Chapter 13: Race

Education and the Common Good: A Moral Philosophy of the Curriculum
by Philip H. Phenix

Chapter 13: Race

Questions of racial justice belong to the general subject of social class and may be understood in the light of the analysis of classes and classification just presented. Some of the basic principles about class already developed will now be applied to the important special case of racial grouping. Problems of race deserve emphasis for two main reasons. One is the world-wide revolutionary situation, in which subject peoples of Asia and Africa are rising to claim their independence and their right to a fair share in the opportunities of life, and in which nonwhite peoples are challenging the exclusive privilege and world dominance of the white man. If democracy is to have any relevance and influence in such a time, the people of the United States and other democratic nations must demonstrate their understanding and practice of democratic ideals in the field of race relations. The second reason is the critical significance of the race question in American civic affairs at the present time, particularly in the field of public education. The historic Supreme Court decision of 1954 outlawing racial segregation in public schools and the subsequent, cautious, painful steps taken toward compliance with this ruling have forced a searching re-examination of conscience in the matter of racial justice in democratic education.

We begin by inquiring what is meant by race. In answering this question a distinction has to be made between popular lay conceptions of race and scientifically defined ideas on the subject. It is the former, non-scientific views which are socially influential and which must therefore constitute the starting point for our inquiry. Race is a mode of classifying people on the basis of certain features that are assumed to be biologically inherited and thus present from birth. It is also assumed that they cannot be changed by education or by any other act or experience of life. Racial divisions thus constitute a caste organization of society, with no possibility of mobility from one race to another.

The most common nonscientific basis for racial classification is skin color. People are sorted into "black," "brown," "red," "white," and "yellow." Skin color is the favorite distinguishing feature because it is so easy to identify. When an entire social system is permeated with racial distinctions, it is important to be able to recognize at a glance the race to which a person belongs, so as to leave no doubt about the behavior appropriate in relation to him. Two other popular types of racial designation are based on religious affiliation and national origin -- for example, "Jewish," "Italian," or "Armenian."

Whatever the primary index of race may be -- skin color, religion, or nationality -- this unscientific view of race presupposes certain inherited characteristics that all members of a given racial group have in common. These characteristics include at least the following three kinds -- physical features, psychological or personality traits, and cultural patterns -- and they combine to make a racial stereotype, a standardized picture of the typical member of a particular racial group. For example, as to physical features, black-skinned people are often stereotyped as having short, kinky hair and thick lips, Jews as having hooked noses, and Scandinavians as being blond and blue-eyed. Psychological or personality stereotypes may represent black people as happy-go-lucky, Jews as highly competitive, and Germans as domineering. In the cultural sphere, blacks may be stereotyped as musical, Jews as financially astute, and the French as good cooks and expert lovers.

Racial stereotypes are invented in order to make possible standard responses to members of supposed races, and thus to help maintain established social traditions and distinctions. They authorize one to deduce a wide range of conclusions, without argument or evidence, from the single premise that a person is a member of a particular race. With stereotype reactions it does not matter if the presumed racial qualities do not in fact exist in specific individuals. The discrepancies are overlooked, and the atypical individuals are treated exactly as if they fulfilled the a priori judgments about them. Action in relation to all members of a so-called race is determined wholly by expectations and not by actualities. In this fashion, racial designation forces its victims into the stereotype role and makes their life the same as if they possessed the stereotype traits, whether or not they really do.

Racist attitudes of this kind are not instinctive, automatic responses to human differences. They are learned. They are taught by the older members of each self-conscious human group to its younger members. They are not generalizations from observation, inductions from the experiences of associating with other people. Popular race perspectives are part of the cultural pattern of a society; they are one of the products of "civilized" existence.

Clearly, such racist views are undemocratic, and the education that perpetuates them is undemocratic. Race stereotyping denies the universal qualities of humanity by separating them into distinct breeds. It imposes unnatural barriers to personal freedom, and it inhibits the development of individuality by standardizing expectations and responses. Racial divisions narrow the range of each person’s permissible activities, condemning him to patterns of life prescribed by race customs.

