In High Schools, Race, and America’s Future: What Students Can Teach Us About Morality, Diversity, and Community, philosopher Lawrence Blum recounts his experience teaching a course on race and racism at a Cambridge high school. By turns philosophical and funny, Blum’s book relays the dialogue and experiences of his uninhibited teenage students and then considers the class in the larger historical and social context of race in America. Editorial Assistant Kelly Catalfamo talks with Blum about the challenges and rewards of teaching such a course.

Kelly Catalfamo: Tell me about how you became interested in teaching a high school class on the subject of race.

Lawrence Blum: At the University of Massachusetts, Boston, I was teaching people who were going to become teachers and some who were already teachers. But I felt a little bit as though it wasn’t quite right for me to be their instructor when I’d never had any experience teaching in the K–12 system. So I was feeling somewhat funny about it. Then, also, because I was starting to shift my teaching towards more race-related topics and away from straight moral philosophy, I was just getting used to teaching this very charged territory of race. As I was learning how to do that at the college level, I got interested in thinking about race at the high school level.

My kids all went to the same high school that’s discussed in the book, Cambridge Rindge & Latin. It’s really unbelievably diverse, astoundingly diverse—at the time my kids attended there were about 64 home languages. So one day I was talking to one of my children’s history teachers and I asked her whether she thought that the school was making much use of the racial and ethnic diversity as educational resources for the students, and she thought for a minute and said, “I don’t think it is.”

My idea was to run a discussion group. This teacher suggested I call the social studies coordinator, who said, “That’s a great idea, except that you can’t have an after-school discussion group because students don’t have time to take it, so you have to give a real course.” I never really thought I could actually teach a real course. She called me the next day and said, “I’ve consulted with people in the system, I’ve consulted with the principal, you’re down for a course next semester.” So with no training I went into this situation of teaching a high school course on race and racism.

KC: On that topic, did you find there were any unexpected challenges that came up teaching high school that aren’t there in college-level classes?

LB: Well, yes. There were several different challenges. The thing that was particularly striking to me early on was how uninhibited high school students are compared to college students. And I really wasn’t used to how they would say, “This is boring, Mr. Blum!” or “Why are we reading this? We should read this other book and not the one you told us to read!” My college students know how to not say stuff like that even if they’re thinking it, and even if I know they’re thinking it. So the high school students were very uninhibited and of course in a way that served the class well because they were uninhibited discussing race, and race is a topic people are very inhibited about. Of course, on the other hand, it meant they would put stuff out there that was like a curveball and not the kind of thing adults normally say about race, and I would have to figure out how to roll with it and to make a teachable moment out of it.

A different kind of challenge was how heterogeneous the class was in the academic skills that they brought to the course. At a school like Rindge that’s extremely racially mixed, if you look at the kids in the advanced stream of courses, they tend to be dominated by whites even though whites are a minority of the school’s population. I didn’t want my class to be dominated by whites—part of the goal of the course was to have a class in which students of color were a majority and whites a minority. There were two overlapping issues: one was the racial issue, and the other was the issue of not wanting the already most academically sophisticated kids—I didn’t want them, whatever their race was. So I asked the guidance counselors to send me students who were hoping to go to college and planned to go to college but weren’t necessarily the most sophisticated students—the kids who weren’t going to go to really selective colleges. That’s the kind of student I wanted.

I didn’t always get what I wanted, because the students would sign up for it, and there were some kids who weren’t this kind of student and they wanted to take the course either because they were interested in the subject or because a college professor was teaching it. There was really a wide range: some kids didn’t go to college after graduating, and some went to Ivy League schools. So there was this huge range and I had to figure out a way of teaching the course that would have all of them in a learning space together. Some people think you can’t really teach a class like that and that you have to track kids so that they’re with other kids at the same level. It’s sometimes called “ability grouping,” but I don’t really like that expression because I don’t really think it’s ability. It’s rather a kind of sophistication that’s a product of what resources they’ve had available to them.

