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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

The Challenge of Improving America’s Eyesight on Issues of Race and Equity

What a gentle, rigorous high school social studies teacher tried to make us see in 1968 remains all too timely today.

This column originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News. Photo by Photo by Sean Lee on Unsplash

The fervor for justice that engulfed America’s streets after the killing of George Floyd generated new hope for a change of heart in how white America sees Black America. Yet despite the understandable optimism, there are ample reasons for caution.

As New York Times columnist Charles Blow suggested, converting good intentions into actions that thwart systemic racism begs a kind of empathetic vision white America has typically found in short supply.

In his seminal 1952 novel “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison describes the critical defect: it involves “the construction” of people’s “inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” When a white person perceives a Black person, Ellison’s narrator says, “they see only … figments of their imagination.”

This matter of vision presents a challenge for those of us training the journalists of tomorrow. The problem begins with the craft’s vaunted role of reporting our world objectively, since “objectivity” often boils down to unquestioned norms in the eye of the beholder. And as Kathleen McElroy, my colleague at the University of Texas at Austin, put it in a recent email: the “concept has been used to further ‘other’ journalists from marginalized groups. We should teach our students to be accurate, fair, fully dimensional and empathetic.” Hear, hear.

Where to find inspiration to meet the moment? In my case, I’ve drawn motivation from an unforgettable teacher who devoted himself to helping students look at the world around them to see where justice isn’t but ought to be.

Ben Yorita taught social studies at Franklin High School in Seattle when I was a senior there in that other tumultuous year of 1968, with its murders of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and violent collisions in the streets over racial injustice and the war in Vietnam. It was hard, as it is now, to see the future for the chaos.

Franklin harbored a somewhat unique blind spot. A big multiracial, multiethnic school, it was a rarity for its time, with its generous mix of white, Black, Asian and Latinx students. Its halls rang with aspirational energy. African Americans had been elected student body president two years running. Yet racial tensions few could clearly see threatened to shred that remarkable fabric.

Mr. Yorita saw what others couldn’t. “You’re sitting on a keg of gunpowder and you don’t even know it,” he told us one day, as we gabbled about the upcoming senior prom. My classmates and I had grown up with TV images of police billy-clubbing Black freedom-marchers or blasting them with firehoses, but pride in our diversity, it was widely held, offered immunity from such strife.

Mr. Yorita was no stranger to hard-to-see dangers. As a college student of Japanese heritage at the University of Washington, he was out for a Sunday drive in December 1941 when the Japanese Imperial Navy bombed Pearl Harbor.

“We didn’t have the radio on and didn’t know about the attack,” he told an interviewer in later years, “but we knew something was wrong because of all the dirty looks Caucasians gave us. Usually they looked right through us as if we didn’t exist.”

Within a few months, the new scrutiny had sent Mr. Yorita and his family to one of the internment camps that dotted the western states where 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, the large majority of them American citizens, would spend the war years behind barbed wire.

Mr. Yorita had known the sting of racism, but he was blindsided by the cruelty with which white America and hysterical politicians turned on his community as a national security threat. When it came to teaching, his sharp intellect and largeness of spirit allowed him to show that racism and injustice make up a kind of permanent pandemic affecting large swaths of people whose skin color or cultural or religious values differ from their dominant societies.

Little wonder Mr. Yorita focused us on the evolving civil rights movement. We read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, the story of a white author who underwent skin treatments to travel the South as a black man. An eye-opener in its day, the bestseller often gave white readers their first inkling that far from Black people exaggerating their plight, as was an article of white belief, they were living it on a daily basis.

But it was Ellison’s Invisible Man that, for me, spoke to chaotic times. I remember stopping on this passage and reading it over and over: “And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals.”

At Franklin, the flashpoint came when some 100 activist students bottled up the principal in his office demanding the reinstatement of Black classmates who had been arbitrarily suspended. But it was also a matter of visibility. They wanted to see themselves represented in the creation of a Black history course, the hiring of an African American administrator, and portraits of Black leaders to be displayed in school alongside Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.

The sit-in, the first of its kind in Seattle, unnerved the city’s white establishment. Police arrested several of the organizers and a long court fight ensued, but the event did prompt changes at Franklin and helped fuel a broader push for racial justice.

The suddenness of events had taken Franklin’s diverse student body by surprise, as people headed for the exits and police swarmed. How could our friends do this to us? I remember a classmate saying plaintively.

I was as much a hostage to magical thinking as anyone. The one white player on our basketball team’s otherwise Black starting five, I could, in some respects, see what others couldn’t. Teammates included sons of established working-class families and of middle-class professionals. Others let details slip in the locker room about hard lives in public housing.

I saw how racism could lurk behind Seattle “nice.” One afternoon our team huddled in a visitors’ locker room staring at the N-word scrawled on the chalkboard in a message ordering us to “go home.” Taking the floor in righteous indignation we pulverized the opposing team. Some of that anger helped us cop the city high school basketball championship, the holy grail for an inner-city school.

For all that, I was at a loss to see the depth of discomfort and pain that troubled the lives and friendships I prized. My “objective” working-class view, that hard work and “overcoming differences” inevitably lead to good results, was unsupported by the realities my teammates knew and I didn’t.

It was the kind of white innocence James Baldwin wrote of in his magisterial 1963 book The Fire Next Time: “Many of them, indeed, know better, but … people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and … the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.”

Gentle, rigorous, Mr. Yorita worked to prod our sense of identity and unrecognized privilege. Revelations that go against magical thinking can cut like a knife: that’s why we avoid them at all costs. What motivates the Mr. Yoritas of this world is the knowledge that not to try to move the unseeing majority marks the road to further division and calamity.

Today, Ben, as I can call him now, is 98 and living in retirement. When I phoned him recently to say hello, he sized things up in the pithy style I remember from a half-century ago. The outcry over police brutality will bring measured reforms, he said, but after all these years, “We haven’t even got to the core of the matter.”

It’s a matter of seeing with those inner eyes of ours that, as Ben says, “We’re all human beings.”

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