How I Have Taught Lessons on Issues of Race

Mt. San Antonio College

One of the aspects I emphasize in Administration of Justice classes is how the personal and professional ethics of individual officers are used in the daily decisions made in the name of upholding the law and maintaining order.  By creating a forum where students can consider what influences their choices and how to use their behavior to influence others, I ask students to prepare themselves by considering difficult situations before they will encounter them on the job.

One discussion involves having students share a personal story where the police were present.  The story can be from a friend or a family member.  Students discuss the actions of the police and critically analyze the reasons for what happened.

Having a discussion that promotes critical thinking and the exchange of diverse points of view on the topic of race and racism can bring about anxiety for some.  The use of film or book material can help create a supportive atmosphere for discussion.  Three films that I have used include the documentary Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt?,the fictional movie Crash, and the film dramatization of the biographical book Freedom Writers.

I have used Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt? in class as both a written assignment and a discussion prompt on racism, the death penalty, and police misconduct.  While there are numerous facts to share with students about the disproportionate number of African American males sentenced to death row and executed, I find students respond well through the experience of an individual case.  This allows students to personalize the dilemma, to humanize it, and put a face on the issue.

With a study session based on the film, students examine how the race bias of judges, the racial makeup of juries, and the culture inside police departments alter the ability of African Americans to obtain a fair trial.  It provides the backdrop for a discussion on distrust some African Americans have of the police, and how that distrust translates into behaviors that might differ from those of non-African Americans in the community.

Crash is a 2004 drama film written by Paul Haggis.  It has several different stories interwoven across metropolitan Los Angeles.  It includes overt racist and misogynistic behavior by a white police officer played by Matt Dillon and racist behavior by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s wife, played by Sandra Bullock.  There is a rookie white police officer who does not think he has racist beliefs, played by Ryan Philippe.  There is a running subplot concerning a white police officer suspected of multiple racially motivated shootings of Black men.

The film was very financially successful and received awards from film critics and within the entertainment industry.  What the filmmaker does is attempt to get audiences to rethink the assumptions they make about the people around them, and about themselves as well.  It is helpful in a classroom setting by allowing students to point out behavior exhibited in the film and discuss it openly.

Another film useful for addressing systematic racism in the public-school system is Freedom Writers.  Freedom Writers is not only useful because it highlights the consequences of racism but also the ramifications of poverty and discrimination on youth and public schools.  The film resonates with me for another reason.  I have a niece who attended the same high school depicted in the film, and she is a living example of the experiences that the book and film are based upon.

The film provides a useful tool for deconstructing traditional norms associated with classroom instruction and teacher student role identification.  I like to use the film for a discussion of the amount of cultural capital that is required for a student to have the confidence and comfort level to excel.  This has value not only for students to think about how they can tap into the contributions they are able to bring into the classroom, but also to help professors become aware of and acknowledge the invisible barriers; barriers for which professors must purpose to take clearly designed steps to alleviate, in part by the methods they use to interact with the class.

Questions that can come up include the aspect of whether or not the professor cares about the student and demonstrates it.  How do you show a student that you care not only about what they think, or how much they learn, but also that you actually care about them as a person, and about their well-being?  Why would you need to communicate that you have compassion and caring for your students?  In the film, students turn a corner and begin to make progress in their learning, only after they understand that their teacher cares about them because of her actions.  Above all, the things professors may emphasize in their classes, I believe, is the area where the biggest impact on student success and student equity will be achieved.

As a side note, I’ll bring to bear my personal experience as a student to shed light on this.  I had a typical experience as a 2nd grade student in a predominantly white school in Kodiak, Alaska.  When my father volunteered to serve in Vietnam, our family was required to leave military housing and return to Detroit, Michigan.  There, my 2nd grade class had one white student.  Our teacher basically gave out worksheets each hour that we were to complete and hand in.  Each day, I spent five minutes and completed the assignment that the class was given an hour to work on.  This gave me hours every day to wonder about what was going on with the class.  3rd grade wasn’t much of an improvement, except that I now had developed bad habits trying to entertain myself with all the dead time I had with nothing to do.

When my father returned from Vietnam, we were stationed in Illinois, where I attended a Navy school for the second semester of 3rd grade with a predominantly white student body.  My progress report was full of C grades, as I was behind the rest of the class in every academic area.  It took me the entire semester to recover and catch up to where the students were.  Thankfully, when my father went back to Vietnam, we were allowed to remain in base housing, and I completed the 5th grade at the same school at the top of the class.

Among all of the challenges in the school in Detroit, the one that was most apparent to me was how my teachers did not care about me and the other students.  Years later, my mother told me that the school approached her offering to promote me from 2nd grade to 4th grade, and she turned them down because she had that happen to her and did not want me in class with much older students like she was.  One example which communicated to me what my 2nd grade teacher thought was when the song “Say it Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown came out.  Of course, we were all singing it.  He stopped class one day and asked us, “What do you have to be proud about?”  I instantly received his tone as challenging, with the implication that we had nothing to be proud of.  For a long while, I couldn’t get his words out of my mind.

For an Ethnic Group Relations class, I have used the book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass by Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton.  This book helps students understand the institutional racism that permeates our society, creating disproportionate living conditions that enable those in power to perpetuate racist practices against a group of marginalized people.  Here is a quote from a review of the book by D.K. Jamieson that explains the value of this important work:“An incredibly readable book that must be studied by all Americans―liberal and conservative, black and white.”

In closing, I have a point to make about whether the nation cares about Black students, whether it cares about Black lives, whether Black lives matter, since so much of the evidence in our history would argue that they do not.  You ask, is it better to have African American teachers?  You ask the wrong question.  Because it isn’t the color of the teacher that matters; it is whether or not the teacher cares that matters.  The question we need to answer is why society continues to deny African Americans the opportunities given to everyone else?  Case in point: My first African American teacher was in my first year at West Point.  He graduated from North Carolina A&T, an historically black university.  Like most West Point instructors, he did not go to college to become a teacher, he went on an ROTC scholarship to be an Army officer.  In Alaska, Michigan, Illinois, and California, why is it that I never had an African American teacher?