Opinion: CT teacher questions what he thought he knew of racism

If I’m being totally honest with myself, I have to admit that even though I grew up in a city as proudly multicultural as Stamford was in the 1980s and 1990s, and had friendships with all kinds of kids, it took me longer than it should have as a young person to truly, fully comprehend how deep the roots of American racial inequality spread in all directions.

I want to be careful not to impugn the abilities or the motives of my teachers; they were, to a person, dedicated, talented people who chose to teach in a school system that embraced “diversity” before it was a buzzword. Yes, we were taught that slavery was part of our creation, and that it was unequivocally evil. But the Civil War ended slavery, the story went, and then the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments made clear what should already have been obvious. Yes, we learned about segregation in the South, and we watched the films of peaceful protesters being attacked by fire hoses and police dogs. There was no ambiguity about those evils, but I sort of got the sense that Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Civil Rights Movement fixed it. I don’t know that I learned what racism really was.

To be fair, there may have been more nuance to the curriculum than I recall. Plus, we were kids; perhaps the adults believed that our early encounters with American history needed to highlight justice prevailing over evil so we didn’t become dispirited or cynical at a young age.

But the unintended consequence for a white, middle-class student like me who’d never been personally subject to discrimination was that I grew up believing racism was mostly just a feeling, the way that an individual, immoral person might act. No one in my world acted or spoke hatefully, so the sources of the evil seemed to have been overcome. Even after watching the 1992 Los Angeles riots on TV after school as a sixth-grader, it didn’t fully sink in that what had happened to Rodney King after a routine traffic stop was anything more than an anomaly. Those police officers were so clearly out of control; there was no way a civilized society would let that kind of thing happen more than once.

And yet, I have clear memories of certain things I observed as a kid that troubled me: a conversation I overheard a few of the Black kids in my fifth-grade class having at lunch about what they heard a police officer in their neighborhood say; the way clerks’ eyes followed certain kids (but never me) around the store; the unmistakable whiteness of the honors classes at Stamford High School in the mid-1990s; or that the white kids I knew all seemed to live in one half of the city, while most of the Black and Hispanic kids lived in the other.

Reconciling these inequities with my early education about America has been a decades-long process of questioning what I thought I knew. Only in college — the first time I’d ever heard the terms “restrictive covenant,” “Black Codes,” “one-drop rule,” and “concerned citizens’ councils” — did I start to see a larger, more complicated reality: that no matter how many individuals’ feelings about people of color had changed, no matter how many white people had genuine friendships with Black people, the combined legacy of lynching, segregation, unconscious bias, and wage discrimination had been embedded into the structure of our society — even in the North. It didn’t require Jim Crow laws or lynchings to do its damage; it could be just as effective working through zoning laws, redlining, the War on Drugs, “mandatory minimum” sentencing, or the way our states fund their school systems.

This was a hard thing for a young person whose family had only ever benefited from America’s opportunities to accept. If the opportunities that allowed my forebears to climb the socio-economic ladder and enable my success had been systematically denied to an entire group of people, what had I really “earned?” That kind of question triggers defense mechanisms, the mind’s way of shutting out the cognitive dissonance.

After a period of wrestling with this contradiction, I stopped fighting myself. I was exhausted by the effort it took to square my overwhelmingly positive experience as an American with the much harsher experiences of so many African Americans and people of color. It ceased to be a question of whose lived experience in America was the “true” one. Both of these Americas exist side by side, though too often they fail to acknowledge each other’s existence.

To accept that the America of 2020 is hobbled by the lingering effects of racist laws and policies is not to place blame on any individual white American, though to us it might sometimes feel that way. In almost 20 years of teaching American literature, I’ve seen how hard it can be for good-natured students to push through their instinctive (and very human) defensiveness, to reassure them that frank discussions about race are not predicated on blaming them for the sins of the past. And yet, if we refuse to face our nation’s past without fear of what we find — if we do not force ourselves to ask why certain injustices persist and why our perceptions of America are so polarized — we deny ourselves the possibility of a future free from ghosts of the past.

Since we’re being honest, let me suggest a choice: we can search our memories until we’re blue in the face for some long-lost era when America was great, or we can embrace the notion that America’s greatness has always been aspirational — just over the horizon, just beyond our reach. It resides in our capacity to change, but it requires the courage to acknowledge injustice and make good on the promises of our founding.

Matt Pavia is a native of Stamford and a 1998 graduate of Stamford High School. He teaches English at Darien High School, and is the co-author of “An American Town and the Vietnam War,” published by McFarland & Co. in 2018.