It’s a difficult time right now not to talk about race relations in America. Recent events have thrust the matter into the limelight: the incident in Jena, Louisiana last year and the protest that followed, the nomination of Barak Obama for President, polls on the news indicating that white Americans still harbor negative stereotypes about blacks, etc. I see at work all the time how oblivious white people can be to issues of race. Now, it seems so in the forefront that you’d have to be intentionally, willfully obtuse to be ignorant of racial conditions in the U.S.
Reports of individuals calling Obama supporters “nigger-lovers” and lingering views of black citizens as lazy and less scholastic than whites make me grieve. I wonder if we will ever break free from the horrible legacy of slavery and white supremacy. I am generally pessimistic about it. I don’t have a lot of faith in my fellow compatriots.
Because of this, I make a point of talking to my students about race. I try to permeate all my lectures with it. Usually, my classes are largely white. The students come from small towns and counties where there aren’t a lot of black residents. From lack of contact, these kids (and frequently the older non-traditional students) believe that equality has been achieved in America, and they blame racial tensions on complaining blacks. They resent affirmative action because they don’t see the need, and they’re not looking for it anyway. Some of them grew up in former “sundown towns” and Klan enclaves. They carry their own prejudices.
Into my sense of hopelessness wafts a breeze of encouragement this semester. Talking with my students this year, I find them very aware of discrimination toward blacks in our society and critical of our system, which perpetuates the problem. One asked: “Why do we say we’re a melting pot anyway?” I asked them if we were, and five conversations started at once. I was surprised to find that they are very cynical about the matter. They think our leaders pander on the subject. They are pessimistic about the future of race relations. They told me it will never change — this is a permanent condition in America. I told them they were too young to have the hope beaten out of them.
The curious thing about this conversation is that their cynicism gives me new hope. They are aware of the problem. They reject the white supremacy theory. Being already pessimistic, I think they won’t be disillusioned — they lack illusions to begin with. So, I think maybe they won’t give up the fight. They won’t buy into that nonsense that race relations in the U.S. are good and equal opportunity reigns. They will see discrimination when it happens, and — as is already apparent — they will vocally oppose it. I am giddy with naivete almost, having found hope for the next generation. Their Ipods are diversity-builders. Who knew?