Seeing Race

 

In his class on the history of the Black Power movement, Leonard Moore ditches political correctness in favor of open, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about the realities of race in America.

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Nov. 25, 2014, was one of the most memorable days I’ve had in my 17 years as a professor.

The night before, the St. Louis County District Attorney decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. That evening my family and I watched the CNN coverage of the Ferguson protest for several hours. While the commentators and many in America focused on the violence, the looting, and the lack of civil order, my wife and I talked about the long pattern of police brutality in America and why the residents of Ferguson reacted angrily.

When I went to sleep that night I knew that my Black Power class the next day would be filled to capacity with my students, students not enrolled in the class, alumni, and interested staff. Generally speaking, white students would want to know why black people would burn down their own communities, and black students would want to know how a white police officer could get off killing an unarmed black man in 2014. I tried to write down some thoughts that night but I wasn’t able to come up with anything.

When I got to the office that morning one of my graduate students said, “Doc, I’m coming to class today … I gotta hear this.” As the clock approached 11 a.m., I put on my suit jacket and walked across Dean Keeton to Burdine Hall. I had no idea what I was going to say. When I walked onstage the class was full, with people sitting in the aisles and some standing outside the double doors. I clipped the microphone to my lapel and pulled a chair to the front of the stage. “I know what all of you want to talk about and I’m gonna let you talk to each other,” I said. “Remember, you can’t get mad and we will be tolerant and respectful of opinions we disagree with.”

For the next 75 minutes, students of all races stood up and expressed their opinions on Ferguson and the rest of us listened.

One black student went on for three or four minutes about how black lives aren’t valued. He got so emotional that as the tears started flowing down his face, he had to walk out of the classroom. The class clapped for him as he left. Afterward, students told me they appreciated me letting them talk, although some of them came expecting me to preach about Ferguson. I didn’t do that because my role is to facilitate and motivate. Some of the best learning takes place when it is peer-to-peer, and on this day, I felt that it would be much more meaningful for students to hear from those with whom they may have everything in common except the color of their skin.

As I left class that day I saw students of all races standing outside Burdine Hall continuing the discussion in productive ways. The true essence of education was on display as interracial groups talked and listened to each other.

I’ve been a black history enthusiast my entire life. In fact, all three of my degrees are in history. You can imagine the strange looks I would get when I would tell people that I wanted a career in the field of black history. Even other black people would make jokes about it. I remember in middle school taking the bus downtown to the Cleveland Public Library and spending hours looking at black history books and reading old black newspapers. My time at Jackson State University, a historically black college, confirmed my love for the discipline, and after getting my grades right I went to Ohio State for my PhD. At Ohio State I learned that black history was not just for black students. My mentors at Ohio State taught me to teach in such a way that my courses would appeal to all students. Done right, black history has the ability to transform lives.

I teach “History of the Black Power Movement“ because I think it is a fascinating moment in history. While many students are aware of the Civil Rights movement, many are not familiar with the era of Black Power. This was a period between 1965-72 where African Americans placed a strong emphasis on black pride, the building of black institutions, and black solidarity. Students enjoy reading about Mae Mallory, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, the Black Panthers, and other figures of the era, and they also get to see how this era connects with contemporary black life. As a historian my job is not just to give a bunch of dates and facts, but to show students how the present is a product of the past.

And more than half of the students who take the course are white.

On the first day of class every fall semester I walk from my office in the Student Services Building to the large lecture room in Burdine Hall. As I walk in for the first time, the room is buzzing with excitement, anticipation, and energy. It’s electric. When I look out at all 550 students I see how racially diverse the class is. Black students congregate in the middle center; football players sit in the first few rows; Nigerian Americans in the front left; Latinos in the front center; white liberals in the middle left; feminists up near the front; and in the back left is a large contingent of white fraternity and sorority members. They are noticeable because of their distinct look—they proudly wear their Greek T-shirts as a status symbol.

To find so many white Greeks in this class is shocking. When I first started teaching the course during my second year on the UT faculty in the fall of 2008, the class was approximately 80 percent African American. It was so black that we called the experience a miniature Prairie View A&M University. But over time, as the class has become larger and more popular, it has become increasingly white.

The moment that many white students walk into my course they are experiencing a series of firsts: The first time many of them have had a black teacher or professor. The first time many of them have ever taken a class dealing with African-American history. The first time many of them have been in a class with so many black and Latino students. The first time many of them have taken a class that does not meet their parents’ approval. The first time many of them feel like a minority. The first time many of them will be in a class that forces them to confront African-American issues and concerns.

