In D.C. public high schools this fall, American history classes will likely include discussions about the killing of nine black churchgoers last week by a white Confederate sympathizer. What lessons should students take away from the Charleston, S.C., “Prayer Meeting Massacre,” as the racist attack has been called?
“Our job is to teach students how to think critically about the world around them and about their position in the world,” said Robert Simmons, the school system’s chief of innovation and research. By bringing Charleston into the curriculum, he said, “we want students to better understand the moral and ethical dimensions of race and racism in America, and how their present world has been shaped by the past.”
I support that effort. Here are a few thoughts about race that I’d like to hear students discuss:
Two studies of millennials – the generation just ahead of the high school students – included some disturbing findings about whites. A 2014 General Social Survey showed that more than 3 out of 10 whites born between 1980 and the early 2000s believe that blacks are lazy and less intelligent than whites. Moreover, a 2015 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 63 percent of white millennials believe the country is on the wrong track.
That’s a lot of dissatisfaction and no small amount of racial prejudice in the largest cohort of the largest generation in America. White millennials are now assuming leadership positions throughout the U.S. workforce and will soon be doing most of the hiring and firing.
That certainly wouldn’t seem to bode well for black millennials.
But get this: The same PRRI survey found that 71 percent of black millennials say the country is moving in the right direction. Other polls have shown that while black millennials believe racism exists, they don’t regard it as a major obstacle to achieving their goals.
So, here’s the question: Are black millennials being naive? Or, do they know something about white millennials that these attitude surveys are missing?
Of course, there is no doubt that some black millennials are woefully unprepared for that rude awakening – the sudden, out-of-the-blue racist encounter. Harvard-educated New York lawyer Lawrence Otis Graham recently wrote that his son was devastated after being called a racial slur. Martese Johnson, an honor student at the University of Virginia, expressed utter shock and disbelief at being bloodied and wrongly taken into custody by state Alcoholic Beverage Control police.
Are black high school students any better prepared for a world where the legacy of slavery is “still part of our DNA,” as President Obama recently put it?
Racism in the DNA suggests that a poison courses through every fiber of our being. If we cannot cure it, can we at least inoculate ourselves against its most harmful effects? For black people, that would mean ending the self-hatred that has resulted in an epidemic of homicides going back decades.
To white high school students, there is a passage in a book by James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” published in 1963: “The white man’s unadmitted – and apparently, to him, unspeakable – private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself.”
What do you think that means?
Hint: It doesn’t mean getting a tan. Or using the N-word as a term of endearment. It could mean getting involved in a multiracial coalition that promotes justice and equal opportunities. You don’t have to change your skin color, just your heart.
Do high school students have a vision for the kind of America they want to live in? If so, it probably doesn’t include having an armed 21-year-old white segregationist trying to start a race war by killing black people at a prayer meeting.
What will you do to make the country better?
Is it enough to lower a Confederate flag in a flurry of political expediency? Or would it be better to put in the work required to eradicate racism and, in doing so, raise the American flag a little higher?