Some of my students did have internalized self-doubts, but that didn’t mean they were unable to perform.

KC: On another note, it sounded as though you were a bit uneasy with the idea of “stereotype threat”—the notion that minority students sometimes perform below their abilities because of an anxiety that they will confirm a negative stereotype about their social group—when you discussed it in the book.

LB: One thing I wanted was for my students to know how to recognize the difference between a stereotype—that is, a false generalization about a group—and something that’s true about a group. There are group differences, and you have to be able to talk about group differences. It’s true that students of some groups may get higher grades than others. Well, that’s a starting point. If you know that on the average group A gets better grades than group B, and you think, “Well, wait a second, we want to close that gap up”—you’ve got to know that gap exists in order to start. And you want to close the gap without stereotyping people—without thinking, “Oh, if you’re in group B, that means that you’re an inferior student.” If you understand averages, you understand that just because your group on average does worse than another group, it doesn’t mean that you as an individual do worse than members of the other group.

But there’s something about the way that stereotype threat has been developed in educational psychology that I’m not totally on board with, and I express my reservations in the book. One of my reservations is that in social psychologist Claude Steele’s conceptualization of the idea, he wants to distinguish stereotype threat from when a group internalizes a stereotype and thinks that maybe it is actually true of them. And he wants to say, “That’s not stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is when you’re just worried that somebody else thinks the stereotype applies to you, but you don’t think it yourself.”

The thing that made me uncomfortable about that is it seems to me that if you’re in a group that’s vulnerable to being stereotyped by others, at least some members of that group are likely to internalize the stereotype themselves. And I don’t see why black high school students wouldn’t have some racial self-doubts, because they’re quite aware that many people think that blacks aren’t as smart, don’t work as hard, stuff like that. And I thought that some of my students exhibited some of that internalized self-doubt.

I’ve written an academic paper about this. I think that the way Steele characterizes self-doubts inflates their importance. Some of my students did have internalized self-doubts, but that didn’t mean they were so crippled by them that they were unable to perform—it just meant that they had to struggle with those self-doubts. I think recognizing that students have them is important for teachers, because then you can help them cope. In the book I quote a student who wrote something saying that studying this idea of blacks being intellectually inferior had helped her to realize that this stereotype was wrong.

KC: Do you think the classroom dynamics would have been different if a non-white teacher had taught the class?

LB: Yeah, I definitely do. And in ways that I can’t necessarily say because I can’t step out of my own shoes.

But I want to emphasize that different white instructors would get different things to happen in the class. And different black instructors and different Latino instructors. So I think in the beginning of the course the kids would be more affected by your race, but over time you would become more of an individual instructor and the way you dealt with them and with the class material would affect them more than your race. But I don’t believe in racelessness, I don’t believe in colorblindness, so I don’t think you’d ever get to the point where it made no difference at all, nor would it be good if it did.

One of the things I want from this book is to encourage other white teachers to try teaching classes like this or to incorporate some of this kind of material in classes. Including professors like me, who have never taught at that level. I’d like to encourage them to make arrangements with their local high schools to try to teach a course like this. But I would also hope that actual high school teachers would try to do more of this instead of just throwing up their hands and saying, “Oh my god, race! Let me out of here.”

KC: You mentioned in your book that you wanted to help students think about higher education as “part of their world.” What exactly did you mean by that?

LB: If you grow up in a household where other people have been to college, and everyone expects you to go to college, and people are referring to colleges and talking about colleges, that’s different from growing up in a household where college is more an aspirational thing but isn’t part of your everyday world. What I was doing was a very small drop in the bucket, but I was just trying to make the world of college seem like part of their world.

I talked to them about Audrey Smedley, the author of their main textbook, and how I went down to visit her at Virginia Commonwealth University. I was, in a way, trying to make her this human being who wrote this book, so they didn’t think, “Weird people write books like that,” but rather, “That’s part of what college is, that people write books like that and then you read books like that.” And I tried to help them understand that there were these different kinds of colleges, and I talked to them a little about UMass Boston.

