat the evil British Empire in 1783.

1788–The United States Constitution is signed as a document to stand for all time, inspired by God, and never to be changed.

1803-1848–America continues to expand westward into empty territories. American settlers make the land bloom with the help of friendly Indian tribes.

H/T Stuff White People Do


Screen Shots from What Would You Do?

After presenting lots of statistics about racial disparities in criminal justice, I showed my class the videos from ABC News What Would You Do? in which first White and than Black youths vandalize a car in a public parking lot. There is only one 911 call on the White boys, but ten on the Black boys. Plus, while the White boys are vandalizing, someone calls 911 to report people who are suspected of planning a robbery — Black kids asleep in a nearby car! Well, most of the class, as expected, saw this the way I did, as evidence of a racial problem. I was trying to emphasize that not arresting Whites when they commit crimes is just as important in racial disparities as arresting Blacks. Some students pointed out (correctly) that it was a demonstration, not a controlled experiment and wondered (fairly) whether the producers selected cases for their strong differences. But a few very vocally insisted that the difference was not about race at all, but that the Black kids were wearing “gang clothing.” They got somewhat offended when I said, “yeah, Black styles” and then cut off that line of argument, saying “OK we disagree on that, but I don’t want to spend the rest of the class arguing about clothing.”

Today I went back to the video and took screen shots of the kids. They are all wearing hooded sweatshirts and jeans, as I said. (One student had insisted that the White kids wore tucked in shirts! Not so.)  There are subtle differences in how they wear the clothes, though. The Black kids’ clothes are bigger on them (and the kids themselves appear to me to be smaller). The White kids’ shirts have words on them which I assume are school names (the resolution isn’t good enough for me to read them) while one Black kid has some sort of design on it that you could construe as edgy — it is definitely not preppy. One Black kid is wearing a cap which (as can be seen elsewhere in the video) is a gold weave thing that I cannot imagine a White kid wearing, but he’s wearing it in the same way as lots of White kids wear baseball caps. In my view the only difference between the clothing was subtle differences in style sensibilities between Blacks and Whites, and that calling the Black kids’ clothing “gang attire” is ridiculous. These few students think that if the Black kids had been in “non-gang” (i.e. “White”) clothing, the result would have been different. (They did not even suggest dressing the White kids in “gang” styles.) I think they are just exhibiting extreme resistance to the obvious. (The same students criticized me for failing to show examples of Black crime.) Opinions?

Edit: I decided to add shots of the kid with the most distinctively Black hat. In these shots you can see that he’s also wearing a do-rag.  Just to be fair. I can find no evidence that this is “gang attire.” But it is certainly distinctively Black. Do you think it’s the do-rag and not the skin color that matters here?

when you are called racist

EDIT: Based on comments received, I now believe that this should be rewritten to make it clear that complaints about racism are often well-founded and that White people ought to listen more to people of color and think about what they say. I’ve been trying to work periodically on a reprise, but find I’m not ready to finish it yet. As I note in the comments, when I posted this I did not expect it to get external links and a lot of traffic. I’m leaving it up so readers can see the comments and reactions.

This is an edited version of what I wrote for my students after a class discussion about the responding when someone calls you racist. The discussion started when a student described an upsetting experience of a homeless man calling her racist because she would not accept a jar of pennies in payment (it was against company policy). I made points I’ve made before about Whites overreacting to the r-word, including the story about teachers overreacting. I cut off discussion prematurely because of concerns about not getting farther behind in lecture materials due to the expectation (which proved correct) that I might miss class the following week, so I sent them this memo, which I think may be of interest to some readers of this blog.

