On Sept. 4, 1957, nine teenagers went to their first day of high school at Little Rock Central High. The Arkansas National Guard and an angry mob stopped them at the door. Their crime? Being black and attempting to enroll in an all-white school.
President Eisenhower stepped in, and a few weeks later, federal troops escorted the students into the school-where they endured taunting and threats, and helped pave the way for desegregation nationwide.
Among those teenagers was Terrence Roberts, who went on to become a PhD psychologist and is now a private practitioner and clinical psychology professor at Antioch University in Los Angeles. That early experience in Little Rock taught him how resistant to integration the country was then-and continues to be, he says. The Monitor first interviewed Roberts 10 years ago and recently sat down with him again to ask how racial equality may have changed in the last decade.
What is the state of national race relations today?
I think what we have in this country is an unwillingness to admit that we would prefer a society where racial groups are separated from each other. Most of our effort is toward maintaining the status quo, not in really changing it.
Brown v. Board of Education was a very important decision because it [changed] the legal framework in this country. Prior to the 1954 decision, it was deemed constitutional to discriminate. In 1954, the legal framework was changed, but nothing was done about that social, socioeconomic, philosophical and habitual patterns that have been developed that sustain segregation. None of that has been addressed, and that is what gives rise to our current state of troubles.
For 300 years we said, "Black people are subhuman. They should not be educated. They should not be allowed to participate fully in the government, business and industry." Those elements continue to affect who gets hired, what schools you attend and where you live. And when you look at the psychological research into how people react to [racial] stimuli, you see how bias has persisted very clearly. How has the field of psychology progressed, in terms of cultural diversity and competency, in the last 10 years?
Psychology, like other fields, has moved along and made a lot of surface changes. We do well with our thin veneer of civility. We are nice to each other. We act polite. And yet, we don't act to change anything that's fundamental. I would like to see psychology take strong public policy stances on the way in which continuing racist policies vitiate and pollute the body politic, undermine attempts to improve public education, and interfere with community plans to combat racism at local levels. Furthermore, psychology can provide evidence that racist practices undermine our ability to achieve peer level relationships throughout this society.
What can psychologists do to continue the fight for equality?
Psychologists can be really helpful in creating opportunities for people to increase their level of awareness of bias. Psychologists can become very instrumental as teachers, as resource guides, as researchers, as facilitators of this learning process. I read a poem recently, one line of which was this: "If what you know doesn't change you, then change what you know."
It sounds so simple. You've got to change what you know. And right now, what we know, basically, is informed by what we have done in the past.
What ideas do you try to get across to your students about racism and equality?
We have a master's program in psychology at my institution, and one of the first quarter courses...is about taking a look at one's own biases. Students are expected to go to the mirror and reflect and ask themselves, "How did I achieve this level of biased thought? Where did it come from?" Once that has been accomplished, we lead them through a process of change.
Some of our students come kicking and screaming to this mandatory course. But once it is over, they have much different attitudes. Some of them are angry, because they can no longer go blindly through life, assuming that everything is all right. I have seen some remarkable changes in some students. They develop a new vision, a new way of seeing, and it's incredible to watch.
Do you still keep in touch with the other eight Little Rock students?
Yes, we talk all the time. We have a foundation (www.littlerock9.com) where we provide scholarship assistance to young people who are headed to college, and we provide consultations, advising school districts about how to go about dealing with issues that arise because of differences and diversity.