Race is on
No one really believed it‹the claim made by some commentators in the wake of
electing our first African-American president that we are now living in a
post-racial society. The myths and realities of race are just too deeply
ingrained in our history, and we have learned them too well. Even if we no
longer believe race is an essential biological category--that it is a
historical and social construction, a surrogate for class conflict and
political oppression--it is difficult, and not even desirable, to imagine its
erasure, even as we seek to progress in our understanding of it. "Race" is
too stubborn an American fact.
But many did believe that President Obama's overcoming of the racialist
hysteria that emerged during his campaign was a moment of cultural
awakening. The rumormongering about his real birthplace and citizenship in
the face of evidence to the contrary, the repeated broadcast of incendiary
comments by his pastor calling into question the candidate's patriotism, the
emphasis on the candidate's "foreign" middle name, and even the debates
about whether he was black enough--all this seemed, for at least a moment,
calmed and overcome by the candidness of his nationally televised speech on
race. That speech, brilliant in its refusal to condescend or oversimplify,
elevated both the national discourse and the candidate, offering a wake-up
call to all of us about the realities of race in American life.
But not for long.
In the past year the first Latina Supreme Court nominee was accused during
her review by the Senate of being racist for having once promoted the value
of underrepresented women's perspectives in the courts. Politicians are now
arguing that the 14th Amendment of the Constitution should be repealed
because it invites and protects the invasion of "terror babies," with whom
Arab terrorists are supposedly infiltrating our population. The debate we
have heard over immigration in Arizona (and elsewhere) often seemed more
invested in generating suspicion due to the color of one's skin and the
language one speaks than in developing a just and reasonable public policy
on a complicated issue. Cab drivers in New York have been stabbed for
looking "too Arabic." A community center proposed by moderate American
Muslims near the place where we may most need one has been regarded as a
terrorist plot rather than a gesture of reconciliation.
Fear and mistrust around the subject of race have been part of American life
since our very founding--from slavery and Jim Crow, to the Indian Wars and
the Yellow Scare, to the Japanese internment and anti-Semitism, to the
hypocrisies of segregation and the "separate but equal" doctrine that
eventually led to the modern civil rights movement.
Whose responsibility is it to teach us the lessons of our past and remind us
of the principles on which our nation rests? Anyone who values liberty can
and should speak out in defense of the fundamental American principle that
all men and women are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable
But our educational institutions must take the lead and do what we were
founded to do: seek truth and teach. In this, as in any area of inquiry, our
colleges and universities are called upon to challenge ignorance and
prejudice with fact and information, engage the hard questions of policy and
principle in good faith and without fear, and replace rumor with reason and
scandal with scrutiny. "Knowledge--that is, education in its true sense--is
our best protection against unreasoning prejudice and panic-making fear,"
said Franklin Roosevelt during another crisis for our democracy.
At Puget Sound, we are committed to creating a culture of diversity and
inclusion, not just in our classrooms and laboratories but in the public
square, on the stage, in the halls of government, and in the institutions
and policies that govern us as people and as a nation, here and abroad. As
part of this commitment, we at Puget Sound convene every four years a
conference devoted to the topic of race and pedagogy, bringing together this
year scholars, teachers, public officials, and community activists from 21
states. We explore best practices in teaching about race, in creating
inclusive classrooms, in meeting the learning needs of diverse populations,
and in closing the notable achievement gap in America¹s schools. I am proud
of our leadership in this area, and of the substantial investment of time
and expertise from our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community
partners. I am equally proud of the meaningful results that are influencing
classroom teaching for the better all over America. And yet I am humbled by
how far we still have to go.
"The real safeguard of democracy," Roosevelt also said, "is education."
Stubborn facts call for determined investigation and a willingness to learn
difficult lessons. That¹s what Race and Pedagogy was about, and that's what
we do best at a college where we are committed to the mission of
"encouraging a rich knowledge of self and others; an appreciation of
commonality and difference; the full, open, and civil discussion of ideas"
with the goal of "preparing the university¹s graduates to meet the highest
tests of democratic citizenship." And one thing we can be sure of: In this
subject there will be tests we will have to face together.