In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled, in a landmark decision, that segregation in schools and in society was unconstitutional. It would take another twenty years to integrate schools. In the meantime an entire Civil Rights movement occurred and even a Civil Rights Act, all with the intent that previously second class citizens could have equal rights and equal protection under the law. Did it do some good? Of course it did. But if you think true equality has been achieved, you haven’t been watching the news for the last year and a half. There are actually people who would tell you that racism died with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Those people would be white. Then there are some who will admit there is a problem and throw up their hands with the attitude that nothing can be done about this. It’s just what we do. Racism will always exist. It’s human nature. I say that’s bullshit. I’ve seen proof of it. Here’s the primary reason racism continues.
But first, we need to clarify something. Everyone has bias. It’s hard not to. I have a positive bias for the New Orleans Saints. I love my team. I have a favorite. I might also have a bit of disdain—a negative bias—for the Atlanta Falcons. That comes with the territory. I also have a bias for my own family. I’d generally make my own family a priority in most cases. Who wouldn’t? Everyone has bias. It’s not even out of the question to prefer to hang around people with similar ethnic, cultural, or religious particulars. Prejudice, however, is a strong negative bias against a group of people with some kind of commonality. It lumps everyone in that group together, regardless of a person’s individuality. Combined with unfair stereotypes and assumptions about everyone in that group, prejudice becomes a strong negative attitude that breeds hatred and can lead to discrimination, which is prejudice-based action against members of that group. It assumes the worst in people, rather than the best.
Racism, however, takes on a different social dynamic. Racism occurs under the social framework of the powerful and the powerless. This dynamic exists throughout society. Bosses and workers. Teachers and students. Parents and children. There are people or groups in power. They want to stay in power. So they do what they can to maintain the status quo and remain dominant. The wealthy want to preserve their wealth and influence. Politicians concern themselves with reelection. Teachers enact rules and consequences to maintain order in their classrooms. With racism, there is a dominant cultural, racial, social, or religious group who seeks to maintain that status quo. Muslims, in some countries, are intolerant of Jews or Christians. In South Africa, the minority white population has historically sought to restrict the rights of blacks. In the US, you could be a minority in a certain neighborhood and be singled out for racism; white in a black neighborhood, black in a Hispanic neighborhood, and so on. And of course, there are plenty of white Americans in our country who seek to restrict the rights of black, Hispanic, Muslim, and even Native American groups.
Whether we’re talking about prejudice, discrimination, or racism, there is one thing in common with all of it. It’s indoctrinated. It’s taught. What you learn about people of other groups depends on one’s environment. That doesn’t mean that a person brought up with prejudice can’t change their minds. That decision to evolve one’s viewpoint also is a product of environment. As an educator, I’ve taught in a variety of these environments. Personally, I was schooled in a small, all-white private school in a little south Louisiana town. I went to college with thirty thousand people of all kinds of racial and ethnic backgrounds. I have taught in 100% black schools in impoverished neighborhoods. I have taught in predominantly white suburban schools. But currently, I teach in a school situated in the most richly diverse neighborhoods you can imagine. Every day, I teach white, black, Latino, Muslim, Catholic, Mormon, Native American, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Buddhist, Bengali, Arab, German, British, Hmong, Laotian, Samoan, Tongan, gay, straight, transgender, and Jewish kids. And I’m just scraping the surface. Do you know what I don’t see a lot of in my school? Racism. Prejudice. Bullying. Discrimination. These kids all grow up together. They see each other as people, and only people. No one is vying for dominance as a group. There is no us or them. No status quo. Everyone gets to be unique, and everyone gets along despite the differences in view, culture, language, and creed.
This has taught me that de facto segregation in our country is one of the primary culprits in perpetuating hate and prejudice. When legal segregation ended, and schools were beginning to integrate, the white population responded by founding all-white private schools. People uprooted their families and moved further out into what became the suburbs. They could afford it. Black and Latino families couldn’t. These white families took with them their superior consumer buying power and their businesses. Job opportunities and tax dollars left these minority families and ensured that these low income slums became more desperate. Desperation breeds crime. Suddenly dads start going to jail, leaving single-parent households with less income. People sell drugs to get extra cash because the Quickie Mart doesn’t pay worth a shit, and so addiction rises. Prostitution becomes rampant, and then so do STDs. Without an adequate tax base, there is no money to properly staff and furnish schools. Thus begins the cycle.
Neighborhoods are now often segregated by race and ethnicity. They develop their own culture. People grow up with different states of mind and different values. In poor, minority neighborhoods, survival takes priority. These are people that have never seen education better a person’s life. They have never seen a school or a teacher who truly cares about their students. You have to do what you have to do to survive. That’s life. In the suburbs, kids are raised with relative privilege. Good schools, a path to college, a new cell phone for their birthday, and access to healthcare. Wealthy kids are raised with yet another set of conditions and values. With these values come attitudes about the world, about life, and about people outside of their own communities. One person might be raised in an all-white area and taught to view black people as lazy, ignorant, thieving, welfare leaches. He or she might be taught to call these people all kinds of horrible things. They tell racist jokes rife with stereotypes. They avoid black people in the supermarket. They avoid any unnecessary contact. Another person might be raised in an all-black neighborhood across town. The grandparents still remember the days of open racism. They remember the fire hoses and segregation. They remember being specifically targeted by outright racist police officers. They remember what people called them to their faces. They teach their kids, and their kids teach their kids. They teach that those white people across town don’t care about you. The cops don’t care about you, and will even target you over anyone else. No one will ever lift a finger for your well-being. YOUR LIFE DOESN’T MATTER. Sometimes they’re right. But that’s not the real problem.
The real problem is that people are indoctrinated without any way to challenge that upbringing. Segregation limits who you grow up around. It limits contact with people that are different from yourself. You grow up with stereotypes for other groups, and all it takes is even the occasional example of truth in them to confirm what you have always been taught. A person needs long-lasting exposure to people of different groups to undo the prejudice and hatred that is often learned from birth. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it work. I’ve experienced this myself. I am one of those people. My mind has changed gradually over the years. The more people of diverse backgrounds I talk to and come to understand, the more clearly I see. The longer we segregate ourselves and shy away from diversity, the longer our problems persist. Look beyond your biases and your cultural indoctrination. People are people, and yes there are bad ones. But if we are to defeat the division and achieve unity—black, white, cop, civilian—we must cast aside all notions of us and them. Come to know your brothers and sisters. Spend time with people of differing backgrounds and viewpoints. Converse with people who disagree with you. Open your mind to someone else’s perspective. Start today. Please…hurry up.