Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900-1954

By Zoë Burkholder | Go to book overview

3
Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead
Teaching Teachers Race and Culture

No subject you study in school today is more fraught with conse-
quences than this subject of race. We shall examine it from every angle.

—Ruth Benedict, 1942

If educational leaders … were able to enlist young people in the task of
creating new patterns of living congruent with the aims of a democratic
society, this readiness for any new path might be used in building a
more democratic state rather than a less democratic one.

—Margaret Mead, 1940

Speaking to James Baldwin in 1970 in their collaborative effort A Rap on Race, anthropologist Margaret Mead reflected on her civil rights activism of the 1940s. “I was speaking in those days about three things we had to do,” she explained. “Appreciate cultural differences, respect political and religious differences, and ignore race.”

Baldwin replied, thoughtfully, “Ignore race. That certainly seemed perfectly sound and true.”

“Yes, but it isn’t anymore. You see, it really isn’t true. This was wrong, because …,” stammered Mead.

“Because race can’t be ignored,” finished Baldwin.1

By 1970 it was clear that the ideal of a colorblind society had been hopelessly optimistic, if not downright destructive to social justice in the United States.2 But in the 1940s social activists like Mead firmly believed the most effective way to eradicate racism was to stop focusing so much attention on the subject of race. The colorblind ideal was a logical and appealing extension of the scientific critique of racism. It allowed activists to acknowledge that the race concept had no ability to explain social relations, while providing what appeared to be a simple solution to the enduring problem of racial discrimination. Instead of trying to teach scientific theories on racial egalitarianism, proponents of the colorblind ideal asked Americans to disregard the significance of race as part of a larger project of gradual racial integration.

-65-

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