Race Inquiry

Compelling Question:

¿Is race real?


To search for answers to the compelling question - Is Race Real - you are going to complete a number of multimedia activities and then undertake an informed civic action!

A word of caution:

Talking about race isn't easy. It's personal, it's political, it's visceral. It's something, in fact, that a lot of people spend a lot of time and energy not talking about. But as little as most of us talk about it, race has a titanic impact on each and every one of us. Enter into these lessons and the conversations they will spark with compassion, open ears, and lots of empathy. Say unto other! Think before you speak! And please don't ask any student to speak for all members of any race. It's fatiguing and unfair.

In an open classroom where there is discussion of sensitive topics some people shut down, others won't shut up. I don't want my class to be totally dominated by the loudest so I have a question box. At the beginning of class I ask students take a moment and write down any questions they have about race and submit them anonymously into the box. I can guide the class through any questions that are asked in good faith, or students can respond in writing, on our class discussion board, or on Twitter.

I get some great questions. I get other ones, too. I've shared examples of both kind below. Some of these questions warranted further exploration, others did not.

  1. My parents say Black, my grandparents, Negro, what is the preferred term for African Americans today?

  2. Why are Asians’ eyes so small?

  3. Wouldn't we be better if we were all just colorblind?

  4. Shouldn't we just move on and stop living in the past, racially?

  5. Can minorities be racist?

  6. Why do White people smell like potato chips? They do.

  7. At what point does stepping around racial issues for the sake of sensitivity become ridiculous or too much?

  8. Why are there so few interracial groups eating lunch together at this school?

  9. We have an NAACP, would a National Association for the Advancement of White People be considered a racist organization?

And one final thing. I remind my students that whenever they start a sentence with, "This might seem racist, but." it probably is, and they should think stop speaking and start thinking.


There are six activities below to help you consider race in America.

Activity 1) Who are you?

Let's start with a personal question:

What race are you?

Then we'll ask the same question about some other Americans:

What race are all the individuals below?

Image Courtesy: National Geographic

Use the grid below to fill in the race of each of the people from the photograph above:

Now go to this National Geographic interactive feature where you can click on each person in the photograph to see how they racially self-identify and how accurate your prediction was.

  • Was this a difficult activity?

  • How well did you identify the individuals in the photograph?

  • Does it matter what race each individual is?

  • Do individuals have more power over race or does race have more power over individuals?

  • How did this activity help you think about race?

If you'd like to try your hand at more racial identifications you can try this interactive racial sorting game.

Activity 2) Definitions

Let's start by defining our terms:

  • Race: ____________________________________________________
"Race," writes the great historian Nell Irvin Painter, "is an idea, not a fact." Indeed. Race does not need biology. Race only requires some good guys with big guns looking for a reason. - Ta-Nehisi Coates

And here's the tricky thing about race; both of the following statements are true:

Race is not real. Race is extremely real.

What this means is that although there is no biological basis for race, in the US, how others racially classify a person has huge implications for what kind of life they live (see charts below).

Let's start with the biological question of race. Go to the PBS website Race - The Power of an Illusion,  click on What is Race? and then answer the question - Is Race for Real?

Let's watch the first portion of a Race - the Power of an Illusion - a video on the biology of race:

  • Watch five minutes of the introduction and list the racial myths the film exposed:

Let's take this 20 question quiz on race created by the Association of American Colleges and Universities:

  • List the top 3 things you learned about race from the quiz?
  • List the top 3 things you unlearned about race from the quiz?
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to White people as "people who believe they are white," What does he mean by this?
  • How did this activity help you think about race?

Activity 3) Does Race Matter?

  • Is race socially real? In other words, in the U.S. does it make a difference what race you are?

To help answer that question, look at the following charts:

  1. What story do the charts tell?
  2. Which chart was the most surprising or upsetting?
  3. What big trends do you see in the charts?
  4. In what way is the gap between Whites and Blacks the most extreme?
  5. What do you think explains the general gap between Whites and Blacks?
  6. Describe two consequences of this gap:
  7. Is this all good news or bad news?
  8. What could the government do about this?
  9. What could you do about this?
  10. How does this information make you feel?
  11. Let's make an analogy. Fill in the blank. America is to Race as _______________ is to ______________ .
  12. How did this activity help you think about race?

Activity 4) Brief History of race in America

You can do the following assignment in teams or individually. Use the links below to research the topics and answer the questions below.