They didn’t care about the numbers of their specific group; they just cared that there was enough diversity in general.

KC: I thought the students’ reaction to Smedley, how they were so shocked she was black and a woman, was interesting.

LB: It was interesting how interested and surprised they were. I thought that they would have read black women writers such as Toni Morrison. Or like the student who talked about it, when I asked, “Well, what’s your idea of what a black women writes like?” and she said, “Maya Angelou.” So it’s a black woman who foregrounds her identity as a black woman in the thing she’s writing. Whereas Smedley is the exact opposite of that: her book written in this very neutral, academic way that gives no signaling of her own identity. I wanted them to understand that this was one way that people write and that there are good reasons not to foreground your identity in everything that you write.

KC: What do you think helped the students talk so openly about racial issues in such a mixed class?


LB: I think the historical material is part of it. If you’re studying what happened in 1815 or something, it’s not as charged as if you started by saying, “OK, what happened to you yesterday when you were walking down the street?” So they can engage with this material, and then they can bring their personal stuff into that historical academic space. That’s part of it, but I don’t think that can be all of it. I think there’s something about creating a safe space, and I tried to model that by not coming down hard on somebody and saying, “Oooh, you said something racist.” I just tried to model a respectful attitude toward the students and I made it clear to them that everything they said was interesting, that I found it interesting, and that other students should find it interesting.

KC: Would you change this course at all if you were teaching it in a less diverse high school—either mostly white or mostly black?

LB: I think that with either demographic, you would have to think about how to teach it. I do think that a course like this can be beneficially taught to any demographic. I really want to make that clear.

Some people said to me, “You know, actually, white people are the ones who need to learn this stuff more than minority kids. The minority kids understand; even if they don’t understand all the details, they have more of a sense of it. It’s the white people who don’t want to think about slavery, they don’t want to think about inequality and segregation and what the legacy of those things through the present is.” So I want to encourage people who teach in mostly white spaces to do it.

But it is true that if you had a class with 20 white students and two minority kids, that would be a bad setup. It would almost be better to have 20 white kids and no kids of color. If there were, say, two sections of the course offered at a school that was predominately white, I think it’d be better to have one that was all white and one that had a critical mass of students of color.


KC: You say that so that the minority students wouldn’t feel as isolated?

LB: Yes. In the book I talk a little about the Supreme Court’s idea of critical mass in Grutter v. Bollinger. I think they’re on to something, but it’s too superficial. It’s true that the minority kids are sensitive to the racial demographic. If there are only one or two or them, it’s too much of a spotlight on them, it’s as though every time they talk, it’s too charged.

The Supreme Court said you need to have members of your specific racial group in critical mass in order to feel comfortable. But what some of my kids said was that they didn’t care about the numbers of their specific group; they just cared that there was enough diversity in general. And I thought that was really quite fascinating and it’s different from the way that both the Supreme Court and the research that the Supreme Court was drawing on was looking at.

But I also think as we move on and more and more people are accustomed to more and more diversity, you’re going to get more of that reaction where it’s not so much your particular group but just the fact of diversity itself that makes the students feel comfortable.

KC: In your book, you sometimes mention that you regret not elaborating on a subject when there could have been a potential “teaching moment.” Is there anything in particular that you would add if you were redesigning the course?

LB: I think if I taught that course again, I would add more of a class element. It was in there, but it could have been dealt with more fully. There’s so much more material than you could possibly have dealt with. It seems very arbitrary that I deal with this, and not with that.

A thing that I didn’t do in the course that someone could do is to try to show how the legacy of slavery and segregation affects why there are now the disparities that there are in wealth, income, access to health care, occupation, and stuff associated with people’s socioeconomic status. That isn’t just an accident, it’s not just, “Oh, people are different.” It’s because of the history. But I didn’t trace how it is part of the history. I suggested it, but the course didn’t make those links, and that would be an interesting thing to look at.