One of the key objectives of democratic education should be to counteract racist education, thus liberating persons to be and become themselves instead of living in bondage to racial stereotypes. In effecting this it makes a great difference whether the guiding principles are those of desire or of worth. In the democracy of desire, in which the emphasis is on securing benefits, the less privileged races use education as one means of gaining power to challenge the more privileged groups. The result is the intensification of intergroup conflict and, paradoxically, the hardening of the prejudice that needs to be dispelled. The dominant races feel threatened by the attempt of the subordinate ones to gain equality, and hence are driven to seek still further grounds for discriminating against them.

The other basis for a democratic attack on racism is through concern for right, rather than for interests. This approach tends to dissolve racial distinctions through the growth of dispassionate understanding and serves to diminish racial conflict through appeal to what is universal. As in the democracy of desire, education may be used in the democracy of worth to gain social, economic, and political power for the sake of challenging the privileged position of the dominant races. But the primary intent of such challenge is for the sake of justice and to redress injustice, and not to secure benefits for the disadvantaged groups. The appeal is to principles of right that transcend intergroup rivalries and provide an objective standard of reference for the disinterested adjudication of competing claims.

The foundation of racial justice is a deep conviction of the unity of humanity and respect for the worth of every person. It is not enough to affirm these as abstract general principles; they must be controlling directives. Education for democratic race relations must go beyond factual instruction; it requires a change of motive, from that of promoting the prerogatives of one’s own group to that of serving the right without calculation of personal advantage. This calls for a comprehensive reorientation, a total reversal of outlook which affects one’s entire system of values. In effecting such a change of motives, factual understanding can be of considerable help. This is particularly true in teaching ethical conduct in regard to race. If one has a commitment to know the truth and to live by it, knowledge of the facts about race can help in the cure of nonrational race prejudices. While we cannot expect rational persuasion alone to eliminate race bias, it may be of considerable assistance in the following ways: it can expose the falsehoods upon which most racial prejudice rests, it can demonstrate the evil social and psychological consequences of racial discrimination, it can show the incompatibility of discriminatory policies with the known facts of human inheritance and development, and it can suggest means for eliminating the sources and effects of racial bias.

A number of rational considerations upon which democratic race attitudes should be founded will now be set forth. These are facts that must be taken into account in determining what constitutes racial justice. They should be included in the instruction of all young people in a democratic society.

First, no person can reliably or fairly be characterized simply by membership in a group, including a racial group. In whatever manner they are made, race classifications are, like all other modes of classification, abstractions, which cannot faithfully represent persons in their wholeness. Race designations at the most could have limited practical utility, by indicating certain common properties with specified functional significance. It is not right to put a race tag on a person and to consider it a meaningful indication of his personality. The complexity of the individual self, the infinite variety of personal differences, forbid any such categorizing of human beings.

Second, the race stereotypes actually used are for the most part built on false assumptions about the correlation of traits. Thus, it is not true that all Scandinavians are blond and blue-eyed, that all Germans are domineering, and that all Frenchmen are great lovers. Skin color has no necessary relation to other physical features nor to psychological and cultural characteristics. For any given shade of skin, persons may be found who have any of a wide range of other traits. The same trait variability applies to any other index of race, such as religion or nationality. Type patterns are maintained against the patent evidence because they permit the easy standardization of reactions and keep up the pressure for the preservation of separate racial subcultures which justify discriminatory practices.

Third, the usual racial indicators are inconstant, indefinite, and unreliable as means of classifying people. Skin color is not an enduring distinctive mark. It may change substantially as a result of exposure to the elements or because of health conditions. Yet no racist would claim that sunbathing or jaundice could bring about a change of race. A person born into a Christian or a Buddhist family may become a Jew, and a Jew may become a full-fledged Christian or Muslim. Furthermore, a whole spectrum of Jewishness may be found, all the way from complete and explicit identification with the people of Israel to the most remote and attenuated connection with Hebrew life and tradition. Similarly, while a person cannot change the country of his birth, he can adopt a new country and become so thoroughly identified with its people and ways that no one could possibly detect his foreign origin.

The most serious trouble with racial specification comes in connection with the offspring of mixed marriages. In the first generation the product is a "halfbreed," but further marriages complicate the picture. Generally the children bear the racial designation of the less favored of the parents’ races, in order that the dominance of the "superior" group may not be threatened by those who cross race lines in sex relations. The point here is that the mixing of races, which has always taken place, makes nonsense out of racist theories, which presuppose the possibility of some simple racial identification. Consideration of the way in which people have actually come into being makes it clear that there are no "pure" races, that every person and the members of every group derive from a great variety of earlier peoples. Hence, it is not possible to assign people to sharply defined racial groups.

