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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Stirring the Waters of Racism

As a middle school teacher in an urban/suburban school (half our kids are bused in from downtown), I see a lot of racial interaction by young people. Much of the time, this is encouraging. I can report with confidence that the vast majority of middle schoolers in Fort Wayne, Indiana know that it's wrong to be racist. I have yet to meet a teenager who would assert that one race is inferior to another. This is great as far as it goes, but there's more to the story.

There exists a great degree of ethnic animus, though race itself has little to do with it. Race is coincidentally attached to the animus, but is not its cause. What has occurred in our society is that we have used racial labels to distinguish between cultures. This has led to completely normal differences in personality preference gaining racial overtones.

Let me explain via example. A Caucasian student of mine, after class let out, quietly approached me and asked for her seat to be changed. I asked why, and she replied, "Well, I'm sitting in the middle of a lot of black kids and I don't like it."

"What do you mean?" I asked, hoping she would say something less appalling.

"I just don't like black kids. They're loud and annoying," was her response.

I thought for a moment. I had to admit that the specific students she sat near were indeed loud and annoying. I was constantly correcting their behavior in class, and phone calls home had zero effect. No matter how engaging the lesson might be, even during activities they really seemed to enjoy, they would be loud and unruly. I then thought of another African-American student in the same class.

"What about Alexia?" I asked. "You two work really well together."

"That's different, Mr. Palmer. She's not that kind of black person. She's normal," was the reply.

That student's opinion is quite similar to the confusion many young people have about what it means to be black, white, Hispanic, or whatever. Certain personality and behavioral traits have become associated, at least in common parlance, with certain races. If you find certain behaviors aggravating, there is a danger of assuming you dislike the race people mistakenly associate with that behavior.

What is worse, young people all too often typecast themselves in the same negative modes. To be "authentically" black, some people believe they have to be dismissive of authority, loud, and inappropriate in public. To behave calmly and in a civilized fashion is seen as acting "white." The use of standard English is seen as inauthentic as well by many. The year I began teaching in Oakland, California was the year after the Ebonics program was abandoned. It not only failed to raise achievement, but it also came from an assumption that urban black youth were so out of the mainstream that their slang qualified as a foreign language. From the mouth of a conservative radio host, this would have engendered a righteous fury from the halls of academia. Coming from an African-American administrator, it was heralded as the dawn of a new day by the Left.

America still suffers from some massive racism. This is not hate-related, however. It is not even conscious most of the time. It has nevertheless permeated nearly all aspects of society. It is the soft, subtle racism of low expectations, and it's deadly.