Education » ADL Blogs
March 16, 2015 2

To Confront Racism, We Must Also Look In the Mirror

teenagers debateLast week, dis­turb­ing video emerged of fra­ter­nity broth­ers from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chap­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Okla­homa laugh­ing while singing a racist chant: “There will never be a ni**** SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me. There will never be a ni**** SAE.”

The news comes on the heels of the recent find­ings from a Depart­ment of Jus­tice inves­ti­ga­tion in Fer­gu­son, MO which, among other things, revealed a deeply trou­bling series of racist emails by Fer­gu­son offi­cials. One email, for exam­ple, in Novem­ber 2008 pre­dicted that Pres­i­dent Obama would not be pres­i­dent much longer because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

With few excep­tions, peo­ple have denounced these inci­dents as racist. Imme­di­ately after the news broke, the pres­i­dent of the Uni­ver­sity of Okla­homa con­demned the stu­dents’ behav­ior and sev­ered all ties between the uni­ver­sity and the local SAE chap­ter.  At the same time, the national SAE head­quar­ters shut down the local chap­ter. Ferguson’s munic­i­pal court clerk was fired and the chief of police and two police offi­cers resigned after the DOJ report was released.

It is cer­tainly appro­pri­ate to con­demn this racism and teach peo­ple to chal­lenge biased lan­guage, but it is not enough.  Today, thank­fully, such overt racism is much less com­mon than in the past.  Still, there is an under­cur­rent of much sub­tler, more deeply buried bias that still flows through Amer­ica.  While fewer and fewer Amer­i­cans would use overt offen­sive, deroga­tory terms, many of us—consciously or not—have implicit biases (uncon­scious atti­tudes, stereo­types or unin­ten­tional actions that we direct at a mem­ber of a group sim­ply because of that person’s mem­ber­ship in that group).

The implicit biases embed­ded in, for exam­ple, the racial dis­par­i­ties in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem or the seg­re­gated nature of the col­lege fra­ter­nity sys­tem, can be as or more harm­ful than this hate­ful and deroga­tory language.

From a very early age we learn to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between things that are the same and things that are dif­fer­ent: one of these things is not like the other one.  Sci­ence shows that we make the same snap judg­ments about other peo­ple, using what we know and what we assume to cat­e­go­rize things. While that gives us impor­tant tools in mak­ing sense of the world, when paired with soci­etal biases and stereo­types it can become harm­ful. As a result of sub­tle mes­sages through­out soci­ety, most people—whether or not they intend it, and often when they expressly do not—have some implicit biases.

Stud­ies have found, for exam­ple, that doc­tors are more likely to pre­scribe pain med­ica­tion for white patients with a bro­ken leg than African Amer­i­can or Latino patients. Law firm part­ners, when asked to eval­u­ate a memo writ­ten by a hypo­thet­i­cal asso­ciate, scored the memo lower and found more mis­takes when they were told it had been writ­ten by an African Amer­i­can.  Another study found that, in order to get a call for an inter­view, appli­cants with typ­i­cally black names (such as Jamal or Lak­isha) had to send out 50 per­cent more resumes.

It is easy to dis­miss the racism at SAE and in Fer­gu­son as an aber­ra­tion and some­thing we would never engage in our­selves. It is much harder to deny that we have any implicit bias, espe­cially if you take the Implicit Asso­ci­a­tion Test. Because implicit bias begins at a very early age and devel­ops over the course of a life­time, there are ways we can par­ent, teach and inter­act with young peo­ple to coun­ter­act these direct and indi­rect messages:

  • Make your home, class­room and school envi­ron­ment as diverse as pos­si­ble so that from an early age, you work to coun­ter­act neg­a­tive biases. This means cre­at­ing an inclu­sive and cul­tur­ally sen­si­tive class­room with books, class­room dis­plays, bul­letin boards, hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions, videos, sto­ries, text­books, etc. and make sure dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives are reflected in your class­room curriculum.
  • Affirm and reflect the dif­fer­ent aspects of iden­tity rep­re­sented in your class­room and help young peo­ple decon­struct assump­tions, stereo­types and labels they have about dif­fer­ent groups of people.
  • Teach stu­dents what overt and implicit bias are and seek their par­tic­i­pa­tion in pro-actively doing some­thing about it.