Fourth, the most common racial mark, skin color, is superficial and insignificant. It is superficial in that it refers to surface appearances only and not to anything pertinent to the person as such. It is insignificant in that nothing is signified by it, except the meanings that have been read into it by the prejudiced imagination and intention. From the fact that a person has a given shade of skin pigmentation no other fact of any consequence can bee inferred, except that he will be accorded a certain kind of treatment by people in a race-conscious society. It is not possible, in general, to infer anything important about other physical qualities, character, emotional traits, personal habits, knowledge, or skills. Reflection on the obvious irrationality of continuing race prejudice may help to make clear our central theme that the first aim of education should be the awakening of devotion to what is good, in order that growth in knowledge and skill may serve some valuable purpose. Prejudiced people are not necessarily unintelligent; they have simply been prevented by self-interest from using their reason as a guide to just behavior.

It would be possible to define races by reference to traits that have some functional significance. For example, an important physical feature for medical purposes is the blood type. It is essential to discriminate between blood-type groups in giving and receiving blood for transfusions. Any inherited trait that actually makes a difference in what a person can do is significant within, but not beyond, the scope of the functions it affects. Such functional differentiation of people, however, is far removed from arbitrary racial separation based on nonfunctional traits.

Fifth, racism rests upon a confusion between inherited and acquired characteristics. Personal qualities that are due to environmental influences are wrongly ascribed to inherited racial patterns. For example, white supremacists have argued that Negroes are intellectually inferior to whites, and have submitted as evidence the lower average achievement of American Negro children in intelligence tests. What such comparisons fail to take into consideration is the effect of the Negroes’ inferior average social, economic, and educational position upon their intellectual development. There is no evidence that skin color by itself has any correlation with intelligence. Intellectual ability does seem to be in part dependent upon inherited factors, but it is also greatly influenced by environment. It is a demonstrated fact, plain for anyone who is willing to see, that a person’s knowledge, character, and skill are largely determined by his education in home, school, and community. Given the right conditions for growth, people of any shade of skin, any religion, or any nationality can develop into capable, cultivated, and civilized human beings. Racists have to deceive themselves about the significance of education in the fashioning of personality. By the same token, concern for education and recognition of its power to effect changes in human personality are incompatible with racial prejudice and help to diminish bias. The efficacy of education in the fashioning of character and the clear evidence of the plasticity of human nature through directed learning demonstrate the untenability of racial stereotypes, which presuppose the inheritance of fixed modes of conduct.

A sixth fact, already stated in reference to social classification generally, is that racial stereotyping tends to be self-confirming. People are forced by social arrangements and expectations based on prejudice into situations that make the intrinsically irrational and arbitrary racial distinctions to some degree justified. What inheritance cannot in fact bring to pass in regard to race characteristics, social influences may. While white supremacists who hold that Negroes by nature are incapable of exercising responsible political leadership cannot empirically defend that position, they can make it appear plausible by creating a society where Negroes are by custom excluded from public office and hence cannot by practice learn the arts of governing. Similarly, Jews have sometimes been forced by majority prejudice into defensive reactions that appear to confirm such anti-Semitic stereotypes as Jewish competitiveness and clannishness. Again, a prejudiced society which expects American Indians to be lazy and dishonest, Mexicans or Puerto Ricans to be vicious and delinquent, and Orientals to be subversive -- in every case as a natural racial trait -- is likely to adopt attitudes and policies toward these people which will lead them to some extent to respond accordingly.

People tend to live up (or down) to what others expect of them, because the image of oneself is developed in large part from the appraisals of others. The educative (or mis-educative) effect of a racially biased social order is to help actualize the images of man found in the prejudiced minds of its members. So powerful is the force of social influence that unjust racial appraisals infect the consciousness both of those who are discriminated against and of those who discriminate. Even in the bitterness and violence of their protests against racism, its victims sometimes betray their own fear that what the others believe about them might be true. Race discrimination is a vicious circle, the only means of deliverance from which is a steadfast devotion to truth and right.