Some of you were upset* because I seemed to be saying that it was OK for minorities to use the word racist as name-calling and Whites should just ignore it, while others were upset with me for seeming to say that any use of the word racist is just name-calling. I actually did not mean either. What I should have been trying to draw out is the whole complexity of the situation and the different perspectives different groups bring to the table. I’ve written some material (below) to explain how I see this, by developing two contrasting points of view – the “minority” (especially Black) view, and the “majority” (White) view. These are both extremes and there are many people who don’t fit these extremes, but I hope it will help to explain the point. Continue reading “when you are called racist”

My jaw dropped: racial interactions

I study racial disparities in criminal justice, but this still completely blew me away. I started clicking around and have ended up collecting links to a large number of quite amazing videos of racial interactions that would be great discussion-starters in class. The two segments that just make my jaw drop were broadcast last February on ABC 20-20’s “What Would You Do?” series last February. They are a little over six minutes each after a 15 second commercial*. The setup is a parking lot in a public park in a White suburb. In part 1, for several hours three White boys overtly vandalize a car. Dozens of White people walk by, looking but doing nothing. Only one ever calls the police; a few say something to the boys. In part 2, three Black boys do the same thing: lots of people call the police, many more people intervene.  In both cases, there is overt criminality going on, although possibly so overt that people might have defined it as some kind of stunt. On balance, a clear demonstration that failure to sanction overt White crime is part of a racial disparity pattern, not just response to Black crime. But the real shocker: while the White kids are vandalizing the car, the police DO get TWO 911 calls from the same parking lot. What they call about is Black people SLEEPING in a nearby car: they phone it in as “possible robbery!”

Vandals 1 (white)
Vandals 2 (black)
(*I found these originally on Youtube but link to ABC despite the commercial opening in the interest of supporting copyright holders where possible.)

Edit: here’s a more recent episode, this time involving kids trying to cut the chain on a bike lock.

There are also some really chilling Driving While Black segments available.

This 10-minute segment was produced by a New York news station about Nassau County. It is really quite incredible, the tester ends up handcuffed and held for thirty minutes after making a U-turn on a residential street and refusing to explain what he is doing in the area. No response to White testers who duplicate the action, although the Blacks in the trailing news car are stopped and hassled.

This ABC Primetime episode on Driving While Black is also very good, but the YouTube versions are all scratched and vertically stretched. I cannot find an on-line version of the original. The first segment is 10 minutes, the second is about 2 minutes of wrap-up
10 minute main segment
2 minute wrap up

A Fox news video shows a black customer being surrounded and beaten by whites but the black man is the only one arrested

The ABC Primetime What Would You Do? series also has a number of great segments (generally 8-10 minutes long) about bystander intervention into overt cases of racial/ethnic discrimination. Actors play the part of store clerks or real estate sales people who overtly insult and harass Black or Muslim or Spanish-speaking lower class (day laborer) shoppers (also actors). Bystander responses are videotaped. Each segment shows lots of people either standing by without intervening or in some cases approving the discrimination, but also highlights people who do intervene. John Dovidio (a psychologist known for work on bystander intervention) provides commentary that praises those who do intervene. Again, these seem like great discussion-starters. I linked to YouTube when I could not find the segment on the ABC site.

Real estate agent insulting Black and Muslim couples looking at a home.

Black shopper in a upscale clothing boutique gets insulted and even frisked

Muslim woman trying to buy an apple Danish (quite a few shoppers join in on the discrimination, while a White man who says is son is fighting in Iraq challenges it)

Spanish-speaking guys in work clothes trying to buy coffee (quite a few shoppers again join in on the discrimination, few seem to speak against it)

H/T to http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/ which pointed me to the Muslim shopper video on YouTube, from which I found the rest through YouTube searches, ABC News searches, and Google.

My “first day” comments in a class about race

The link from pitse1eh reminded me that I said I’d post my “first day” comments that I emailed to her. This is a follow up to my earlier post on teaching about race.  These are my rough notes that I speak from, not a polished set piece, but they will give you the flavor of how I try to set the tone.  I tell the students I’m giving them the pep talk.

Introduce topic and me.
1.    Topic: social movements approach to ethnic groups.  Key is emphasis on politics and grassroots action.  Not economic studies of discrimination, although sometimes we’ll cite those.  Not lifestyle or cultural diversity, except as it comes into the political story.  Not music, dance, drama, food.  Instead matters of how you know who you are as a member of a larger group, what do you think that group is, how do you act together.  It will turn out that a central theme of ethnic history in America, maybe the central theme, is: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE AN AMERICAN?  Who is a  REAL American?

