Discussion starter

Here’s the deal. I give you the readings. I write a short lecture. Then, for this week, the first seven members of class write something about the readings and my lecture. I would like each of those seven to pick something specific and talk about it as a theme. Just a couple of paragraphs is fine. I want these discussion starters by noon on Wednesday, Feb 3.

THEN, I want the rest of you to comment on one (or more) of those comments. Fine to comment more than once, but you must comment once, somewhere. And remember, it’s going to be your turn twice, so comment in the way you would want others to comment on you (it’s the Farnsley Golden Rule). These additional comments should be done by 5:00pm on Friday, Feb 5.

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Every week is going to run like this. And I’ll put the readings on the syllabus so you can read ahead for the week you lead discussion.

With me? Ok, here are the readings for the week of Feb 1:

http://accounts.smccd.edu/bellr/readerlearningtoread.htm (Links to an external site.)
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https://www.democracynow.org/2020/12/31/the_freedom_struggle_in_2020_angela (Links to an external site.)
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Here are the seven discussion leaders for this week: Enrique, Noah, Brooke, Ben, Deborah, Ashley, and Allen D. They have til noon Wed to start the conversation. Everyone else will comment on what they say. I will also join the commenting. All you need to do is write a couple of paragraphs that engage one of the readings and get us going.


And now, my lecture:

Race is a difficult category. We know by now that race has essentially NO biological meaning. Seriously. It’s mostly melatonin. Now, people from specific areas have specific characteristics. You may have noticed, for instance, that many people from Sweden are blonde and have fair skin. A lot of Chinese people have dark hair. But these characteristics are superficial when it comes to human biology.

However, race is also incredibly real. Not everything in life is about biology. If you want to know how someone voted in the 2020 election, the most important large category you could know was whether they think of themselves as “black.” (And it does not matter what color their skin actually is, only that that they think of themselves as “black” in a cultural sense.) More than 90% of black people have voted Democratic for president for many elections. No other large category predicts voting behavior quite so well.

Black and white are by no means the only two important racial categories, but in America there is no point in pretending this is not the elephant in the room. It is. This racial difference is about forced immigration, slavery, intimidation, Jim Crow, lynching, and voting rights.

For this week, Race Part 1, I have given you three reading from very important historical figures. One of these is the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This is by MLK Jr and is perhaps the most important statement on civil rights ever made in America, though the Emancipation Proclamation and the I Have a Dream speech are also right up there.

Dr. King needs no particular introduction. He is one of the most famous figures of the 20th century. We named a national holiday for him. But as we think about “who Americans are,” we need to hear the way he talks to and about white people who are against him, but also the way he talks about those who are kind of on his side. I think this is quite relevant today.

Please pay special attention to the section that begins:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.

As we think about “who Americans are,” we should think about the way Americans relate to one another, about who feels fully included and who feels excluded to some (whatever) degree.

A different reading is a very short piece by Malcolm X, who was born Malcolm Little. We have developed a weird American hagiography (look it up if you don’t know it) where MLK is the hero who was all about getting along and Malcolm X was the radical, dangerous person threatening revolution. But in fact, Malcolm X was an intellectual. He was himself not a violent man. And he knew full well that the pressure he was able to apply—the pressure he came to represent—was a benefit to leaders like King. Some people were negotiating in the middle, some people were applying pressure out on the edge. It kept everybody’s eye on the ball.

Malcolm X was part of the separatist group Nation of Islam, founded by the Honorable Elijah Mohammad. It is hard to get a sense now of how important separatism was in the 1960s. There was a genuine belief in some circles that America could never really come together. And this caused Americans to ask, “Is this who we are?”

As you read this piece by Malcolm X, I encourage you to remember, “don’t believe everything you hear.” Here is a video of him with the champ. (And when I say, “the champ,” there is only really one. Sorry, I will not accept further argument on this point.) When I think of Malcolm X, I think of this man:

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The third piece is by Angela Davis. She is also an intellectual, a student of the famous social philosopher Herbert Marcuse. In America she also came to be thought of as a radical. But later, she was really one of the first people to talk about the relationship among different kinds of social markers in her book Women, Race and Class. This relationship later came to be called “intersectionality,” but Professor Davis was talking about this in the 1980s. In fact, I saw her speak at Wabash College when I was a college student.

Angela Davis is still alive, so I gave you this as a reading that is much more current. Not all civil rights stuff is about MLK and Malcolm, but they are good places to start.

As you do these readings, and as our first seven classmates start the discussion, I want us to focus on what race has to do with being American. I know we want to say, “America is not about race” or “In America, race should not matter.” But we all know it does. This is college, so we should be able to talk about why race matters and how we are dealing with it.

I am well aware this makes some people uncomfortable. I read the comments from last week, so I know lots of class members do not like to discuss politics. I cannot imagine that race or religion will make them any more comfortable. But at some point we have to talk out loud about what “race” has to do with being American, so might as well be here and now.

I am not, of course, asking anyone to climb way out on a limb (though you can if you want). But I do want us to reflect on these readings and what they mean to us today.

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