Finally, racist attitudes are built upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the process of inheritance. The usual racist conception is that the blood is the carrier of inherited traits, and that a person’s race is a function of the species of blood which he possesses. This theory of racial blood kinds makes it plausible to impute a common cluster of traits to all members of a given race. As every schoolchild who has been instructed in the rudiments of science now knows, or should know, modern genetics has provided a completely different account of the mechanism of inheritance, making untenable the blood theory upon which traditional race lore rested. It is now known that biological inheritance takes place through the genes. Each inherited trait is determined by one or more genes and is not a feature of a single type-pattern as required by the blood theory. Skin color is determined by certain genes, facial features by others, intellectual potentialities by still others. Moreover, in the reproductive process the various genes are to a considerable degree independently assorted. Skin color genes pursue a genetic history of their own, without reference to the path taken by genes that have charge of facial features and intellectual potentialities. This independence can be directly demonstrated by an analysis of the mechanism of cell division and combination in sexual reproduction. The law of independent assortment constitutes the scientific basis for refuting the idea of racial stereotypes. The standardized trait patterns of racist belief do not and can not exist because the genetic factors that determine inherited traits are in most cases physically separate from each other and thus can be arranged in a wide variety of different combinations.

Moreover, the science of biology also affords better understanding of the relation between heredity and environment in the determination of personality. Study of how organisms develop reveals that no trait is wholly fixed by either heredity or environment, but that every feature of a person is a product of a long series of interactions between the growing individual and his surrounding world. Every quality of a person is what it is by virtue of a genetic potential operating within appropriate environmental conditions. Some traits are affected relatively little by environmental changes. Eye color is one example. Other traits, such as intellectual competence, are greatly influenced by the conditions of life. Racist theories put the emphasis almost exclusively on inheritance (which is incorrectly interpreted), neglecting the essential role of environment. The modern sciences of genetics and ecology have clearly provided empirical grounds for rejecting these traditional race concepts and for recognizing the fundamental role of education in the creation of human personality -- especially in respect to qualities that are so manifestly reflections of cultural patterns.

A factual analysis of race along the foregoing lines indicates the strong support that scientific inquiry can give to democracy. At the very least it shows the irrational nature of race prejudice and suggests the lengths of intellectual irresponsibility to which one must go to maintain the racist position. Critical scrutiny shows beyond all doubt the untenability of the entire network of assumptions upon which racial discrimination rests, and reveals the true character of racial bias as a device for rationalizing injustices. Modern scientific genetics offers an admirable empirical and conceptual base for affirming both human individuality and the essential unity of mankind. People of every nation, color, language, belief, and condition are now known to possess in their body cells trait factors drawn by an inconceivably complex sequence of intercombinations from a common "gene pool." The incontrovertible evidence of the cells is against all the racial divisions that prejudiced men have constructed and have sought to actualize by social regulation. At the same time, the gene story also shows how the virtually infinite number of possible chance combinations of the many factors that constitute a person’s biological inheritance explain and support the idea of personal individuality and uniqueness. ‘Thus, devotion to the truth about man, regardless of the consequences for traditional preconceptions about the races, leads the scientific inquirer to facts that sustain the grand democratic vision of a ground for fundamental human unity which is simultaneously the source of personal variety and singularity.

A clear understanding of the genetic history of mankind is important in coming to terms with the ultimate issue in race relations -- namely, miscegenation. The supreme offense in the eyes of the racist is to marry a person of another race. All of the lesser taboos against associating with members of other races are justified as preliminary defenses against this final calamity. In a race-conscious society one can hardly overestimate the intensity of negative feeling generated in parents at the thought of their child’s marrying a person of another race.

What is the cause of this horror of miscegenation among racists? Clearly, it is not an innate, inevitable psychological reaction, for there are many nations and societies where the mixing of the races is accepted without any question. For example, in Brazil and in France today racial intermarriages are considered proper and normal. Furthermore, breeding across race lines has been practiced throughout human history; that is how we came to have such a motley assembly of peoples on the earth today. Nor can any factual warrant be claimed for asserting the biological harmfulness of miscegenation -- the alleged "contamination" of "superior" racial stock by crossing it with "inferior." On the contrary, there is evidence that close inbreeding brings out genetic defects in the progeny, and that outbreeding on the average is conducive to health and vigor of offspring.

