Why We Don’t Talk About Race
By Charles Rush
January 17, 2010
Exodus 34: 6-7
(“The Sins of the Father's...”)
(mp3, 7.3Mb) ]
ck when I was teaching at Rutgers University, the poet Amri Baraka was also on the faculty and the English Department denied him tenure because he didn’t actually publish any scholarly articles, just his poetry. He was a fairly popular lecturer, so he staged a number of rather public demonstrations on College Avenue, where on certain Friday afternoons it would appear that very nearly every cause under the sun had an advocate pressing you with a handbill. Professor Baraka was a fiery and entertaining lecturer and one Friday afternoon, in the middle of his protest, he began accusing Rutgers University of being a racist organization.
there with several other faculty members, who were also not eligible for tenure
because none of us had published enough academic articles either, chuckling
amongst ourselves at the chutzpah of the thesis. In our little crowd on College
Avenue could be counted, literally, representatives from every single nation on
the face of the globe. Rutgers has got to be one of the 10 most inclusive
Universities in the nation. Say what you will about State U and their
basketball program, a stroll across campus on any day of any week, gives you
the full sweep of the immigrant society that is our beloved state. It is the
United Nations come to New Brunswick.
We left the
demonstration filled with mirth at the allegation that Rutgers is racist and
walked over to the cafeteria. And as we walked in, like it is on most any day
on campus, you look around at this great Melting Pot of many nations, and you
notice that all of the Black kids are sitting over here, all the Hispanic
students over there, the Asian kids in a couple sub-groups here and there, the
Arab kids there, Pakistani kids there, the Jews all in their corner.
provoked not one but many discussions amongst faculty members then, and I’m
sure now. It kind of illustrates this awkward place that we are at the moment
in race relations. A lot of people who are old enough to have been involved in
the Civil Rights demonstrations of the 60’s somewhat naively assumed that we
would be able to move immediately towards an integrated society right after
overt discrimination was ended. I think, we sort of presumed that it could just
happen naturally, more or less. At any rate, they are disappointed at the rate
of actual integration. We had a strong moral mandate to take down the overt
racist barriers in our country and we did it. But when it came to figuring out
how to actually integrate, we lacked both imagination of the world towards
which we want to head and we lacked genuine understanding about the way people
socialize to understand what is realistic.
One thing that
I think is implicitly clear, particularly to those of us that work in genuinely
pluralistic settings, is that integration is not going to happen automatically.
We have to be intentional about it. So I was interested to read a chapter that
illustrates this with some research on child development.
Po Bronson and
interviewed Professor Gary Orfield about the phenomenon of integration and
re-segregation in our schools and Professor Orfield’s has studied what the rest
of us have merely observed. He ran the Civil Rights Project at Harvard and UCLA
and has penned an Amicus Brief, a friend of the Court letter, with other top
scholars in the country, pressing the Supreme Court to continue integrating a
dozen or so school districts around the country.
you actually review the data on the values of integration, the record, like so
much in research, is complicated… part of it being the fact that we are just
now coming to understand that race itself is a lot more complicated than meets
But if you
thought, for example, that merely exposing students to people of other races
would necessarily reduce the bias that they might feel towards people of other
races, the research doesn’t directly support that thesis.
Orfield did some surveys in these school districts that have been problematic
for integration for a long time and the results were more mixed than the
researchers had hoped for.
Kentucky for example, when they interviewed students of all races on the
experience of integration in their schools, about 80% of all juniors believe
that the experience of sharing school together was positive and important and
85% of all students believed that they would probably work better in a diverse
work setting in the future.[ii]
But, in Lynn, Massachusetts
(right outside of Boston) when students were asked if they would live in a
racially diverse environment, about 70% of the non-white kids said yes, but
only 35% of the white kids said ‘yes’. Lynn, like some of our cities around New
York, has had some especially difficult issues in race relations and it would
be tempting to simply dismiss them but it is not that simple.
Dr. James Moody
at Duke has done research on how our teenagers actually develop and maintain
their networks of friends. In the process he studied some 90,000 kids at 112
schools across the country, in just about every region.