2.    I’ll be stressing that everybody has an ethnicity.  There is a tendency for “white” European-Americans whose ancestors migrated more than three generations ago to think they have no ethnicity, they are “just American.”  I’ll be showing you that you are just as ethnic as everybody else is.

3.    Me:  I am an expert on SM.  Still learning about ethnic history, the more I learn the more I realize how little I really know.  We will learn together.  I want to say the obvious: I am white and I know I’m white.  I know I cannot tell you from personal experience about being “minority.”  I do read lots of books written by Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and try to learn from their voices what they feel about their lives, and what they think about their situation and political ways of dealing with it.  So when I talk about what minorities think, that is where the information is coming from. I have learned a lot over the years from the students in this class who tell me what they think.

4.    Personal issues:  One thing I’ve learned is that all Americans have problems with race and ethnicity.  There is a real sense in which US is inherently racist, in a way that goes beyond the personal feelings of any particular individual.  I want to talk about these as structural, social problems rooted in history and the legacies of history.   We will try to talk about how these structures got set up through the past actions of people, and how they constrain our choices today.  We will talk about stereotypes and prejudice as consequences of these structures and constraints.

There’s a lot of talk lately about “white men” being picked on, feeling threatened, as the only group it is safe to trash.  I think it may help up front if we try to see that every group in America feels this way right now.  We all feel stereotyped and put down for what we are.  We are all wanting to be appreciated for our unique individuality, at the same time as we want to be able to be proud of our background and roots.

Let’s just say up front that we all have group similiarities and differences.  All the whites, blacks, asians, hispanics, native americans in this class; all the men and women, all the heterosexuals and the gays and lesbians in the class; all the Christians, Jews, believers in other religions, and those who do not believe in any religion all want to say to everybody else in the room: Some of us come from wealthy families, and some of us come from poor families; some of us work long hours to support ourselves in school, and some of us are supported by our families; some of us have parents who went to college, and some of us are the first in our family to go to college; some of us are ignorant and prejudiced, and some of us have a lot of experience working with other racial and ethnic groups.  Many of us come from multi-racial families.  Some of us are conservative, some of us are liberal, some of us are radical, and some of us don’t care about politics at all.  Everybody in this class wants to say: please do not assume you know about me from superficial things like my skin color or my accent or my gender.

5.    There’s a cartoon that used to be on an office door upstairs that captures another important theme.  It shows a group of whites sitting around a living room and one person saying: “Why can’t we all ignore our differences and just get along?”  The next panel is a group of blacks sitting around a living room with one person saying: “Why can’t we all accept our differences and just get along?”  Almost everybody really wants to get along.  But there are emphases about whether we get along by ignoring our differences, or by accepting them.  And if we accept them, how can we accept difference in a way that doesn’t mean we think less of our own culture?

6.    All term we’ll want to be talking about structure and agency.  The US is a very individualized culture, and we tend to think that everything is a matter of being a good person.  We tend to imagine that if you have a good character and the right values, you can automatically transcend your race, or your class background.  As a sociologist, it is my job to teach you how much what you do and what you believe is a product of the particular circumstances you have grown up in.  At the same time, I do not want to deny agency.  People can and do make choices.  What I will show you, however, is that most significant social change happens by way of collective agency. [Draw picture: society as constraints, you make individual choices within the circle of constraints.  But collective agency is how you challenge the size and shape of the circle.]

7.    I also want you to be able to get a sense of history, a sense of where things come from.  Do you remember the beating of Rodney King in 1992?  And the LA riots that followed?  The meaning of the KKK.  Where affirmative action comes from.  Need to understand how past actions created present structures, and how the conflicts today are located in the context of what has come before.  We can be proactive and create a new future, but only if we are willing to look honestly at what has come before us.
8. Encourage students to speak up when they disagree. Talk about how we all are likely to get upset about something. Classroom rule of civility and listening.  No personal attacks. Try to understand what the other person is saying. If you find something upsetting, try to explain why. Students are encouraged to write in their daily journal comments [which I read after every class] if they are upset or concerned about something that happened in class.

