Magazine article Radical Teacher

A High School Class on Race and Racism

Magazine article Radical Teacher

A High School Class on Race and Racism

Article excerpt

For most people, "Cambridge, Massachusetts" conjures up images of world-class universities and, more recently, through-the-roof housing prices. But Cambridge Rindge and Latin (CRLS), the city's only public high school, located only three blocks from Harvard Yard, represents an entirely different segment of Cambridge life. The school, of approximately 1850 students in 2003, is home to a remarkable economic, racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity--42.3% Black, 33.7% white, 15.1% Latino, and 8.4% Asian-American (1); 30% low-income (2); approximately 60 different home languages. The Cambridge area hosts an impressive array of private (and parochial) schools and very few Cambridge resident Harvard and MIT professors send their children to CRLS.

I have taught a course on Race and Racism at the high school three times, most recently in the fall of 2002. Normally, I teach race studies, multiculturalism, and moral philosophy at UMass/Boston. I have no training as a high school teacher, but because my children attend(ed) the high school, and through a quirky set of circumstances, I ended up with my own class there in spring, 1999. I was curious whether high school students would be willing to discuss racial issues in an open and honest way across racial and ethnic boundaries--an endeavor that, in my experience, most college students, and adults as well, find quite difficult. I hoped to be able to create a comfortable and trusting atmosphere that, leavened with a bit of humor, would facilitate this goal. And, indeed, I found high school students extremely, even dauntingly, open with their views and feelings about race and racism, and anything else for that matter. I do not want to generalize beyond my limited experience; but I have found that my students are grateful for an opportunity to discuss, explore, and learn about race-related matters; that they are very interested in each others' opinions, especially though not only across racial and ethnic lines; and that Black and Latino students will express themselves more freely in a class in which they are the majority than they report doing in other enriched and advanced classes in which they are less than about 20%.

I will discuss the course and the class in more detail, but want to situate my experience within wider currents of educational reform that have been playing out in Cambridge and the nation. The racial "achievement gap" has lately come onto the national screen in the past few years. Whites and Asians outperform Blacks and Latinos in school, to a significant and troubling extent. The literature on this phenomenon is vast. Popular theories among conservatives and traditional liberals are that Black kids castigate high achievers as "acting white." (3) Race liberals and radicals tend to favor Claude Steele's "stereotype threat" hypothesis, according to which Black students capable of high achievement fail because their fear of confirming what they rightly recognize to be a culturally salient stereotype of Blacks as low achievers leads them to become rattled in test situations, and so to under-perform. (4)

The achievement gap shows up between different kinds of schools--roughly, suburban white and urban Black and Latino schools--and within mixed schools as well. In discussions in my UMass education classes, I find that students who have not studied the issue think the gap is primarily a matter of class--urban students don't do as well because their economic circumstances hinder them in various ways. But class can not be the only factor, since the racial gap exists within the same income groups too, and is in fact greater among upper-middle-class than working-class whites and Blacks, though it is not as great as when both middle-class whites and Asians are compared to working-class and poor Blacks and Latinos.

In recent years, the racial achievement gap has become much discussed at CRLS. (5) The school has a sizable white working-class population, generally of Portuguese origin (often fairly recent immigrants), as well as Irish and Italian, along with a larger white middle-class group. …

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