Confronting Prejudice

The word prejudice is derived from the idea of “pre-judging” something or someone before gathering sufficient information to make a measured opinion or decision. Prejudice based on race, color, gender, orientation, class, appearance, religion, national origin, accent, or any other characteristic incidental to human identity has plagued human society from its beginnings. I regularly told my students that a sound understanding of American history has to be grounded in a grasp of the fundamental issues of race and space. Confronting the reality of prejudice is a core element of our national story.

In 1968 my father accepted a faculty position at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was finishing the first grade in Columbus, Ohio at the time while he completed his doctoral degree in communications at Ohio State. I did not care for the harsh winters there and looked forward to a milder climate. We bought a new home in a comfortable neighborhood in suburban Raleigh and made our preparations for the move south. All went relatively smoothly and I was excited to start my second grade year in a new school with new friends.

We made the move and settled into our new home as the leaves of summer turned to fall. I enjoyed meeting the neighbor children and playing in the woods behind our house. On my first day of school, I stepped out onto the front driveway to get into our family car and immediately noticed an expression of consternation come over my father’s face as he looked at our front yard. There in the lawn was a dark, scorched patch of grass in the distinct shape of a cross.

I was about to celebrate my seventh birthday, and at that tender age I had no idea what the cross meant. My father explained to me that it was an expression of hate directed at him for being a white man employed at a black school. Shaw was among the historic black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and my father had been hired to help set up their academic media program and campus radio station. Our new neighbors were all white, and apparently some of the local kids had taken it upon themselves to teach the “damn Yankees” on their block a lesson.

The culprits were soon found out and their parents apologized, but the damage had been done. By the end of the school year we had moved to a different neighborhood, where I could associate freely with my best friend, the son of Shaw’s African American president. Racial tensions were high in Raleigh at the time. Civil rights champions Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been murdered only months earlier. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ordered the dismantling of racial discrimination, but the hateful legacy of Jim Crow lingered in intransigent attitudes and de facto segregation. Angry new movements like the Black Panthers were making their voices heard.

When I moved to California to finish high school in the late 1970s, I was surprised to witness similar prejudice directed at other minorities such as Latinos and Asian Americans. There was hostility toward undocumented immigrants and the use of the Spanish language in school and at the polls. Harvey Milk was assassinated during my senior year and conservative groups were publicly condemning homosexuality, affirmative action programs, and anyone who did not espouse their particular religious beliefs. Women were still largely subordinate to men in public life.

When I got to college I enrolled in seminars where issues of prejudice and discrimination were discussed in detail. I learned about the World War II internment of Japanese Americans and took classes in Chicano history and Native American religion and philosophy. Years later in seminary I participated in an anti-racism workshop in which racial prejudice was characterized as a disease. Like chemical dependency, it could be treated with counseling, education, and group therapy, but all of these methods required honesty and courage.

When I became a teacher in the late 1990s, I determined to adopt this approach to the study of history, government, and economics. My nine curriculum units in both United States and world history were structured to include cultural diversity and an unvarnished look at racism, sexism (including heterosexism), anti-immigrant movements, and religious intolerance. When we talked about firms and labor in economics, we looked at discrimination in hiring and workplace harassment. The use of gerrymandering to limit the power of the minority vote was part of our class discussions in government class.

I did encounter some resistance over the years. One parent objected to my teaching her daughter about Islam and other non-Christian faiths, despite state content standards that allowed for such instruction in 7th grade world history. Another felt I spent too much time on civil rights movements in 11th grade U.S. history. Others saw my instruction as too “politically correct” or somehow slanted against conservative views. I did my best to field such comments with as much patience and understanding as I could muster. But in the end, I had to stick by my convictions and the state content standards.

Political disagreement and conflicting views of history will always be a part of public discourse, including in school. As a social science teacher, your task is to present the material in a comprehensive manner and allow students to engage that material in as many different ways as possible. But neither should the social disease of racism and other forms of prejudice be sugarcoated. Discrimination remains a dysfunctional reality in the midst of our democratic society and market economy. Confronting denial is the first step in achieving recovery and justice for all.

Our classrooms include students of all imaginable cultural backgrounds who come from homes where many different languages are spoken. They profess a variety of gender identities and express themselves in a myriad of learning styles and artistic representations. Anything teachers can do to encourage tolerance and dialogue will help in the ongoing process of academic and personal development. Shame, ridicule, superiority, humiliation, and exclusion are hurtful behaviors which must be kept out of your class in whatever way works best for you.

Prejudice has no place in American ideals and does not belong in our schools and other public institutions. Our Constitution was founded on the principle of equal opportunity, and its various amendments have been added to expand the range of that opportunity throughout American history. The way we structure our social science curriculum must reflect this principle. These issues can be explored effectively in writing assignments, lecture and discussion, Socratic seminars, and the use of guest speakers from the community.

Your students depend on you for a balanced view of the past and present. Teach them to listen and keep an open mind. Equipped with these skills, they can begin to set goals for themselves to achieve a promising future.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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