Racism in America: What Will Be Your Deal?

06/08/2015 12:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

In December I participated in a forum at Uniondale High School in Uniondale, New York on "Policing in America: Should Uniondale Care about Ferguson?" It was organized by social studies teacher Adeola Tella-Williams and students in her Participation in Government class. The student population at Uniondale High School is almost 100% Black and Latino, and as it became clear at the forum, students felt the death by police of Michael Brown, an eighteen-year Black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, on a very personal level. In March, I held similar discussions with students at Oceanside High School as part of their annual Human Relations Day. The student population at Oceanside High School is about 85% White and only 2% Black and Oceanside is a more affluent community than Uniondale.

Nassau County on Long Island is a checkerboard of racially, ethnically, and economically segregated communities. Uniondale and Oceanside High schools are about a ten-minute bus ride from each other, but students from the two communities rarely if every interact. After meeting with teachers and administrators from both schools, we decided to organize a joint forum for seniors in government classes. Last week sixty students, plus teachers and administrators from both schools met at Uniondale High School to discuss "Race in America: Where do we go from here?"

We chose to bring together seniors from government classes because almost all of them will be entering college in the fall. They will be moving on from segregated communities into a broader world where they will be making decisions about who they are, who they will be related to, and the kind of world they want to help create.

Prior to the joint forum students received an activity sheet with two readings, both drawn from the New York Times. An editorial, "How Racism Doomed Baltimore," discussed how "[t]he Baltimore riots threw a spotlight on the poverty and isolation of the African-American community." According to a Harvard University study, "Baltimore is perhaps the worst large city in the country when measured by a child's chances of escaping poverty." The second reading was an excerpt from an opinion article by sociologist Orlando Patterson. Patterson argued that rather than renewed racism, the real problems facing inner-cities in the United States are "a vicious tangle of concentrated poverty, disconnected youth and a culture of violence among a small but destructive minority in the inner cities; and, on the other hand, of out-of-control law-enforcement practices abetted by a police culture that prioritizes racial profiling and violent constrain."

As they read, students were asked to consider three questions.

1. How are the arguments presented in these essays similar and different?
2. In your opinion, which essay presents the more convincing case? Why?
3. In your opinion, why does race continue to be such a difficult topic to address in the United States today?

As the group entered the Uniondale Little Theater, students agreed to mix it up so that it was easier to talk with each other across the Long Island great divide. We also started with a disclaimer. No one here is a racist! We are here because racism is real and it is something we all have to respond to in some way. As facilitator I distinguished between racism, systematic discrimination and oppression based on real or imagined inherent group differences, and biases, learned prejudices that all people have that may or may not affect attitudes and behavior towards others.

Before opening a general discussion, we examined an excerpt from a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1967 Southern Christian Leadership Conference annual meeting. In 1967 the civil rights movement was divided by how to respond to both legislative victories and inner-city violence. King asked movement leaders a question that continues to resonate in the present: Where do we go from here? The group also watched two brief videos. "Racism is Real" by Brave New Films and a Jon Stewart Daily Show segment "Baltimore on Fire."

The introduction took about twenty minutes. Students then spoke together about racism in their communities and the United States for the next hour and a half. Of the 60 students who participated, at least 80% spoke. After a slow start as they waited for someone to break the ice, students couldn't stop talking back and forth and we only ended the forum because the Oceanside bus had to get back to their school. Many students shared personal experiences that had with police in their community and what they see as racism. These were high school seniors, many of whom drive, so a lot of the initial comments centered on traffic stops.

The first two students to speak got everyone going. A Latino male from Uniondale described how after school he goes to work and after work he drives to a local diner for supper. In the past few months he has been stopped and questioned by police a number of times. He is always respectful because he wants to get home safely and not become another statistic. A young White woman from Oceanside then recounted how her mother was stopped while driving in a neighboring town for going through a stop sign. In her case the police gave her a respectful warning to be careful because she had her two daughters with her and then let them go. Other students then chimed in about driving while Black and Latino and how instead of being let go with a warning they end up with multiple tickets.

There were also a lot of thoughtful questions addressed to teachers and other students. Four of the questions stick in my memory because of the discussions that followed.

1. Has racial integration forced by government every really worked? In this case most of the students were familiar with the racially segregated wartime armed forces during World War II and the post-war desegregation of the United States military.

2. Aren't ethnic communities choices? This question was discussed in the "Racism is Real" video clip. Some immigrants and Black and Latinos may choose to live in ethic communities because of cultural and linguistic familiarity. But people first have to have the ability to choose. Minority group members, especially people with limited economic resources, because of discrimination and difficulty in getting loans, usually don't.

3. Are police racist or just stressed by a dangerous job? An Oceanside high school student whose father is a police officer shared his father's experience. His father did not deny that some police officers may be racist. But most police officers have to make split second decisions under stressful circumstances and they are not always sure they made the best judgment under the circumstances. In response to this question and comments, the group examined and discussed a statement by FBI director James Comey acknowledging "that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups."

4. Why do Blacks riot and not Whites? It turned out this isn't true. In the 19th century and first half of the twentieth century there were major race riots in New York, St. Louis, Tulsa, and Chicago where White mobs attacked and killed Blacks. This question also led to a discussion of who commits crimes against people and property. When ethnic groups like Jews and Italians made up the inner-city poor at the start of the 20th century, they also were most of the criminals.

The teachers who participated recognize that one discussion like this is not going to change the world or even these communities. Hopefully it helped students think about issues that are often in the background but never up front, especially in an interracial setting. As they go off to college, maybe these young people will have a new sense of possibility for the future. Probably the biggest change will be the opportunity for an ongoing relationship between the schools in the future.

I want to credit the teachers and school and district administrators that made this forum possible. Social studies coordinators Mitchell Bickman (Oceanside) and Mark Sipher (Uniondale), teachers Peter Stein (Oceanside) and Michael Mullervy, Adeola Tella-Williams, Justin Williams, and Serge Argueta (Uniondale), Uniondale High School principal Florence Simmons, and Uniondale Assistant Superintendent Rhonda Taylor. Bickman, Stein, Mullervy, Tella-Williams, and Williams are all alumni of the Hofstra University School of Education programs.

I often end forums like this one saying that in Brooklyn where I live and in the New York City metropolitan area where I visit schools you have to have a street name and be able to rap to have "creds" or credibility. My street name is Reeces Pieces. I claim teens call me that because my rap is better than Eminem, which it ain't. I ended this session as Reeces Pieces with my baseball cap cocked to the side.

Racism doomed Baltimore
And Freddie Grey died
Housing and schools decayed
And politicians lied

Segregated neighborhoods
Kids in failing schools
No inner city jobs
So poverty ruled

School to prison pipeline
Prepares kids for jail
Don't learn much history
No space at Hofstra or Yale

King asked all America
"Where do we go from here?"
Racism in America is real
What will be your deal?