The presence of so many white fraternity and sorority members in the class is interesting because this population is typically the most conservative, the most privileged, and some of them are the ones who unfortunately throw racially themed frat parties in West Campus. In no way am I suggesting that these students are racist, just that they have been shielded from any discussion about the black experience in America. For a country that has been shaped by race, we do young people a disservice when we allow them to go their K-12 years without a black history course because we are afraid to confront the brutal realities of race in America.

Some believe that we are living in a post-racial society and they point to the election of President Barack Obama as evidence of that. Indeed, for many post-millennials or members of Generation Z, the only president they are familiar with is an African-American president. Further, many of them listen to hip-hop, have friends of other races, and their experiences with and conceptions of other races differ from their parents. Consequently, many of them will tell you that they don’t “see race.” This is not necessarily a good thing. We want them to see race and to be intentional about helping society move past racial discrimination. If not, we keep continuing the wrongs of an earlier era. For instance, in 2013, Facebook had only 45 black employees out of a total workforce of 4,263. There were no black people in any executive or senior management positions. This is what happens when young people say, “I don’t see race.”

“Welcome to History of the Black Power Movement,” I say at the beginning of the first class. “This is HIS 317L … so make sure you are in the right place. To be clear, this is a class about black people, from a black perspective, and taught by a black professor. White students? Are we clear about that? This is not a black history class taught from your perspective—so some of the course content will be hard-hitting. I assume you are here because you really want to understand the black experience.” The reason I am explicit about how the class will be taught is because on a teaching evaluation several years ago one student wrote that she didn’t enjoy the class because it was too focused on black people!

I continue: “As you see, I am not politically correct and don’t plan to be. We are overly sensitive about race in this country and this prevents us from having an open, honest dialogue. Please understand we will deal with sensitive issues in this class that most professors will not deal with. But I have some ground rules:

Rule No. 1: You can say whatever you want in this class. Rule No. 2: You cannot get mad at another student’s comment. Rule No. 3: There are no stupid questions. We are here to learn. Rule No. 4: I am very opinionated, but you don’t have to agree with me to do well in this class. Rule No. 5: I am not here to change the way you think. I just want you to look at the black experience through a black lens. Rule No. 6: We will have fun and create a bond over the next 15 weeks. Rule No. 7: You will remember this class 30 years from now. Rule No. 8: You will always refer to me as ‘the black professor I had at UT’ (I don’t take offense to this).” They always laugh at number eight.

The end of the first day of class is always interesting because I typically have a bunch of students who want to speak to me after class. Some of the comments I get are as follows:

“My friend told me to take this class and I know that I am going to like it.”

“I’m a business major and I’ve never had a class like this. I grew up in a very conservative environment so a lot of this will be new to me.”

“I just want you to know that I probably won’t agree with everything you say.”

“I know I look like the typical white guy but I have a ton of black friends.”

“This class will be good for me because I don’t know much about black history although I dated a black guy in high school.”

“I’ve started to read the assigned books and this is fascinating.”

I typically assign five required books for the class, including Negroes With Guns by Robert F. Williams and Die Nigger Die! by H. Rap Brown. I have been told it is an instant conversation piece with friends and roommates when many of my white students are seen walking across campus with these two books.

I ask about this phenomenon in class and they speak about the questions they are asked:

“What are you taking that class for? Is it required?”

“Why does this class exist?”

“Are there any other white students in the class?”

“What does it feel like in there?”

And my all-time favorite: “Does the professor hate white people?”

Additionally, some white students have mentioned the responses they get from parents when they tell them about the class:

“Now don’t get up to Austin and become a liberal.”

“Why would UT offer a class like that?”

“I hope the class doesn’t teach you that we are to blame for all of their problems. Slavery ended a long time ago.”

There are always several white students who say that they discuss the course lectures with their parents every Tuesday and Thursday evening over the phone. In fact, one set of parents got a copy of the syllabus and read the books along with their daughter. This same parent sent me a thank-you letter at the end of one semester for helping her and her daughter get another perspective on the black experience. Although the mom admitted she didn’t initially want her daughter taking the course, she realized that it helped both of them grow. In an email she wrote: “You don’t know how much this class has meant to me. I felt like I was taking the class. The books were eye-opening and great to read. You have converted me. I hope more white students take your class.”

The class is in lecture format but I do my best to make it interactive, interesting, and engaging. I typically start with a provocative question, such as: “Can white teachers effectively teach black children?”

Then we are off and running. I want to make the class as interactive as possible because in an era where Google has the content, the role of the professor is to facilitate, engage, inspire, and prepare them for the real world. Much of the course content for any class taught at a university can be found online, so students don’t really need a professor to give them the content they can find on their smartphones. My job is to use the course content to motivate them to do something dynamic with their lives when they leave UT. And, with 550 students, the class becomes like a town hall meeting.

