Learning to 'see beyond race'

Op-ed: For the first time, I understood that I could see beyond race to the worth of a fellow human being.

As The Sun reported on Sunday, campuses across Maryland — including Hopkins, Towson and the University of Maryland at College Park — are alive with student protests over the lack of racial diversity on their faculties. ("Campus diversity grows, but the faculty fails to keep up," April 17).

Those protests are primarily a call by students of color for more faculty who, in addition to being effective educators, might serve as role models and mentors. I sympathize with those protests, and I offer evidence that faculty diversity can also benefit white students. In my case, profoundly.

Nearly 70 years ago, Haverford College appointed Ira de Augustine Reid, who was African-American, to its faculty as a tenured professor of sociology and anthropology. Reid's appointment broke the color bar on Haverford's faculty. He came to Haverford as a graduate of Atlanta's Morehouse College and a professor of sociology at Atlanta University. He had pioneered in fieldwork on the conditions of African-Americans in major American cities and was the author of 10 books on the subject. His scholarship was relied upon by the Swedish historian Gunnar Myrdahl in "An America Dilemma," the classic study of race relations in America.

Reid was the product of a strictly segregated society. But his talent was finally recognized by the broader academic community. He was not only the first black member of the Haverford faculty but one of the very few black people on the faculties of any of the country's leading universities or colleges.

I was also the product of a strictly segregated society. The racial mores of my Baltimore were virtually indistinguishable from Reid's Mobile. My family considered itself to be "liberal." But its social world included no black people. Our neighborhood was all white. My junior high school was named for Robert E. Lee. My high school, Baltimore Friends, observed Fifth Day Meeting, but its student body and faculty were lily white. The black men I knew were handymen, gardeners and street vendors (or, as they were known in Baltimore, "A-rabs") who hawked their fruits and vegetables in the alley behind our house from horse drawn carts.

And so it was that I arrived on campus on a September day in 1950, a 16 year old product of that apartheid world, but ready to undergo the bizarre experience of being taught by a black man.

Ira Reid's sociology course was by far the most stimulating of the year. Part provocative lecturer, part maestro of the Socratic method, he introduced us to the irreconcilable worlds of heredity and environment. He confronted us with the iconic works of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, and he challenged us to write an essay on the subject of "blood will tell."

Reid was well over 6 feet tall, trim and bald. He wore a small, neatly trimmed mustache and rimless spectacles and invariably dressed in a conservative three-piece suit. He dominated the classroom. Like any good teacher, he was a performer. If Reid's pedagogical point was to provoke young, cosseted, white minds to contemplate the vagaries of racial identity, he succeeded brilliantly.

For me, however, his success was even more profound. It had less to do with the message than with my changing perceptions of the messenger.

At the outset of the course, I saw Reid not only as an inspiring teacher but as an implausible exotic, a freakish, counter-intuitive anomaly — a black man as my teacher. His race, and thus his uniqueness, were always before my eyes and at the forefront of my mind.

But somewhere in mid-semester that changed. Reid's race had not only ceased to matter; it would frequently disappear altogether from my consciousness. I used to think of those occasions as the paradoxical moments when I had, in effect, forgotten to remember that he was black.

He remained, of course, the imposing magisterial black man with the baritone voice whose lectures we copied assiduously in our notebooks. But for me he was no longer a black professor; he was a professor who was black. And for the first time in my life I understood that I could see beyond race and all of its associated pre-judgments, to the worth — in this case the extraordinary worth — of a fellow human being.

That year in his classroom commenced a transformation in my relationship to race.

I have had a varied and rewarding career in the nearly seven decades since that course with Ira Reid. I like to think that at each stage of my long journey I have continued to shed the scales of a segregated boyhood and learned to appreciate the dignity of my fellow inhabitants of this planet, regardless of their race.

There have been many milestones on that journey. The very first, however, was that moment in Ira Reid's classroom. The one when I "forgot to remember."

Stephen H. Sachs was United States attorney for Maryland from 1967 to 1970 and state attorney general from 1979 to 1987. His email is steve.sachs@wilmerhale.com.

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