One of my Facebook friends posted an old video from Sesame Street showing Big Bird and Snufffalufagus explain to kids what disco was. It got me to thinking about how you explain complicated concepts to children without talking down to them or oversimplifying the concepts. Sesame Street is pretty good at this though far from perfect. How should one explain race for example? It does no good to say that race doesn’t exist because they can visibly see that it does. Similarly it does no good to say that race exists but it doesn’t matter because we live in a world where it indeed matters.  One’s chances in life, the opinion one has about you, and the actions others take toward you are all conditioned upon racial beliefs. Rather than write some cutesy dialogue (l’ll leave that to others more talented at that sort of thing), I thought I would think of the things such a dialogue should contain.  It should make three points: race exists as a physical category, everybody has a race, race is not just one thing it is a collection of physical traits. The problems come when you try to use race to explain anything. e.g. a certain race acts this way or a certain person acts this way because he is a member of a particular race.  The first problem is that “race” is actually a collection of physical traits none of which determine behavior.  Brown skin, flat noses and kinky hair do not impel complex things like behavior any more than white skin, blue eyes and straight hair.  Furthermore those we consign to racial categories based on “race” rarely have an unmixed collection of those physical characteristics.

It is also true that not all of the people we put in a racial category behave the same way. My investigations of  twentieth century African American history have shown that the seemingly preferred tactic of most civil rights leaders was to show that there were blacks who behaved in decent, moral and otherwise proper ways that were not those of the racial stereotype attributed to blacks. Apparently television hasn’t gotten that memo particularly about other races. With the rare exceptions like “The Cosby Show” few media productions show other races without resort to racial stereotypes. As America has become more diverse the media has simply included more racial steroetypes in their productions.

The major problem however is that the concept of race as become part of the web of power relations in our world. I recall a review of a John Coltrane Quartet album that states the drummer (Elvin Jones) sets the rhythm so well in the first few bars that he doesn’t have to continue to do it, it is always implied.  So it is with race and power. Race is so embedded in American power relationships that whether one consciously mentions it or not it is always there. It still determines who holds power (yes I know a black man is president but look at the attacks upon him), the way those who seek power campaign ( look at how ethnic pandering and ethnic voting blocs are as categories are taken for granted) , and how police relationships with their communities are structured for example. By historically limiting residential, economic and educational opportunities, ghettoes and cultures have been created that perpetuate inequalities even when the initial restrictions are no longer legal. In both the oppressors and the oppressed race has created behaviors that will ensure that the same dance of of racialized power relations will go on and on.

That is why race still “matters.” Statistically and actuarially one can predict life expectancy, educational attainment, and economic achievement based on race. To counter the power relationships, racial “explanations”, and behaviors among and between oppressers and the oppressed, we have an uphill battle that is going to last way beyond my lifetime and even the next few generations.  I have done what I usually do when faced with a seemingly unwinnable battle; I have gone for help. I have looked to younger generations and tried to teach them about race.  We should all be Elvin Jones and state the drumbeat of freedom as MLK Jr. called it or the truth about race as I called it,  so strongly in the beginning that it will be there in all future generations do. They need to recognize racial concepts in others and eliminate them in themselves. Let’s talk to kids about race.

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