Sunday, March 21, 2010

Belief in Racial Equality and Belief in the American Dream

I've spent a lot of time considering why many of my students seem to be so resistant to the idea of systematic institutional racism. I can show them graphs and charts and reports and statistics that demonstrate institutional racism, such as this graph showing that the highest white unemployment rate ever recorded in the US (9.1% in 1984), is about the same as the lowest black unemployment rate ever recorded in the US (about 9.1%, in 2001). Or this study, which found that having a stereotypically "black" name on a resume means that you are called for an interview 50% less often than having a stereotypically "white" name on the exact same resume. Or this chart, demonstrating that white men with a criminal record are called for an interview more often than black men with no criminal record.

That's just in employment and the workforce. Health care, education, criminal justice - all of these have their own depressing and enlightening studies that demonstrate a devastating pattern of racism.

My students react to this information in one of four ways: complete shock, resigned agreement (this generally from minority students who are already well aware that society is out to screw them over, thankyouverymuch), complete denial, or ignoring me. It's the last two that I am concerned with today.

Often students will rally to vigorously defend their worldview, informing me that my statistics are skewed or just plain wrong. They often fall back on two explanations for their position: personal experience or "lifestyle".

The former nonscientific position is basically, "well, I've never seen any racism in my workplace or in my community, so there isn't any". I gently remind these (usually white) students that their experience may be different from others, and that their anecdotes are not comparable to a well-performed study.

The latter, more frustrating, insulting, and generally impossible to argue with position is basically, "minorities (particularly blacks) are responsible for their own problems in our society because of their poor lifestyle choices". I respond more directly to these attacks by saying something like, "it sounds like you believe that black people are, as a whole, lazier than white people." I feel a responsibility to stick up for the non-white students in my class who have to hear this bullshit and who have been informed that anger is not a viable response. Students who take this second position are often impossible to shift from their little world of denial.

Sometimes, it is minority students who stick most fiercely to this second position. I'll cover this phenomenon more completely in a later post.

My husband and others have professed disbelief as to why someone would remain so convinced that there was no institutional racism in the face of such overwhelming evidence. Well, for one thing my class may be the first time ever that my students even hear about institutional racism (thanks, Texas Textbook Commission). It is a new, overwhelming, and scary idea that challenges everything my students think they know about the world.

Specifically, it challenges the American Dream, and this is why I face such resistance.

Every American has their own version of the American Dream, but most involve some kind of ever-increasing wealth and prosperity. Children doing better than their parents. Self-reliance, determination, hard work, and pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps are all popular aspects of the Dream. Some Americans have already achieved this, have made their millions and are content at the top. These people are not in my Associate's Degree level classes.

There is no room in the lexicon of the Dream for someone (never mind a group of someones) for whom success is out of reach. For someone who has glass ceilings and glass walls that are pushing in around them - someone for whom a job at McDonalds is a major score. Institutional racism, sexism, classism - these show us that for some people success is difficult or impossible. Not through any fault of their own, but because despite their efforts they are battering themselves against a glass box that may never crack.

No! My students tell me, almost frantically. It is the individual who determines success or failure! If I work hard enough I can make it too! Luck - this they are willing to discuss. Privilege - no way.

My students are caught in the web of the American Dream and are dedicated to belief in it so that they can continue to propel themselves forward. I have had students who were formerly homeless, addicted, or abused. Students who have worked in retail, fast-food, or factories for their entire adult lives, and are dreaming of something better. They don't want to hear that it will be more difficult for them to reach their dreams, and who can blame them?

Everyone can succeed in America. We need to believe that, sometimes, just to keep going. Reality may be too painful.

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