9. Introduce me. [[In a small class, I encourage all the students to do similar introductions about themselves.  I don’t always have time for this on the first day, but I do stick in stories about my experiences throughout the term.]]  A little about me. I grew up in Torrance, 3rd largest city in LA county.  No blacks at the time I was there (through 1967).  They were being kept out explicitly; there were sit-ins and civil rights marches for integration after I left.  Quite a few Mexican Americans & Japanese Americans in my school.   All spoke English, little ethnic consciousness that I was aware of.  Civil rights movement was in the South.  Watts riot 1965.  Grandparents in the riot area.  College: read lots of black literature.  Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X required reading.  Took other courses.  Anti war movements, black power, black separatism.  More riots.  Grad school in the south.  Saw separate black, white waiting rooms; the shadows from the old white/colored signs still on the doors.  Memories of segregation were very vivid in the early 1970s.  In the south, people knew race discrimination was real.  In the newly integrated school, kids tried to get to know each other.  Traditional black areas of southern cities.  Louisville during the anti-bussing riots.  Neighborhood groups: people trying to be nonracist in a polarized climate.  This city seemed very white when I moved here.  It was.  Listening to the coded racism of the White areas.  I’m your basic guilty liberal.  Privileged.  Educated.  Now working on racial disparities, involvement in mixed-race groups. Teaching this class. I’ve learned a lot, but there is still a lot I don’t know.  Every time I teach this class, I learn from the students.

Ethnic Conflict: Them

My reading is full of racial/ethnic conflict these days.  Audible.com was featuring Nathan McCall’s Them: A Novel , which caught my eye as my mind was sensitized to issues of gentrification by David Wilson’s Cities and Race: America’s New Black Ghetto.   The story is told from the point of view of Barlowe Reed, a Black printer who lives with his ex-con pigeon-raising nephew in a rented house in Atlanta’s historic Old Fourth Ward, home of Martin Luther King.  The story follows the area as it is settled or invaded (depending on your viewpoint) by the so-called “urban pioneers” – that is, White yuppies searching for in-city housing bargains.  I could imagine teaching about the sociology of racial/ethnic conflict using this book.  And as many of Amazon’s reader comments say, it would make a great book club discussion book.  It is about the conflicts arising from wildly different backgrounds and experiences and the very real difficulties in bridging these differences.  The conflict is very much two-sided.  The Black residents don’t want the Whites there and try to get them to go away, with tactics ranging from a general refusal to speak to the Whites to muggings and thefts.   For their part, the Whites see themselves as racial liberals and integrationists, but enact largely-unconscious White racial supremacy as they take over the neighborhood, replacing local institutions with their own, and destroying people’s lives in the process. Continue reading “Ethnic Conflict: Them”

public sociology in farmtown: extracts from #4 white supremacy

I will get back to finish the Farmtown series.* As my last post in the series (#4, White Supremacy) was characterized by one friend as “the world’s longest blog,” by my spouse as “I know I said I liked the longer posts, but . . . ” and by another friend as “you don’t write blogs, you write articles,” I thought I’d pull out the incidents that I most wanted to share with others. If you waded through the long post, there is nothing new here. If not, these are the incidents I thought it was most important to share for discussion.

A Black professor in his sixties gives a lecture whose point is to explain how simple differences become schisms between people because of inequality. He then develops an example using the two white police officers sitting next to me that is an extended tale about what if you (white man) were always knocked down by her (white woman) every time she saw you, what would you do? The white man says “lash out” (most don’t hear him say it) but the speaker says that you’d just lie down to avoid being knocked down, and then goes on to say that you’d teach your children to just lie down and avoid the woman and her children, and the children would do it even if they did not know why. And, he says, the woman’s children would expect the other people to lie down, but not know why they are doing it. I find these different perceptions of how people respond to oppression to be important and telling. I think lashing out is what most whites do think the most common response to oppression is, not having actually experienced it. And even as much as I teach this stuff, I am struck by the speaker’s emphasis that you lie down to avoid being knocked down, and that you can teach that to the next generation. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown: extracts from #4 white supremacy”

public sociology in farmtown (4): white supremacy

Previous Farmtown #3 Next Farmtown #5 Index/List of Farmtown Series

(Shorter extract from this post if this is too long for you)

It is important to place this discussion in the context of the whole conference, so it you are new to this series, please check out the previous post. For a quick recap, I’m writing about a two-day conference on racial disparities in incarceration and education at a university in a rural area I call Farmtown. The previous post focused the first half of the first day and the ways information was brought into the group. This post focuses on the second part of the first day, which ran from 3:15 – 9pm.

