Teaching Hard Truths About Race in American Political Science Courses
Professor Ron Watson teaches in both the political science and health and society programs at Beloit. He contends that teaching about race in introductory political science courses may be “students’ only opportunity to thoughtfully encounter how race shapes, permeates, and troubles American political and social life.”
Q: When you started teaching political science, how was race included? What was emphasized and what was left out?
A: When I came to Beloit [in 2013] and started to teach American politics, the textbook had a very traditional approach, which was, “Let’s just talk about institutions.” It had this section on the ’60s civil rights movement, but that was kind of it. If you were to just read that textbook, you would have no idea why the United States looks the way it does demographically, why Black folks tend to be congregated in the South, where the American Indians are. I felt that it was woefully incomplete.
I decided to supplement it with Can We All Get Along?: Racial and Ethnic Minorities in American Politics, a book that laid out the policies that helped to define the American state and particularly focused on this tradition of exclusion or inegalitarianism—this idea of not fighting for the equality of everyone. As you can imagine, many if not all of those policies have to do with race in some form or fashion. I now use American Government in Black and White, a textbook that covers it all, and institutions. Nothing about American politics or American society makes sense if you don’t talk about deep-seated, anti-Black racism.
Q: Why are uncomfortable discussions of race especially important in introductory political science courses?
A: This class may be the only opportunity students have to engage with the real history of how their political system developed and the implications of it. These conversations are absolutely critical, because at predominantly white institutions where students don’t get this, they leave with what I would consider to be a very skewed view of the world.
Q: What feedback have students given you?
A: When I asked students what they learned in the class—and this is what actually prompted me to write the paper—the responses were extraordinary. One student talked about how, when he found out the class was about race, he almost dropped it, but once he took it he was grateful for it. That was a similar sentiment expressed by any number of white students and a few other non-white students. I realized this wasn’t just information that was necessary—it was desired.
Q: What can institutions like Beloit do to better support professors in their efforts to make race central to their teaching?
A: I think Beloit is on the right track in trying to push forward with an agenda around anti-racism that has us not just talking about our aspirations, but talking about concrete steps to get us there. Any institution that is serious about helping to make transformational social change has to be willing to recognize all of the risk—that this isn’t just a fraught conversation in terms of the fragility of white egos and historical imagination, it also has real life consequences for the people who are teaching it. I also think that when important [current] issues emerge, we need to look at ways to incorporate them into the curriculum, even if it’s just to help people cope with trauma and emotional issues, or by saying, “We’re going to spend the first 10 minutes of every class checking in with people, asking their thoughts and what news they’ve read.”
Q: Do you sense that more professors and departments are building inclusive curriculums and reading material?
A: Here at Beloit College, for sure. Especially for those departments who didn’t do those things in such a committed way before, there has been such a change in the past few years. More and more professors I talk to are bringing up issues of positionality and race and racism and incorporating the interrogation of these points into the curriculum. I could not be prouder of the fact that I chose to come here.
Q: With everything we’ve seen in the last six months related to the pandemic and racism, do you think we’ve reached a turning point in American history?
A: I think potentially, yes. If you just step back objectively, this has been such an extraordinary moment for so many reasons. It’s probably not too much to say that this moment is due, at least in part, to the convergence of quarantine and the mental shock of an actual, old school-style pandemic, with so much of the emotional and economic trauma that it’s caused. George Floyd’s murder was different somehow. It was so blatant, so terrible, that many folks were like, “If this is what Black people have been talking about the whole time, then yeah, I’m definitely not okay with this either.” That’s why you saw the movement to defund the police. All those points converged, and that has forced a shift in the consciousness of many people. For some, of course, that shift has actually been in the opposite direction. It does feel a bit like a line’s been drawn, especially once the riots began.
But my concern, especially with the upcoming election, is that we may end up with a situation that I think happens a lot in the United States. I like to think of the United States as a pressure cooker in that things build up and then we say, “Okay, we’ll let Black people vote,” and the pressure recedes; then more things build up and we say, “Okay, we’ll let women vote,” and it recedes again. I’m concerned, for example, that if Biden and Harris win the election, that many of those folks of all different races and ethnicities will be like, “Phew, we finally got things back on track,” and neglect to realize things aren’t on track until some actual change occurs. Black Lives Matter began under Barack Obama—this is what a lot of folks miss. The government, especially at the federal level, has not been terribly responsive. No matter who wins that election, the momentum for change has to move forward.