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Exploring Race Relations

By Lisa Espinosa

Examining racial biases has been a learning experience for my students, but it has been just as much a process of discovery for me. Growing up in a working-class Mexican immigrant household, I didn't listen to NPR and read the New York Times. I didn't know about progressive causes because there was nobody to inform me about them. Unlike my parents, I was able to go to college. But, during college, I was also busy raising my children, so my main concern was making sure I stayed in school and graduated. Because of my background, I continually feel as if I'm trying to play catch up—even when it comes to knowing about my own cultural history. So, when I teach my students about the Chicano Movement, in many ways, I'm learning right along with them.

But whoever is doing the teaching, one thing is certain: Racism still affects the lives of African Americans and Latinos (as well as other people of color). According to Minding the Gap, a 2003 report funded by the Human Relations Foundation of Chicago, the Jane Adams Policy Initiative, and the Center for Urban Research and Learning at Loyola University, Latinos and African Americans in the Chicago area continue to face disparities in areas such as housing, economic opportunity, access to public transportation, and health care. In 2001, for example, African Americans in Chicago were five times more likely to be denied conventional mortgages than whites, while Latinos were two-and-a-half times more likely than whites to be denied. While income levels grew for all racial groups in Illinois between 1990 and 2000, Latino and African-American men still earn less than half of their Asian and white counterparts. And Latinos (29 percent) and African Americans (24 percent) in Illinois have the highest rates of non-elderly persons without health insurance.

These numbers demonstrate that systemic injustices continue to affect both blacks and Latinos. But for a person growing up in a racially isolated neighborhood, it's sometimes hard to get that perspective. I grew up in a very segregated community in Chicago in the 1980s, and I don't remember ever having black classmates in the public elementary school I attended. Today many students in Chicago public schools face similar circumstances: Fifty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, 343 of Chicago's 602 schools are racially isolated, with 90 percent or more of their students sharing the same racial background, according to statistics from the Chicago Board of Education.When I asked my students earlier this year how many of them had black friends, few raised their hands. Some have had African-American teachers at school, but most have had little, if any, personal interaction with black people.

I try to do three things in my class throughout the year: provide background knowledge about the history of racism and discrimination in this country and how that has led to the inequalities that exist today; look at current issues that affect people of color; and examine how the media creates and perpetuates negative images of people of color. Here I will focus on curriculum that I developed around certain resources that I gathered, most of which focus on the African-American experience. Because I am doing this as part of my language arts class, where I need to cover many other topics, I can't always explore these topics as deeply as I would like.

One of the resources I used to discuss current issues affecting poor urban youth in our city is the book Our America: Life and Death on The South Side of Chicago, by LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman. This book, which grew out of two radio documentaries, examines life in a public housing development from the perspectives of two African-American teenagers, 13-year-old LeAlan Jones and 14-year-old Lloyd Newman. (Along with the book we listened to the original radio documentary.) To provide some historical background about the Civil Rights Movement, I used the book Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories, by Ellen Levine. Finally, to examine how the media creates and perpetuates stereotypes of African Americans, we watched the documentary Ethnic Notions and read relevant articles in magazines and newspapers.

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