 

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March 2, 2015 3

From Selma to Ferguson: Standing Together for Justice

We_March_With_Selma

What do you know about the events in Selma, Alabama in the 1960’s? What part of that his­tory speaks to you?

This year marks the 50th anniver­sary of the march from Selma to Mont­gomery, Alabama. In the his­tory books, we know this as Bloody Sun­day, where 600 peace­ful pro­tes­tors were met with bru­tal­ity. As events unfolded, the media cap­tured pho­tos and film of what would later become the impe­tus for thou­sands to become a part of the move­ment. Dr. King and his fol­low­ers focused their cam­paign on Alabama because of the sup­pres­sion of black people’s right to vote there. They knew how impor­tant it was for the world to see the vio­lence and to have those images on its con­scious­ness. They knew that those who believed in equal­ity were not going to be able to sim­ply rest on their beliefs.

The Civil Rights Move­ment  needed action from the com­mu­nity, the nation and the gov­ern­ment and that was the moment when it was needed most.  It is hard to imag­ine the level of com­mit­ment one would need to inten­tion­ally expose one­self to phys­i­cal vio­lence, but that’s exactly what Dr. King asked of them in their fight for jus­tice and equity.  Selma is part of our shared his­tory, and there is no deny­ing that notable progress has been made.  Cur­rent events of the past year are a clear reminder, how­ever, that much work still needs to be done.

Last sum­mer, there was dis­cus­sion through­out the coun­try about Fer­gu­son being the Civil Rights Move­ment for this gen­er­a­tion. We can draw some com­par­isons to Selma, while rec­og­niz­ing that the bla­tant denial of vot­ing rights in 1960 Alabama was an extreme ver­sion of racism. Nightly, we watched as news media deliv­ered images of pro­tes­tors in Fer­gu­son who were angry and frus­trated by the tragic con­se­quences of the insti­tu­tional racism which has had a sig­nif­i­cant impact on their oppor­tu­ni­ties and liveli­hood and the community’s safety. As they had dur­ing Selma, peo­ple from across the coun­try were moti­vated to join in and become a part of some­thing big­ger than them­selves.  Fer­gu­son pro­vided that moment when peo­ple could take action in sup­port of the val­ues of jus­tice and equity we col­lec­tively hold as a nation.  Activism took on many forms, as peo­ple from diverse com­mu­ni­ties descended on Fer­gu­son to add their sup­port to the protest, sim­i­lar to the 8,000 that came to Selma on the third attempt to make their val­ues and beliefs heard.

Selma, Fer­gu­son and all the other events that have raised aware­ness to issues of injus­tice serve as step­ping stones to progress. It’s not enough for us to be con­tent with the advance­ments we’ve made; we need to con­sider how to con­tinue advo­cat­ing for insti­tu­tional change. Civil rights pio­neer, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass said “If there is no strug­gle, there is no progress. Those who pro­fess to favor free­dom, and yet depre­ci­ate agi­ta­tion, are men who want crops with­out plow­ing up the ground. They want rain with­out thun­der and light­ning. They want the ocean with­out the awful roar of its many waters. This strug­gle may be a moral one; or it may be a phys­i­cal one; or it may be both moral and phys­i­cal; but it must be a strug­gle. Power con­cedes noth­ing with­out a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Our beliefs in equity and jus­tice for all peo­ple mean we may have to be will­ing to chal­lenge the insti­tu­tions that are bet­ter served by main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo than by chal­leng­ing it.  Fifty years ago, the peo­ple of Selma faced injus­tice and decided it was time to stand up. We fol­low in their brave foot­steps.  Both Selma and Fer­gu­son pro­vide teach­able moments for edu­ca­tors to share his­tory and sto­ries, teach about bias and injus­tice and inspire stu­dents to take action to cre­ate pos­i­tive change in the world.

 

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February 19, 2015 1

Books Matter: The Power of Children’s Literature

Any­one who has ever read to or with a child—parent, fam­ily mem­ber, teacher or friend—knows books leave last­ing impres­sions. Beyond the edu­ca­tional ben­e­fits, books have the power to instill empa­thy, affirm, teach, trans­port and inspire action. Books matter.

