How to Improve Discussion of Race in the Classroom

December 12, 2014

The grand juries’ decisions not to indict white police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner bore all the hallmarks of sensitive topics that, to keep the peace, should be discussed only in private, or in small groups of people who share the same race and politics.

I don’t have that luxury. I teach criminal procedure to a racially mixed group of law students. Early in the semester we had discussed the constitutional requirements for the use of deadly force by the police. Coming into class the day after the Ferguson decision was announced, I knew we needed to talk.

I also wanted to talk. Though segregation is no longer required by law, too many Americans nevertheless grew up in segregated neighborhoods and attended segregated schools. A 2013 study by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed many whites’ social networks to be overwhelmingly—more than 90 percent—white. Giving in to the temptation to avoid all talk of race is a mistake because it helps perpetuate those divides.

Given this continued structural social segregation, colleges and workplaces are important sites for cross-racial dialogue because these are the places where we are most likely to encounter people of different races. As a professor of courses in which race pervades many conversations, it has become increasingly clear to me that we can’t learn from one another if we don’t talk to each other. And it is my job to help my students learn how to talk with one another about the tenacious and delicate issue of race in America.

In that spirit, I have tried the following approaches with my students when seeking a constructive dialogue about race relations. I think they apply equally well in any social setting—with friends, with family, or at the water cooler.

Start by acknowledging differences. We are inevitably shaped by our life experiences, and there’s nothing wrong with that. To sharpen my students’ skills in cross-racial dialogue, I suggested that before engaging people in discussions about the events in Ferguson, they should acknowledge at the outset that they and the people with whom they are engaging are likely to have perspectives that are central to their experiences and different from the experiences of others.

For example, many African-Americans see the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner as a sign of the not-so-distant past when the police enjoyed impunity for murdering African-Americans. They view the decisions not to indict as proof that our bloody past is still with us and that they can never protect their children from death at the hands of the police. On the opposite side, as I learned when I was embedded with the police department of a large U.S. city while researching my book on hate crimes, those in the law-enforcement community feel their safety is always at issue. They feel threatened by protesters and unfairly blamed when it is necessary for the police to use lethal force. Recognizing and accepting such differences up front creates a neutral starting point for further discussion.

Discover the facts. It’s not just that people have different perspectives based on their life experiences; the Internet and social media make it easy for both sides to marshal facts that support their particular viewpoint. I told my students that their charge, if they want to learn anything, is to listen openly and fairly to facts they may initially want to reject. My responsibility as a teacher is to lay out the facts on either side and help students draw their own conclusions.

For instance, when my students asked whether the prosecutor in Ferguson had a specific outcome in mind, I stressed that there is no way we could know for sure. I also pointed out that in most grand-jury investigations, the prosecutor asks for an indictment, but in this case the investigation was a data dump. This approach enables me to present the facts without hiding the ball about my own views—a practice that many students would find inauthentic.

Allow room to maneuver. Presenting the facts on either side while not hiding the ball offers another advantage: It creates a safe place for people to express myriad viewpoints. My current criminal-procedure class contains a wide spectrum of student views, from completely anti-police to completely pro-police. Such diversity of opinion is the norm in a law school. As teachers, we are responsible for fostering constructive discussions around those opinions.

These sorts of discussions test our views and even our relationships. The easiest way to emerge on the other side, with relationships intact, I remind my students, is not just to recognize the perspective of someone with an opposing viewpoint, but to respect it. If we are to build a society imbued with civility and understanding, mutual respect is the biggest challenge of all, and our greatest opportunity.

Jeannine Bell is a professor in the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University at Bloomington.