July 26, 1976
Dear Dr. Dentler:
I am sorry to take this long to answer your letter of April 15, 1976. Unfortunately, the end of the school year is always a very busy and difficult time. In a slum school the potential for the intrusion of violence is always present and it seems that as the year wears out only an extra expenditure of will and energy can preserve the atmosphere of normality that many schools take for granted.
In your last letter you made the statement: "Surely, however, you do not believe that the innocence of these students can be protected in the context of a society such as ours!" Of course, I did not mean that these children are unaware that other people, identify themselves in terms of physical race and sharply observe each other for the genetic marks which are the culturally defined signs of "race." However, what is fascinating to me is that children in my classes who are very conscious of "race" and its visual marks among their own cultural group apparently accept Cape Verdean as an identity on its own terms among their classmates. Apparently the racial dichotomy that they often express is not "real", and the visual marks that mean "race" in reference to some of their schoolmates fail to operate in reference to others. (Before suggesting that I should use this as an example to teach the fact that "race" is a variable, sometimes non-existent cultural perception, not something factual in the abstract, let me point out - excuse me, no offense - how hard it was to get YOU to agree with me, even when you apparently already accept this.)
The point is, I am not concerned with protecting their innocence; I am concerned with protecting their right to think as they please and to possess their own identity . . .
Perhaps you are not really aware of what you are doing. Let me give you some examples.
At my school's annual awards dinner, about 12 students were honored; it was intended that they should be "racially balanced." However, the outstanding student academically in our school is Cape Verdean. The teacher involved in setting up the list of awards sent a student to me to ask what his race was . . . by sending a student this teacher was covertly admitting that race is not so absolute, and also that she preferred someone else (me) to take on the responsibility of typing him or the embarrassment of confronting him with the question.
I sent her messenger back with the suggestion that I was very busy ( the voice of social cowardice!) and could she please ask him himself when she had him in her own class?
But this was not what was desired; the girl returned with apologies and protestations of urgency.
Now, my own beliefs and conscience probably indicated that I should have said very simply and plainly: "No. I refuse to have anything to do with anything that involves identifying human beings by race." Or better, made my stand clear to the children in the classroom, or as you have often suggested, made a lesson out of it, using the incident to illustrate the contradictions and variability of race, and the contrast between an adult's confident use of the logic of race on the conscious level and her hesitation and embarassment on the subconscious level.
However, social cowardice bore all before it; I said: "I don't know. You ask him." Such was the moment of truth.
The girl replied: "What? I can't go up to him and ask him what race he is!"
She returned to the original teacher who sent her back with the suggestion that he be asked to WRITE his race on a piece of paper. So I let the girl confront him with this suggestion, something no adult around was brave enough to do. He blushed and wouldn't look at her and wrote something down, and at least nobody else knew what it was all about . . .
Another example: This boy and his cousin do not look specifically Negro, or specifically Caucasian. The school choice forms this spring listed "race" and interestingly one child had printed on it "black" and the other "white." Both parents scratched this out and printed "Portuguese" next to it which I am sure did little good. But, since both listed other first choices than the community school, I am sure that these different racial identities means that the two children have very different odds of getting their choice . . .
I concede that you may well have intended that the principles you are establishing not be carried to their logical conclusions, but rather stop so far, no further. But people in general are not aware of the details of your own reservations concerning your own plan. You must give them credit for the intelligence to apprehend your overall principles and be influenced to resist or accept these. For your plans are not merely blueprints to achieve some structural and institutional change but embody a social ideology.
And this ideology has, indeed, its converts. Children in school in Boston are well aware that it is their race which determines their placement and fate, not their individuality.
I realize that the implications of these incidents must not be pleasant to you or to Judge Garrity. But I hope very strongly that you will not feel impelled to simply react as though this were a threat or attack which must simply be beaten back but rather as facts which reason, to be true to its own integrity, cannot ignore. Unfortunately political morality in the world of 1976 seems to consist of committing oneself to the good of one class, or nation, or race and resolutely shutting one's mind to the rights, needs, and humanity of outsiders; justifying the most cruel and brutal acts in the name of social justice, national liberation, whatever.
You must forgive me if I point out that the same intellectual step is being taken in your statement: "The theory of race, specious as it is, will be exorcised in the courts when it has been eliminated as a tool of social, personal, educational, and economic discrimination in our society." The idea that one can use evil to bring about good, or use a falsehood to bring about truth is morally very dangerous.(And pragmatically very unreliable.) Once one sacrifies one's intellectual integrity, it is very difficult to find it again - and one's moral integrity generally goes with it. Excuse me, but in simple logic you are arguing the viewpoint of an Ehrenburg as opposed to a Solzhenitzyn, or a Speer as against a Niemoeller. But what should be most alerting is that you are taking up the cudgels for an idea, patently (specious" as science, terrifyingly destructive as a social ideology, racism.
And when you state;" . . . our courts never invented racism . . ." I must admit to being confused. On the one had many human beings were murdered by the courts of law in the South out of the unspoken motives of racism; just as at the same time men were being murdered in our New England by judges whose culturally sanctioned prejudice was Know-Nothingism. On the other hand, racism was an eminently respectable idea in the days of Plessy V. Ferguson. Woodrow Wilson wrote explaining American democracy as a racial characteristic of "Teutonic" peoples; the elder Henry Cabot Lodge spoke at length on the dangers of admitting morally inferior peoples into America; these same ideas led to the restrictive immigration quotas of 1924.
But, scientifically, the idea was specious then, as it is now; as a scientific theory it was always open to criticism. As a social ideology, it was always in conflict with the principle of our Constitution, as Justice Harlan pointed out in his dissent from Plessey v. Ferguson. And may I point out that the "judicial construct of color-blindness" has always been the prime source of opposition to racism in America.It had led men to speak against racial discrimination, against the most hopeless odds, when racism was most accepted; it led many consciences into support of the movement for civil rights on the threshold of its triumph, and only recently it seems has it been abandoned by those who have ridden this movement to political power. I might also ask you if you yourself would have argued any differently in 1960.
But truth is truth, regardless of anyone's interest. When you say, "The judicial construct of color-blindness proved insufficient to the ravages of discrimination in the 20th Century," if you mean that truth is not victorious over falsehood, or that injustice is stronger than justice, who am I to dispute this? Only faith says good will assuredly triumph. But that I should embrace falsehood against injustice - this is both wrong and doomed to failure.
Perhaps the source of your mistake is exposed in your suggestion, repeated several times, that I should use my classroom to propagandize a certain idea or ideology. In my integrity as a teacher I can never do that; urge my students to question, to criticize, illustrate how to think clearly, yes - but tell them what to think, never. For a child to repeat even a true statement simply because he hears it from others is wrong. For the truth is never simple, nor is justice.
While Mr. Kluger's "Simple Justice" is a valuable source, a critical reader is well justified in asking whether his concern really is "simple justice" universally applied, whether he feels himself bound to challenge every injustice, oppression, form of discrimination that appears before his eyes. Or is he simply a partisan? Certainly in New England the greatest amount of oppression, exploitation, and the discrimination in the last century has been inflicted by class-bias and Know-Nothingism against ethnic cultures which form several of the larger minorities in Boston today.
My point is this: Reason forbids us to do wrong for the sake of a right. We cannot oppress people for the benefit of other people and say we are against oppression. We cannot accept one people's definition of their identity and reject another people's and say we seek pluralism.
May I challenge you? You agree that the theory of race is false; then say so publicly before the city of Boston.
Forgive me for writing at such length. I would not do it if I did not think you could not listen. Or that this country, its laws, were not worth fighting for.