Racism: A Rearguard Action of an Obsolescent Culture

by Rick on July 20, 2019

You wouldn’t understand. You’re white
Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I don’t understand.

The two people who spoke these words were fourteen, 27 years ago. They were eighth graders at my school in Oakland, California, when the Rodney King verdict came down.

I was going through old documents, yesterday, and saw my article that the Montclarion had published in May of 1992. When I read the article again, I got a small burst of hope. Yes, the racism that has laced our country from its inception is still with us, and yet when I zoom out and look at where we have come since 1992, I see a road, and I see millions of people walking it. Yes, it may have to get worse before it gets better, but the younger generation won’t stand for it.

Our Culture Creates the Behavior We HateOn April 30, 1992, our educational philosophy, our theories, our strategy was put to the test as the ugliness of the real world came home to our school in a way that was far more serious than the October fire in the Oakland hills last fall. Not only had many of our students witnessed on TV the horror of extraordinary violence, murder, and chaos, but the older ones of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds were confronted with what they saw as an unbelievable miscarriage of justice, an injustice which shook their trust in our nation. Their feelings of insecurity, hurt and outrage came to visit our school on Thursday morning, April 30.

It was one of the proudest moments of my educational career, partly because we were ready. I gave no instructions to the faculty. We needed no meeting or assembly beforehand to address the issues. I simply clipped the appropriate articles from my two morning papers and went to school. I put the articles in the appropriate teachers’ boxes and went back home to help get my children ready for school.

When I returned, several teachers and many students were standing out in front as usual, but this time the older ones were already talking about the verdict that exonerated four policemen of beating a motorist 56 times for over a minute.

I told some of the teachers that I had put the articles in their boxes in case they needed them. The Middle School teachers quickly reorganized, revising their schedules to discuss what was on everyone’s mind. The two seventh-grades met together for an hour-and-a-half lesson that the teachers had repaired on the spur of the moment. The eighth-grades did the same.

I was blessed to observe as thirty-two 14-year-olds (15 whites, 13 blacks, 4 Asians) sat in the circle with two of their teachers and read the articles that had been distributed. The class made a list of all the facts they could glean from the articles, and then the discussion began.

The students discussed our system of justice and law enforcement: theory and practice, violence and counter-violence, racism, poverty, urban problems, disempowerment, alienation.

-“The governor of California just declared a state of emergency. I think that the state of emergency has been going on for 200 years.”
-“Of course, racism was the cause of the injustice. Do you really think the same thing would have happened if four black policemen had beaten a white man like that?”
-“Well, I don’t see how twelve jurors could have all been racists; both attorneys had to agree on all 12.”
-(teacher)“If you were the attorney for Rodney King, what questions would you ask to determine if a prospective juror were a racist?”

The discussion was not merely academic. The students were talking about personal issues, too. And another source of pride for me was the harmony between our formal and informal (read real) curriculum.

Sure, if I’d been there I’d have dragged that white man from the car and beaten him, too.”
“Really? You think that kind of violence is justified?”
“Can any violence be justified?”
“You wouldn’t understand. You’re white.”
“Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I don’t understand.”
“Blacks aren’t the only ones shocked by what happened; I’m white, and I agree with you.”
“Yeah, but it’s different.”
“No, it’s just the same.”
“Yes, Race is a factor in my relationships. I am not as close to you as I thought I was because her skins are different colors burst not fair.”

The national issues were personal issues. The students spoke from the heart; they spoke earnestly; they said hard things to each other; they listened; they expressed their feelings clearly; they constructed their arguments thoughtfully; they responded to each other in a disciplined way. The community held.

There were times when boundaries of civility were crossed, but in the end, the mutual respect that normally characterized their relationships held.

We seemed to share a sorrowful, profound sense that we are all in this together, and that the horrors outside can happen inside, if we are not careful, disciplined, responsible, compassionate, just, steadfast, sober and prepared.

It was an hour of shared feelings, arguing, and confronting. This was not mere textbook learning. This was learning about democracy-in-action, not only “out there,” but in ways that touched us where we live.

Of course, they acquired more of those skills and knowledge necessary for full participation in American democracy, but more deeply, they lost a little of their innocence.

I was happy that we had taken one more step down the long road toward mutual understanding between black and white and those with whom we differ, but I was proudest of the students. They revealed that they had met our highest educational objectives. I went to graduation with the knowledge that we were matriculating 32 young men and women whose characters will make a positive difference in the world.

Today, when I hear on the news the horrors of the reality that our country is still laced with the racism that it was born with, it breaks my heart. That one step that a few dozen eighth graders took 27 years ago was no small step, and yet listening to the Democratic debate I am discouraged at how bad some of our leaders are at dealing with difference. Damn. That road is very long and very winding and climbing a very high mountain.

But then I zoom out and do the math. I see that

  • St. Paul’s has been graduating about 40 students like these for the last 27 years,
  • there are several thousand schools that have been doing the same thing for a generation,
  • they keep graduating more and more young people of all races who are good at turning conflict into mutual learning,
  • these several million young people can be counted on to thwart racism wherever it rears its ugly head,
  • by now they have had a positive influence on, maybe, a hundred people each,
  • as they do, they continue to hone their skills.
    So, we are talking, maybe, a hundred million of people who are somewhat skilled at democracy, and whose heads are not in the sand. That is not nothing.

Trump has brought the racists out of the closet, and we can see this behavior for what it really is: a rearguard action of an obsolescent culture.

 

 

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Elizabeth Ackerly July 21, 2019 at 9:53 pm

Thank you for finding this and reminding us of the road we walk together. We know big shift in consciousness takes everyone of every corner doing their part. It’s nice to at least start looking at the numbers of St Paul’s influence. I like that math. It does put the 2020 race and our daily police brutality endemic into perspective. Each one of us 100 million must do our part. “It’s the math of small numbers” as Ms Porter says. 💕

Lyn Chivvis July 25, 2019 at 6:05 pm

Great description of “democracy-in-action” and also a community in action. Building a community is part of the democracy-in-action and what you describe is a wonderful, supportive, and respectful community.

Tracy Kirkham August 19, 2019 at 8:21 pm

It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by the resurgence of an acceptance of racism in this country, but you are right, there is an army of young people who were “raised right” and educated well out there too. And that isn’t nothing. It may just be everything.

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