Empa­thy
In expos­ing chil­dren to other people’s sto­ries and the moti­va­tions and feel­ings behind those nar­ra­tives, chil­dren begin to con­nect with oth­ers on an emo­tional level, which is the foun­da­tion for bridg­ing dif­fer­ences between worlds. Books have the power to fos­ter empa­thy and under­stand­ing of other peo­ple and cul­tures–their hopes and dreams, their joys and sor­rows, their sto­ries and reflec­tions. Empa­thy is the ground­work for under­stand­ing peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent from one­self. Books open those doors for chil­dren to other places and experiences.

Self-Reflection
Par­ents and edu­ca­tors know that one of the most impor­tant things books do for chil­dren is affirm who they are. Com­monly referred to as “mir­ror” books, they con­tain reflec­tions of the children—their cul­ture, fam­ily, race, reli­gion, etc.—and enable them to see them­selves por­trayed with accu­racy, depth and com­plex­ity. As Charles Blow, a writer and op-ed colum­nist for the New York Times shared about books, “They helped me to see myself and love myself when I felt least seen and least loved. They saved me.”  Through books, chil­dren should be able to see them­selves take on endeavors–both ordi­nary and extra­or­di­nary.  Pos­i­tive iden­tity devel­op­ment is cru­cial dur­ing child­hood and when chil­dren don’t see them­selves in books and else­where, they feel deval­ued and less optimistic.

Unfor­tu­nately, there is often a lack of diver­sity in children’s books.  Although chil­dren of color make up about 40% of the pop­u­la­tion, recent sta­tis­tics show that the num­ber of children’s books fea­tur­ing peo­ple of color has been hov­er­ing around 10% for the past sev­eral years. Other types of diversity—including abil­ity, socioe­co­nomic sta­tus and LGBT peo­ple and families—are also lack­ing. There has been an acknowl­edg­ment of this prob­lem and an out­cry in the edu­ca­tion and lit­er­a­ture worlds to address it. A recent New York Times arti­cle asked, “Where are the peo­ple of color in children’s books?”  The con­cept of “We Need Diverse Books” quickly evolved from a hash­tag to an orga­ni­za­tion, and in 2015, the John New­bury Medal win­ning children’s books all fea­tured an aspect of diver­sity. There is grow­ing aware­ness but change is slow.

Teach and Trans­port
“Win­dow” books have the power to teach chil­dren about aspects of life for which they are unfa­mil­iar. They can shed light on peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent in a myr­iad of ways– reli­gion, fam­ily struc­ture, abil­ity, race or coun­try of ori­gin.  In small and big ways, books can illu­mi­nate dif­fer­ences between peo­ple and reveal how bias is some­times caused by mis­un­der­stand­ing. Poignant words and illus­tra­tions trans­port chil­dren into new realms and expe­ri­ences. Through books, they may learn about some­one who is deaf or autis­tic. They can gain famil­iar­ity with the expe­ri­ences of immi­grants from other coun­tries or those who have fam­ily con­stel­la­tions dif­fer­ent from their own. They may learn about dif­fer­ent cul­tures and their hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions.  Help­ing chil­dren gain com­fort with dif­fer­ences has last­ing benefits.

Action
When chil­dren are faced with bias and bul­ly­ing, it can be dif­fi­cult for them to know what to do. Books can help and they often res­onate with chil­dren in ways noth­ing else does. As young peo­ple look for strate­gies to deal with teas­ing and bul­ly­ing, they can also dis­cover books that help them learn how to be an ally. Sto­ries about peo­ple who stand up to prej­u­dice and injus­tice can inspire chil­dren to see them­selves in oth­ers who have fought for jus­tice, espe­cially child and youth activists.

Whether it’s a nine­teenth cen­tury suf­fragette, a Holo­caust resister or a Nobel prize win­ning Pak­istani girl fight­ing for girls’ edu­ca­tion, through books we can teach chil­dren about the world out­side them­selves, the his­tory of injus­tice and how they can make a difference.

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