He did a simple
test. He asked kids to name their 5 best friends (guy friends and girl friend)
and then had them identify their ethnicity. Then he compared those findings to
the overall ethnic makeup of the school.
He built in
some statistical control as well for athletic teams and academic clubs and
other social clubs that tend to encourage a certain amount of segregation.
produced good news and bad news. The good news is that students today are
likely to have a friend from another race. The bad news is that far more
students from every race would prefer to socialize with their own kind.
More than that,
the piece of the study that got some attention was his observation that the
more the schools are integrated, the more the tendency among students to
self-segregate socially. The causes of this are still under investigation but
Professor Tynes of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has articulated
the correlation that stands out. It is an inverse correlation. The more our
colleges and secondary schools provide opportunities to interact inter-racially
in the classroom, the less our students do it outside the classroom.
All told, the chances
of a white kid having a best friend (top 10) from another race are right around
10% and it is not much better for black kids (about 15%). Since we possess
remarkably few longitudinal studies (over longer lengths of time), it is hard
to know how to place that exactly.
Every once in a
long while, Frank Bolden and I have reflected on this with each other, just
from a family vantage point, remembering when we were in kindergarten, Frank
visiting his grandmother in Georgia and me visiting my grandmother in
Mississippi. In the world in which we both grew up, we were not supposed to
ever meet, let alone serve on boards together, go to church together or watch
our grandchildren grow up together. So from that vantage point, 10% represents
But, if you
thought that merely having kids go to school together would somehow magically
get us to the next level, it turns out that this is not going to be enough.
This is where we seem to be culturally at the moment.
Po Bronson (like
Ashley Merryman) calls this presumption on the part of white parents “The
Diverse Environment Theory”. It is the notion that our job as parents is simply
to expose our children to a social atmosphere of diversity and that somehow out
of that diversity our children will come to view diversity as normative and
race as a category will begin to dissolve and solve itself. Bronson is a parent
in San Francisco, one of the cultural epicenters of inclusivity in our country.
He sent his kid
to school hoping for something like what happened to one of our sons Ian when
he was in Kindergarten in Princeton, New Jersey. Ian’s best friend was a kid
named Skyler. The day before kindergarten began, both of the boys called me
outside with Skyler’s parents to show us something. They were standing there
arm in arm, both wearing Giants football jersey’s, smiling from ear to ear.
“Guess what we are?” they kept asking us over and over again.
All of the
parents were making wild guesses to no avail. Now, Skyler was as black as Ian
was blonde and Ian was really had a head of not blonde but white duck down.
Skyler was a foot taller than Ian and probably weighed twice as much as Ian.
“Guess what we are? Guess what we are?” Football players? No. We don’t know,
what are you?
they yelled together. “Our teacher will think we are brothers” they both beamed
at us. I remember almost weeping with surprise and joy at that moment, watching
them run off together, it seemed too good to be true, like the opening scene of
a tragic movie that captures this one frame of innocence and good will and then
moves on to ‘real life’ where it is anything but…
It was too good
to be true. And part of that has to do with child development. Children begin
to categorize early on and continue to improve on this as an important skill
set. Professor Bigler at the University of Texas took pre-schoolers (3 and 4)
and divided them into two teams, red shirts and blue shirts. Every day they
wore their shirts to school and after a few weeks, she interviewed the kids.[iii]
It turns out
that the red shirts and the blue shirts played with each other just like normal
on the playground and in the class room, so on the surface, everything was
fine. But if you asked them which was the better team to be part of, they
answered their own.
If you asked
the blue kids if the red kids were mean or nice, they would say some are mean
and some are nice. But if you asked the blue kids if the blue team kids are
mean or nice, they would say ‘all the blue kids are nice’.
intelligence, some of the other team are smart, some are not but all of our
team is smart. These kids are exhibiting an age appropriate form of projection
called essentialism, the tendency to project the way you see yourself onto all
others that are part of your group, so you see more similarities with them than
are actually there. We are all good looking and above average, as they say in
Lake Wobegon. The point is that children naturally tend to group thing from an
early age and that is important to understand.