The repugnance to racial intermarriage in a race-conscious society is a consequence of existing social divisions, which impose severe penalties upon persons who fail to respect them. Marrying a person of another race undermines the whole race system. It weakens and confuses the distinctions between races and thus renders insecure the entire structure of prerogatives, privileges, and priorities built upon these differences. The punitive effect on the partners in a mixed union is severe enough, but not as serious as the consequences for the children born to them. The parents choose to defy prejudiced custom and are presumably prepared to pay the price; their children have no choice in the matter and are not immune to the cruelties of biased men. When parents in a society with race lines look with apprehension upon the marriage of their child to a person of a different race, they have in view the indignities and disabilities which the unjust society will visit upon the couple and upon their children and their children’s children. They also know that ordinary living imposes strain enough on a marriage, without inviting the additional difficulties occasioned by trying to bridge two subcultures which the majority of society are determined to keep separate. As a result, existing race divisions tend to be confirmed by the pressures against inter-marriage, and the fiction of race purity is maintained by social forces opposing the free choice of mates, which would bring the whole arbitrary structure of race distinctions and discriminations tumbling to the ground.

The method of progress from injustice toward justice in intergroup relations is through persistent efforts at desegregation` in all phases of cultural life. Segregation sustains racial stereotypes, facilitates identification by race, preserves traditional arbitrary racial taboos, and aids the suppression of those who would challenge the inequities of the existing system. While desegregation must proceed on many fronts simultaneously, in no segment of life is it more crucial than in education. Educational opportunity in a democracy should be the same for everyone, without regard to skin color, religious affiliation, national origin, or any other allegedly "racial" factor. These superficial and accidental traits which are taken as marks of race are in themselves educationally irrelevant and should be so treated in the allocation and conduct of schooling. As a result of prior injustices, members of disadvantaged racial groups may differ from the more privileged ones in ways that are educationally significant -- for example, in health, manners, and intellectual competence. When this is the case, it may be unsound policy to effect complete indiscriminate desegregation in the schools at once; to do so might seriously impair the quality of education available to children of the more favored groups and might result in major social dislocations as the parents of the better-prepared children sought to forestall such impairment. The solution is to introduce minimal health standards, applicable to all, and a certain amount of ability grouping (without regard to race) to insure reasonable efficiency of instruction. In other words, during the transition from a racially segregated to a desegregated school system, it may be desirable to substitute for the previous racial groupings new kinds of educationally pertinent groupings, in which any deficiencies of the less favored race can be taken into account automatically, without reference to race as such.

Moreover, special efforts should be made in the schools to compensate for the effects of race prejudice. Often the child from a low prestige family receives little encouragement at home for doing well at school. In such cases teachers and guidance counselors have a special responsibility for helping the child use his abilities fully. It is the business of the schools to act as a countervailing force in a prejudiced society. If educators rate pupils according to the prestige scales used in the community generally and apportion opportunities correspondingly, racial bias will only be strengthened and perpetuated. Loyalty to the right requires that the educational pattern invert the measures of the unjust society and give special consideration and a larger proportion of resources to those who, because of neglect and frustration outside of school, need them most. The schools can and should be a principal agency for breaking the vicious circle of racial prejudice.

Racial desegregation in the schools cannot take place in isolation but must be part of a broad attack on bias in many directions. Since the assignment of pupils to schools is determined largely by place of residence, segregated housing conditions perpetuate school segregation. Separate schooling, in turn, prevents the establishment of common interests and sympathies which make residential integration normal and attractive. Racial discrimination in work opportunities tends to be reflected in schools, which carry so large a share of the task of vocational preparation. Parents in favored groups can give unusual educational advantages to their children and thus continue the privilege pattern from generation to generation. Desegregation in education helps to break this unjust system by preparing young people for positions on the basis of social need and personal ability alone, exclusive of racial considerations.

Since public education is controlled through agencies of government, racial justice in education depends upon equal political rights and responsibilities for all citizens regardless of color, religion, or national origin. Conversely, equal educational opportunity makes it possible for all citizens to exercise their civic duties intelligently. In the United States many Negroes have been prevented from voting by devices, such as literacy tests, which better education would have rendered ineffective. On the other hand, the excellent progress since World War II toward the conquest of civil disabilities for the Negro has been due in considerable measure to the emergence of a sizable group of well-educated Negro leaders.

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