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‘Because Race Can’t Be Ignored’

By Zoe Burkholder — October 23, 2007 6 min read
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“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This is how the chief justice of the United States, John G. Roberts Jr., cites the colorblind ideal to explain why American schools may no longer consider a student’s race as a factor in school placement. In his majority opinion in the case striking down volunatry integration plans in Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., which was handed down on June 28, Chief Justice Roberts contends that any policy that identifies children on the basis of their race is destructive. And, in a sense, he is right. Any policy that requires sorting individuals into racial categories reinforces the notion that “race” is real, while scientists tell us there is no such thing.

Chief Justice Roberts seems unaware, however, that Americans have already tried the colorblind approach in schools. The result of this earlier attempt was not that educators became blind to human diversity in terms of biological race, but that they became unable to see racism for the destructive and potent form of power that it is. History suggests that, instead of ignoring the implications of race in education theory and practice, we should look much more carefully at how the socially constructed notion of “race” functions to destroy educational equality in our public schools.

History tells us that the colorblind ideal fails to function as a practical strategy to improve race relations or mitigate discrimination through our public schools.

The ideal of a colorblind education system has had, since the end of World War II, an enduring claim on the American political imagination. Citing logic that sounded exactly like the chief justice’s reasoning today, social scientists in the postwar era argued that only by ignoring race in schools could we ever undermine the scourge of racism in future citizens. As the anthropologist Ruth Benedict instructed English teachers in 1946: “Americans will never be rid of race prejudice until we are able to drop our group labels, which ignore all that really matters, and learn to judge each person as he really is—mean or kindly, reliable or irresponsible, sane or fanatical.”

The colorblind ideal is incredibly seductive. But history tells us that it fails to function as a practical strategy to improve race relations or mitigate discrimination through our public schools. This becomes evident when we consider the relationship between policy and practice in American educational history.

When Brown v. Board of Education made it illegal to segregate public school students by race in 1954, it also ushered in the first specifically colorblind pedagogy in American history. A little known fact in the country’s educational history is that during and immediately after the Second World War, American schools taught explicit lessons on racial and religious tolerance. This anti-prejudice pedagogy, developed in response to Nazism, asked students to learn a scientific and egalitarian definition of human race. Lessons on the biological equality of human beings engendered discussions of the social inequality of racial minorities in America.

In New York City in 1943, for instance, Public School 6 staged a musical titled “Meet Your Relatives” that set anthropological facts about racial equality to the tune of the Western swing song “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” In Ohio, a teacher dressed his white students in blackface and had them put on a play illustrating the rise of “the Negro” from slavery to the present, a performance he believed would teach them to empathize with African-Americans. In California and Pennsylvania, students interviewed local Chinese-Americans and Mexican-Americans and then created a special display of Chinese and Mexican material culture. In Missouri and Delaware, white students attending racially segregated schools visited black schools, churches, and social clubs, and then invited black students and community leaders back to the white schools to discuss race relations. In thousands of American classrooms in the 1940s, students and teachers pondered the biological definition of race and the social implications of racism.

Just as American teachers were mastering new strategies to help students learn about race and racism, however, the Cold War put an end to critical lessons on racial difference. Meanwhile, psychologists began insisting that the best way to reduce prejudice was not to talk about race, but the opposite, to downplay the subject of race and instead encourage racial integration. Dwelling on the subject of racial difference in terms of scientific definitions, special exhibits, and panels on race relations suddenly seemed potentially counterproductive and even dangerous. As a teacher from New Jersey reflected, “The Negroes are still being singled out as a group different, peculiar, apart.” Far better, educators rationalized, not to single anyone out at all.

The prestige that multiculturalism once enjoyed is waning—but this does not mean that anti-racist education is dead.

The goal of social activists in the early 1950s was racial integration, understood as the most effective strategy to combat racial prejudice through American institutions. School integration, moreover, was intrinsically colorblind, as it refused to consider race as a factor in admission. Following the ideal of colorblind education to its logical conclusion, American schools in the 1950s refused to discuss the subject of race in the classroom. As an administrator in New York reflected: “It has been our experience that the popular approach to teaching programs where color, religion, minority groups, etc., are often referred to only makes boys and girls unnecessarily conscious of differences. We teach good manners.”

Schools thus stopped encouraging meaningful discussion of human diversity and instead required all students to exhibit “good manners” in their interracial relations. Teachers insisted minority students perform proper etiquette by conforming to white middle-class cultural norms. For their part, white students were instructed to stop using racial epithets, no longer acceptable among “educated” American citizens. In this way, the colorblind ideal in education mystified and obscured the enduring realities of racism in America.

Amazingly, it took more than three decades for Americans to reflect on the tragedy of the colorblind approach in education. When the futility of colorblind pedagogy combined with the stubborn endurance of racially segregated schools became evident in the 1980s, activists once again developed lesson plans on racial equality. In this context, multiculturalism came back stronger and more theoretically rigorous than its predecessor in the 1940s. Recently, however, developments in multiculturalism have left many educators frustrated by the endurance of racism and suspicious that multiculturalism has been co-opted by the religious right, claiming protection as an oppressed minority “culture.”

The prestige that multiculturalism once enjoyed is waning—but this does not mean that anti-racist education is dead. On the contrary, educators are poised to launch a new and more effective educational directive against racism, one that focuses on teaching students the biological equality of all human beings while emphasizing the social construction of race in America. Academics have been theorizing these developments in journals and at conferences in the past few years, and one good product of this work can be seen at the American Anthropological Association’s Web site understandingrace.org.

If history is any guide, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative attack on racially integrated schools will usher in a new era of critical race teaching, promoting the kind of transformative knowledge that generates a paradigmatic shift in racial ideologies in America.

Liberal activists from the 1940s later realized that ignoring race hardly helped solve the problem of racism. Speaking to the novelist James Baldwin in 1970, the renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead reflected on her own civil rights activism of the 1940s:

“I was speaking in those days about three things we had to do,” she explained. “Appreciate cultural differences, respect political and religious differences, and ignore race.”

Baldwin replied, thoughtfully, “Ignore race. That certainly seemed perfectly sound and true.”

“Yes, but it isn’t anymore. You see, it really isn’t true. This was wrong, because—” stammered Mead.

“Because race can’t be ignored,” finished Baldwin.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2007 edition of Education Week

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