The current crises in over racial education in primary school leave me without a response. The voices I hear speak the language of extremism on both sides, are irreconcilable, so will lead to nothing but name-calling. I think back on my own racial education; I don’t remember not knowing that the nation has always been split on the question of race, though I don’t remember much about my primary education. In fact, don’t remember anything called social or political science until high school. Growing up in Chicago’s South Side, I do, of course, remember the dividing lines between black and white sections of town—and accepted that as the way things were. Those meager memories bring up at least three major questions that aren’t being asked: 1) what age are we talking about; 2) how much real contact with other races do the children have, and 3) what is the goal?
When my husband and I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, we landed happenstance in an integrated backwater—a mixture of races and people that had moved, for whatever reason, from the class and race-bound neighborhoods across the river. The university’s international graduate student housing was also located in that school district. When we looked for a house to buy the next year, we decided that that mix of people suited us just fine. Over the years, we would fight for preservation of the natural areas of the neighborhood and against discriminatory real estate practices that threatened its diversity. More and more we became convinced that this was the world we wanted our children to grow up in.
When the civil rights movement arose, however, the university and town suddenly became aware of our diversity, and newly minted teachers arrived, eager to preach race. Suddenly, African American friends of our second grader were attacking her with erasers during recess, and our once-eager student was refusing to get out of her pajamas. What was the goal? Guilt? Integration or further segregation? Understanding or retribution? At what age can children deal with questions that have plagued adults for centuries?
The answer to this, of course, depends on what is taught and how it is presented, both of which are worth essays (or books) of their own, but it surely also varies with the age and experience of both teacher and students. My daughter’s second-grade teacher lacked experience with either the classroom or the racial experience of her students.
On the other hand, when I was introduced to American sociology and history in high school, it opened up the world for me. For the first time, I saw my family, my city, my country as carriers of a set of beliefs, attitudes and habits of one culture among many. It’s not an overstatement to say it set my mind free, and I was more than ready to embrace new views of the world and new peoples. I have to believe this was the perfect age to study different peoples and cultures. Perhaps children today are ready much earlier, but I can’t help but be struck by the difference between my introduction to racial studies and my seven-year-old’s, especially when we’d deliberately raised her in an integrated world.
Is the goal understanding and integration, or guilt and separation? African American leaders, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, split on this question during the civil rights movement. I rarely hear this conflict mentioned today, and for me it is critical. King’s vision was of one integrated country, Malcolm X’s was of two. Malcolm X viewed racism as an incurable and unchangeable blockade, and argued that blacks should separate themselves from it and create their own separate domain. King’s was a vision of hope; Malcolm X saw hope only in separation from the racist culture. I’m permanently biased toward King’s view, and when I look back on the years since the civil rights movement, I see a radically changed culture on one side and a clinging to the past on the other. Is this predicament the cause or the result of racism or extremism? Those are probably questions no one wants to tackle, but after living through sixty years of “conscious-raising,” the Sixties version of “wokeness,” I can assure you that guilt eventually falls on deaf ears.