Race is an
important distinction that they notice early on. Dr. Phyllis Katz tested this
in a simple experiment with 100 white kids and 100 black kids among 5 and 6
year olds. She did two things. She gave the kids a group of photos of other
children and first asked them to pick a child that from the group that they
would like to be friends with. 86% of the kids picked someone from their own
Then she gave
them the photos and asked them to sort the piles into two categories. You could
use whatever categories you want:
About 16% of
the kids used some category like: smiling/not smiling; old/ young; etc..
About16% of the
kids used gender: boys in this pile/ girls in that pile…
The rest used
race: black over here/ white over there. They are thinking about race in an
early but formative way.
So should we
parents. But what the authors discovered in reviewing the literature is that it
appears that too many parents really aren’t talking about race enough to make a
remains to be done directly in order to prove this for other social scientists,
but there are a few indirect indicators that too many parents, especially white
parents, are just hoping that by exposing their children to diversity and not
talking about race directly that our kids will just grow up in a world where
race will start to dissolve and eventually become invisible.
does not likely seem to be the case. In fact, what the research indicates is
that we need to be explicit with our children about race and we need to be
intentional about reaching out across the racial lines if we want to develop
the kind of integrated world that Dr. King described in Washington in 1963 when
he longed for the day when white children and black children would judge one
another on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
They won’t get
it unless we teach it to them. The good news is that it appears that teaching
it to them really helps make a difference. Professor Katz designed one such
study. She had teachers divide their class into two groups, both inter-racial
groups that were balanced.
Each week she
had the teacher pick a new leader for each group. The teacher then taught the
student the lesson and the student then taught the rest of his/her team. They
were graded as a group, so that everyone had to be involved and everyone
depended on everyone else.
Then they had
the graduate students follow the kids to the playground. They simply noted
every time a kid went over to play with another kid. What they found among
first-graders is a sharp increase in cross-racial play in this environment.
When you think
about it, that has largely been our experience as adults, has it not? Most of
us have had positive cross-racial involvement through our work and our
education. One of the salient images of New York in this era, for me, is
looking at the latest picture of the new class of partners or Managing
Directors at our banks, the picture of the ‘new hires’ at our financial
institutions. They are a collection of incredibly talented people, literally from
all over the world. And there is something about that image of the very best
coming to compete in the most competitive atmosphere in a relatively free and
open market that is inspiring. Most of us here have been part of that directly
or indirectly and it is very hopeful.
We know that
the global village is upon us. What a wonderful thing when it becomes a source
of cooperative team building rather than a source of conflict. What the
research seems to indicate is that we need to be more intentional at developing
cross-racial integration with our children at younger ages than we might
imagine. If they start thinking about it by the age of two or three, we need to
be open to teaching them about the new way of relating to other people in a
positive, cooperative way so that our children become assets to building the
future. Left on their own, they do not automatically get the message and simply
living in a multi-cultural world does not solve this challenge by itself.
ought to be out front on these matters. Morally and spiritually, we follow
Jesus who beckoned his disciples saying, “Go ye therefore unto all the nations
of the earth, making disciples and baptizing them.” We follow the one who
taught us to love God and also “to love our neighbors as ourselves”. Today,
literally, we have Christians in every single nation on the earth. What a
moving picture it would be to see a collection of all of them.
Of all the
religions in the history of the earth, we are the ones that have been set out
to be ‘agents of reconciliation’. We are a people of reconciliation, not that
we have ever been very good at actualizing it. That is a different sermon. But,
reconciliation is where we are headed. Reconciliation is principally what we
are about. For us, being inclusive is not just a Utopian Dream. It is not just
an inevitability of the market place. For us, inclusivity is part of what it
means to be compassionate, to be reconciling, and to atone for the previous
generation and hopefully make the world a better place for our children’s
See “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race?” in their book Nurture Shock (New York: Twelve
Books, 2009), pps. 47-69.
Ibid. p. 59.
Ibid, p. 53, 54.
Ibid. p. 54.
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