“A Radical Thing”: Educational Perspectives on Race in the Age of Obama by Zoe Burkholder — February 09, 2009
Speaking to a reporter from the Washington Post a few weeks ago, President Obama remarked, "There is an entire generation that will grow up taking for granted that the highest office in the land is filled by an African American." He continued, "I mean, that's a radical thing. It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children. And I wouldn't underestimate the force of that.” As an educational historian who studies racial discourse in schools, I can tell you that Obama is absolutely correct. Americans are about to radically alter the way they see, understand, and speak about race on an everyday basis thanks to the presidency of Barack Obama. Especially in places like schools.
Speaking to a reporter from the Washington Post a few weeks ago, President Obama remarked, "There is an entire generation that will grow up taking for granted that the highest office in the land is filled by an African American." He continued, "I mean, that's a radical thing. It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children. And I wouldn't underestimate the force of that” (Fletcher, 2008)
As an educational historian who studies racial discourse in schools, I can tell you that Obama is absolutely correct. Americans are about to radically alter the way they see, understand, and speak about race on an everyday basis thanks to the presidency of Barack Obama. Especially in places like schools.
In my forthcoming book, Reconstructing Race: A History of Race, Reform, and Civil Rights in American Schools, 1900-1954, I argue that schools function as powerful racializing institutions in American society. As the largest state institution dedicated to knowledge production and social reproduction, public schools have played a critical role in shaping the way Americans understand not only specific definitions of race, but also the muted rules of racial etiquette. For instance, teachers and textbooks define for students who is “raced”—a shifting category. The fact that teachers in the first half of the twentieth century used to mull over the peculiar racial traits and habits of Italian, Irish, and German kids whereas today all of these students would be viewed as members of the same “Caucasian” race is one good example of the fluidity of racial discourse in American schools.
Besides specifying who is racially distinct from an imagined “white” norm, teachers have also crafted particular messages about just what it means to be raced. For example, a white librarian in 1935 casually observed that African American children were “naturally noisy,” elaborating, “The keen intellectual curiosity of, for instance, the Jewish child, that makes him work so hard on scientific problems, is not found to any marked degree in the colored child” (Bacon, 1935, p. 258). Teachers across the country echoed these racialist sentiments, such as one who explained that in order for “Negro” children to enjoy literature,
Gold and jewels in abundance must sparkle, satin robes must trail through the pages, giants must be very tall and terrible and the fire-breathing dragon must slay his fair quota of minor heroes before (after desperate struggles) his seven horrible heads are hacked off by the intrepid youngest son. (Brunot, 1932, pp. 159-160)
The pages with teaching journals are filled with first-hand accounts of classroom practice like these—vivid illustrations of the way that teachers, like nearly all Americans, viewed race as a determining aspect not only of intelligence but also of more subtle qualities like intellectual curiosity or a preference for sensational tall tales. That such subtle messages about racial difference are still present in American classrooms should come as no surprise, as a host of provocative studies by scholars including Mica Pollock and Amanda Lewis demonstrate (Pollock, 2005; Lewis, 2003).
But even more important than elucidating who is part of a racial minority and what this distinction means, American schools define the racial knowledge of the ideal, “educated” citizen. This is where things get really interesting because it means that no matter what students believe to be the “truth” about race, they learn at a young age what teachers expect them to know. It is not that students readily absorb the lessons on race presented in schools—in fact the opposite seems to be true. The point is that students learn to recognize, and if necessary, to mimic the lessons on race they are taught in school if only to cash in on the cultural capital of performing as educated citizens.
Now consider for a minute my own experiences, not as an historian of race in American schools, but instead as the mother of a kindergartner. My son, Dexter, has absorbed the unrestrained enthusiasm of his parents for Barack Obama over the course of the past year. He has sat through televised debates and read through children’s books on the new President, even enjoying spoofs of Obama on YouTube like the recent “If You Voted For Me” parody of Beyonce’s famous “All the Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” song. Back in November, when Obama was elected, my son came home from school and announced in a solemn voice that Barack Obama was going to be the first African American President of the United States. While this was certainly true, I had not emphasized this point at home in weeks as we had been discussing more pragmatic aspects of Obama’s candidacy. The formal way my son delivered the news tipped me off to the fact that his teacher had made this announcement in school that morning.
As well she should have; the point is that Obama’s presidency is already generating a host of new race talk in our schools. Consider for a minute how things might have been different if John McCain had been elected President. Chances are, Dexter’s teacher would not have pointed out McCain’s racial identity to her kindergarten classroom that morning.
More recently, and well before this became the clarion cry of newscasters during the inauguration, I was astonished when Dexter quietly told me that Barack Obama becoming President was one way that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream had come true. The awkward way he put the words together suggested he did not pick this one up in school. Turning to my son, I asked him where he had heard that idea. He shrugged, and stunned me again by quoting MLK’s most famous speech from memory, carefully articulating: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” To be fair, this was a speech my son and I had read together, and even watched together on the internet, but I had no idea he had committed it to memory.
“And what do you think that means?” I pressed him.
“It means that color doesn’t matter, it’s what you do and who you are that matters.” Dexter said, as he scooted out of the room before I could ask him anything else.
My two young children, who are white, will grow up with a completely revised sense of the meaning of race in America thanks to the presidency of Barack Obama. Racial ideologies, after all, are created and informed through all sorts of processes, from national leaders to popular culture, scientific theories to judicial rulings. As educators, however, it is important to remain vigilant about the one thing we do have the professional capacity to influence: the social production of race in schools. Like Obama, I wouldn’t underestimate the force of that.
Bacon, F.A. (1935). Epaminondas at the library. Elementary English Review, 12(9), 257-259.
Brunot, E. (1932). The negro child and his reading: A public library point of view. Elementary English Review, 9(6), 159-160. Also see, Coolidge, A.E. (1932). Origins of our Negro folk story. Elementary English Review, 9(6), 161-162.
Michael A. Fletcher, M.A. (2008, January 19). President-elect sees his race as an opportunity. Washington Post.
Amanda Lewis, A. (2003). Race in the schoolyard: Negotiating the color line in classrooms and communities. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Pollock, M. (2005). Colormute: Race talk dilemmas in an American school. Princeton: Princeton University Press.