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Dialogue on Race: The Rules of Engagement

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For those educators serious about taking up President Clinton's call for a yearlong dialogue on race, and I imagine some schools will take up this important challenge, one reality is extremely clear: Others have traveled this path before, and it is perhaps foolhardy not to take the marked trail.

The list of organizations already addressing Mr. Clinton's challenge is a long one. Groups such as the National Association for Multicultural Education, the National Coalition of Education Activists, the Network of Educators on the Americas, Rethinking Schools, Teaching Tolerance, Facing History and Ourselves, the Anti-Defamation League, and the National Conference of Christians and Jews stand ready to actively assist educators in a variety of ways to get the race dialogue started and continued. The last thing I wish to do, however, is mislead readers into thinking that a simple telephone call to an organization will solve the race problem. It won't.

Based on my work at the Teaching Tolerance project in Montgomery, Ala., as both a research fellow and a consultant, I know that, at those schools and communities where racial tolerance is the norm--and this, after all, is the point to any race dialogue--talking is not the only thing going on. There are other factors at work, essential principles ensuring that the dialogue is not an end in itself. I offer these principles as the "rules of engagement" for any national conversation about race:

  • Rule 1: There is a commitment to work hard. Getting to better times, and staying there, is never easy. In those schools and communities were racial tolerance is the norm and racism is held in check (I'm not so sure we can ever completely eradicate it), this is not just the result of a moral commitment to do it--no one is really against this--but also of a commitment to lots of hard emotional work. This hard emotional work causes people to argue and scream, perhaps even cry. Take, for example, the weekend retreats sponsored by the National Conference called "Anytown." This is a program designed to get teenagers engaged in a dialogue on race. It is not possible to witness or take part in this program without coming away from it repeating that old adage, "No pain, no gain." There is lots of pain on display at these intense sessions. Yet the students taking part walk away with real skills to continue and expand the dialogue.
  • Rule 2: There is a commitment to the long term, not the short term. Let's make it perfectly clear that this commitment to lots of hard emotional work is also a very serious commitment, not something that can be put away after a feel-good session of venting frustrations. The story of Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, Calif., illustrates this point. ("Diversity 101," June 25, 1997.) After spending four hard, emotionally trying years struggling to help Menlo-Atherton students overcome racial barriers and tensions, those involved in the school's unusual, parent- and student-inspired diversity efforts are modest in their assessment of its impact. Most confess that what they have done is, as one teacher puts it, "just a start."
  • Rule 3: The race dialogue requires the proper historical context. It is impossible to engage in a productive discussion of race without all participants having a proper and informed respect for its historical context. For example, it is hard for me to imagine a white-black dialogue in this country that does not include conversations about slavery or Jim Crow laws. Yet this is where most whites get uncomfortable and often the dialogue either breaks down ("My relatives didn't own slaves!") or changes focus ("What about Louis Farrakhan?"). Consider for a moment the Massachusetts-based, nonprofit teacher in-service organization and approach to teaching about the Holocaust called Facing History and Ourselves. This group's marvelous curriculum achieves what it does because the dialogue about the Holocaust is placed within the proper historical context. The roles that anti-Semitism and racism played in the Holocaust are not confined to the narrow history of World War II itself. To gain a deeper understanding of how such a human cataclysm could happen, participants go back in time and explore the European roots of anti-Semitism.

Likewise, to understand where this nation is today with regard to racism requires an adequate review of history. It cannot be avoided.

  • Rule 4: Talking eventually means doing. Just weeks after President Clinton posed his challenge to the nation, newspaper op-ed pages dripped with cynicism. Like all cynics, these voices sought to deprive us of even the chance to fail in a noble pursuit. But they were right on one score: It is time to move beyond just talking about race. I believe that one of the most effective means to move beyond the talking stage is community service--good, old-fashioned doing.
Understanding and imagining others must not be pushed aside or critiqued as simple-minded multiculturalist mumbo-jumbo.

In his book An Aristocracy of Everyone, Benjamin Barber makes a strong and passionate argument for the value of community service and its potential to eliminate racism. He writes, "An experiential learning process that includes both classroom learning and group work outside the classroom has the greatest likelihood of impacting on student ignorance, intolerance, and prejudice." Programs like the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn., and City Year in Boston are great examples of what happens when young participants from racially diverse backgrounds come together to work on common problems in projects such as voter-registration drives, transportation projects for the elderly, food co-ops, housing-renovation projects, or peer-tutoring programs. What happens in these programs is not magic or automatic, but the potential for understanding others is enhanced tenfold when more than just talking is going on.

Understanding and imagining others must not be pushed aside or critiqued as simple-minded multiculturalist mumbo-jumbo. After all, this is the point to starting the race dialogue. In her book For Love of Country, Harvard University professor Elaine Scarry writes, "The human capacity to injure other people has always been much greater than its ability to imagine other people. Or perhaps we should say, the human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our capacity to imagine other people is very small."

When done right, race talk can increase our capacity to imagine others. Who among us would argue against such a social value? Such a democratic ideal?

Joseph A. Hawkins is an evaluation specialist working for the Montgomery County, Md., public schools. He spent 1992-93 as a teaching fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project in Montgomery, Ala.

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