Two Farmtown professors do the short version of a workshop they’ve done often before for white faculty at their institution on the ideology of white supremacy. The black social science professor goes first, and it is relevant to note that he is older, in his sixties. His title is “isms and schisms.” The point is about how demographic differences become structures of inequality. He talks about how people respond to experiences of discrimination and then asks people what they see when the imagine pictures of powerful groups (i.e. Congress, Supreme Court). We are supposed to say “white male.” I hear one of the officers next to me say something like “mostly white males with some women and a few blacks and latinos” to Congress, and for the Supreme Court says “mostly white men and a woman and a black man.” At the end of this exercise, he requires the white man to answer his “what do you see?” question, and the answer is “mostly white men.” I’m glad I’m not put on the spot like that. I learn later that the speaker always forces a white person to answer this question. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown (4): white supremacy”

teaching about race (me too)

Belle just offered her great post on teaching about race posted both here at Scatterplot and on her own blog, responding to pitse1eh’s blog. Both got great comments and useful links. This made me want to dust off my own essay on the subject. The core of this is an article I originally published in Feminist Voices, a Madison newspaper, in January of 1998. I’ve revised this several times since, including some revisions for this blog forum.

It is something of a truism among sociologists that the hardest thing to teach our students is the idea of social structure. The US has an extremely individualist culture, and we tend to think of race problems as reducible to individual choices, either blaming poor people for poverty and the consequences of poverty, or blaming prejudiced people for not being accepting of difference. It is very hard to get past this, and understand why we are in structures that shape these behaviors and attitudes. Continue reading “teaching about race (me too)”

new civil rights film

H/T to WOC PhD: http://profbw.wordpress.com/2008/05/05/racism-is-like-contaminated-soil/

I’ve used Eyes on the Prize in teaching for years, it is a great resource. But this new video, Dare Not Walk Alone, looks like it could be an excellent update. In addition to historical footage about the St. Augustine protests, it includes footage and interviews of current conditions. I’m eagerly awaiting a chance to see it. It is in theatrical release now. The web site includes a trailer and lots of background information, including the source of the film’s name, which is interviewee talking about needing to stay in groups to avoid White violence. There is also extensive discussion of why documentaries are so expensive to produce, because news organizations own old television footage and charge $100 a second for it. I remember that the long delay in re-releasing Eyes on the Prize was the music copyrights, now often held by large corporations.

the r-word

A lot of White folks think that a Black person calling someone or something racist is an insult, an attack on a person’s character and a slur that is just as hurtful and bad as the n-word. (This idea was more or less one of the main points in Permanent Collection, a play by Thomas Gibbons that I saw recently. More about that below.) Others who wouldn’t go that far think it is a way to stop a conversation, to put a White person on the defensive and give them no way to reply. I think this way of interpreting the r-word is both sociologically interesting and a big problem in its own right.

Overreaction to the r-word is a big problem in our schools. Some Black children have learned that they can get a big reaction out of naive White teachers who are disciplining them by calling the teacher racist. In one typical scenario, the White teacher backs off on disciplining the child until the child’s behavior is so out of control that she can justify kicking the child out of the classroom; in another, the teacher turns the whole thing into a conversation about trying to get the child to see how much the teacher’s feelings have been hurt by the name-calling. And parent-teacher conferences similarly fall apart – the teacher complains about the child, the parent says the teacher is being racist, and the teacher withdraws into a sullen angry silence, thinking “You are just playing the race card to avoid taking responsibility for your child.” But it is not just the schools, it is everywhere. You point to the vast disparities in Black and White arrest and imprisonment rates and say “this is racist,” and public officials say: “I treat everyone the same regardless of race. How dare you insult my integrity.” Even when the reactions are less extreme, many Whites just shut down when the r-word comes into play.
Continue reading “the r-word”