“Throughout his campaign, Obama had tried to transcend the issue of race. He was, as the saying went, a post-racial candidate, not an extension of the civil rights generation of black leaders who had preceded him.”
This quote from Don Balz’s column in Sunday’s Washington Post, reminded me of a conversation I attempted to have with our son when he was in high school more than 25 years ago. He had always attended integrated schools and his high school in Columbia, Maryland, was probably the most racially mixed and liberal school in the country. With his friends, he had few if any occasions to think about race. However, because he was of the dating age, I attempted to begin a conversation about the history of black people in America and the civil rights movement in particular.
I told him that his current friends might not see him as they see him now if he began to date white girls because there was a history of black boys and men being killed when it came to white women. Our son responded that he didn’t want to hear about how things used to be because this was a different time, and he didn’t want the burden of the past to be placed on him. I recall feeling afraid for him because he didn’t want to hear. I recall knowing that whether he wanted to hear about the history and experiences of black people or not, he could not “transcend the issue of race.”
This is why I think it was extremely important that the president spoke personally about race following the Trayvon Martin verdict. While we black parents might not be heard by our children when we talk about race, “What he did was something no other American president could have done—giving voice, in calm and measured terms, to what it means still to be black in America.” I think we should give special attention and particular emphasis to the word “still” in this quote because, despite much progress and optimism, there is still much work to be done.
I think educators will need to help students see reality for themselves, especially in light of comments such as this one by Joe Klein in Time Magazine: “There will always be injustices like the murder of Trayvon Martin, but in our multiracial future, led by our color-blind children, there will be fewer of them.”
Will there be fewer boys and men racially profiled just because the demographics are changing? Do we want to be a color-blind society or do we want our citizen students to have the courage to see color and also respect the morality of racial justice? Our students will need to understand the history of our country, reflect on the experiences that helped shape their values, imagine a world that they want to create, and determine what attitudes and actions they will need in order to promote a free and just society.
The big question for educators is the one the mayor of Philadelphia asked us as a nation in another Time Magazine commentary: “Are we willing to set aside ego, be vulnerable and hear things that none of us necessarily want to hear?”