History of American Discrimination and Inequality -How did each of these further discrimination?
1-White primaries, Poll tax + Literacy tests + Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
2-Segregation + Jim Crow Laws + racial restrictive covenant

Fighting inequality -How did each of these fight discrimination?
3-Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954)
4-Voting Rights Act of 1965 + minority-majority districts -
5-Civil rights act of 1964 Title II and Title VII - US v. Heart of Atlanta Motel - Commerce Clause - EEOC -
6-Fair housing Act and Amendments 1968 and 1988 -
7-Affirmative action + Class action suits + University of California Regents v. Bakke (1978) + Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) -
8-Title IX and the history of Title IX -
9-Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (1990) -

Current American Discrimination and Inequality

  • If a Black man and a white man are charged with the same crime, & both have a clean record: the Black man is 9 times more likely to go to jail than the white man.
  • If a Black man and a white man are charged with the same drug-crime, & both have a clean record: the Black man is 49 times more likely to go to jail than the white man.
  • Sadly, discrimination in housing continues today.
  • Because of continuing unequal pay for women, last year, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into Law
  • Here is a disturbing article from the Wall Street Journal about race and employment

Your opinion
Think about all you have read and learned in this brief history of race, think about where our country is currently in regards to discrimination and inequality, and explain whether you think the federal government has done enough, too much, or the right amount to fight US discrimination.

  • How did this activity help you think about race?

Activity 5) White Privilege

Scholar, Peggy McIntosh writes about ways that white people are privileged in America today. Read the list of privileges from The Invisible Backpack of White Privilege, check the number of privileges you personally receive, and consider how that number would be different for various races. Think about McIntosh's list, add any other racial privileges she might have left out, and make a top ten list of white privileges in America.

Make your own autobiographical lists of privilege, for example, about two of the following: Sexual Orientation, Employment, Families' relation to Class, Physical ability,  Education, Money, Region, Handedness, Housing, Religion, Language,  Neighborhoods, Gender, Nation of Origin, Families' languages of origin, Gender identity, and Ethnicity.

  • How did this activity help you think about race?

Activity 6) Racial demographics in the US today

So what does the US look like racially today?

  1. Any surprises?
  2. What does this graphic teach you about race in America today?

Look at the cool infographic below - The Changing Face of America - and answer the questions below.

Whites are no longer the majority racial group in California. ¿In what year will Whites cease to be the majority racial group in the entire US?

  1. How accurate was your prediction?

  2. What's the big story this chart tells?

  3. Are these changes good news or bad news?

  4. In what way are the changes expressed in the chart reflected in your own life?

  5. What questions do you have about this chart?

  6. Make a prediction for what this chart will look like in 2080 America (if there is a 2080 America):

  7. What do you think is causing the changes reflected in the chart?

  8. What are some consequences of the changes reflected in the chart?

  9. In the comments section, write about how the changes reflected in the chart are affecting politics in the US today, in particular, how are these changes impacting the upcoming elections?

  10. How did this activity help you think about race?

Activity Summary

Here's a couple of resources to inquire further about race.

Inquiry Extension

Convene a class fishbowl on Affirmative Action.

Informed Civic Action

Now that you've completed the activities, take one of the following informed civic actions:

1)Interview someone of another race for ten minutes. Make a list of 10 questions you'd like to ask them, but don't ask any questions about race at all.

2)Make a proposal to connect people of different races in your community. Share your proposal with the local paper, mayor, city council, or community foundation. Be as specific as possible about the Big Ws: Who, What, When, Where, & Why.

3)Identify one racial problem in America that the government could take action on. Make a proposal for the 28th Amendment making a Constitutional Amendment to ameliorate one racial problem in America.

4)Identify one racial problem in your community that you could take action on. Make a proposal for one way you could ameliorate one racial problem in your life.

Further Investigation

Required watching

A Class Divided

Required reading:

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me

Michele Alexander, The New Jim Crow

Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom

Joe Feagin, Racist America

Eula Biss, White Debt

Cornel West, Race Matters

Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race

Compelling Question:

¿Is race real?

Now that we've completed our race inquiry let's return to the compelling question that got us here: IS RACE REAL? You've got a lot of information and data to work with now that should help you give a fuller answer to our compelling question. Write your answer to the question in the comments section below. After you've commented, keep the question alive, write more about it, ask the questions to others, talk about it with friends and family, and most importantly, do something about it! Thanks for taking part in our inquiry.