There are several lectures during the semester where it seems like white students begin to understand. The first occurs on the second day, when I show graphic images of African Americans being lynched. In almost all of the images there is a group of whites surrounding the victim, smiling and posing for photographs. When I put up the first image the class becomes eerily silent. Some students stare at the image while others put their heads down. Then I ask: “What could this person have done to deserve this? Why are the people standing next to the corpse smiling? Why do the people appear to be well dressed? Why are kids in the photo? If you are a white kid and you witness this, how does this affect you for the rest of your life? If you are black, how does this incident affect you?”

Another transformative moment in the class comes when we discuss the reparations movement in America. After establishing that Jim Crow was state-sanctioned violence I then make a relevant application. “Since black people in Texas could not vote until the mid-1960s, that means white voters had a 100-year head start on black voters. To address this miscarriage of justice, would it be fair to pass a law stating that white voters could not vote again until 2075?” They all say no, even the black students. “What about all of the advantages this gave the white community?” They still say no. Then I provide the following illustration that they all understand:

“Imagine playing Monopoly with five of your friends. Each player gets their $1,500, then you choose a piece, and then you all roll the dice to see who will go first. Right before the game starts you are told that you must play by a different set of rules: You cannot buy property until everyone else goes around the board 20 times. But you can roll the dice, move around the board, pick cards from Chance and Community Chest, pass GO, pay taxes, and of course, you can go to jail. But remember, you cannot buy any property. Again, this rule only applies to you. So when you do finally have the chance to buy property, all of the property has been purchased. If these were the rules of the game would you ever be able to catch up to other people? No, because the rules were drafted so that you would never be able to compete. This is what happened to African Americans during the period of slavery and Jim Crow: The rules were drafted so that we would always play catch-up.” This is indeed an “ah-ha” moment for many white students in the class because for the first time in their lives they are able to see the connection between race and public policy and how the present is a product of the past.

When we discuss affirmative action and race in university admissions, it really touches a nerve with many students. Someone typically tells the class, “My friend, who is white, got a 1530 on his SATs but because he wasn’t top 10 percent he didn’t get into UT. He went to a competitive high school, so why should someone from an inner-city school get in before him with lower test scores?” Good point. I’ll respond: “The Top 10 Percent Law rewards those who were the best in their peer group and those from similar backgrounds. So while your friend did get a 1530, he wasn’t among the best in his peer group.” This typically transitions us into discussion about standardized testing and whether or not these exams are measures of intelligence or culturally biased against black people. I help the students process this question by giving them my five-question IQ test. I ask them to answer the following questions:

If I told you that I had to go put some money on my uncle’s books, what would I be talking about?

My friend spent his entire paycheck on some 22’s. What does this mean?

If you are up big in a dice game, at what point can you leave?

What does the acronym HBCU mean?

My grandmother recently told me that my grandfather had sugar. What is she talking about?

Then we discuss the answers. Typically, most of the black students get at least four of the answers correct, while the white students get them all wrong. “Now,” I ask, “does that make you dumb or unqualified for college because you failed to answer these questions?” No, it just means that the questions weren’t relevant to your environment.

One particular semester I had several members of a white fraternity in my class who were responsible for throwing a racially themed party in West Campus. Partygoers could walk from one side of the party to another as if they were swimming across the Mexican border into the United States. This, along with other racial stereotyping, upset many students on campus.

When it was brought to my attention that my students were in the fraternity that held the party, I met one of the Greek alpha males in my office. I asked him if he understood why people were mad. His response: “Dr. Moore, none of us are racist, we were just trying to have some fun.”

I believe him. I truly believe that he had no idea why people responded angrily. He then suggested I come by the frat house to have dinner with him and his fraternity brothers. When the appointed time came for the dinner he told me that we needed to postpone it. I’m still waiting. I think that he was ready to have an open discussion about race in America, but his fraternity brothers weren’t.

The end of every fall semester brings about mixed feelings. While I am excited about the Christmas break, I realize that I will not see this collection of students again. When I finish the last lecture and thank them for taking the class, the students generally start clapping. As students say goodbye I hope that over the past 15 weeks I’ve done a good job of preparing them for the real world. As they pursue internships, full-time jobs, or graduate and professional school, they now have a certain amount of awareness about the black experience in America that they will take with them to the marketplace. And I am sure that when they engage in discussions that involve race in America, they will start the discussion off with, “One time, I had this black professor at UT…”

Leonard N. Moore is a professor of history and a senior associate vice-president in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. His next book will be How Civil Rights Defeated Black Power: The Untold Story of the 1972 National Black Political Convention. History of the Black Power Movement meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11-12:15 in the fall and all are welcome to attend.

Illustration by Daniel Bejar

 

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