Jim Nieto: Race, prejudice and history
Dr. Thomas F. Pettigrew was a major influence in my undergraduate training at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As a graduate student at Harvard University, he worked closely with one of the pre-eminent scholars in the field of race relations in the United States, Dr. Gordon Allport.
A key takeaway from my studies with Dr. Pettigrew was simple in nature: Difference or perceived difference is what divides us as human beings. This manifests itself in each of us in various degrees, and it is crucial to be aware of and analyze this component of human nature to understand and combat the nature of prejudice.
Both Dr. Allport and Dr. Pettigrew advocated for the desegregation of schools as a means of assisting in the breakdown of preconceived notions and prejudice that exists between human beings Both scholars contributed their expertise to the desegregation activities that preceded the groundbreaking 1957 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. They also were present to document and study the aftermath of the decision as it was enforced at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Foundational study with Dr. Pettigrew and other scholars at the University of California Santa Cruz and the University of California Berkeley had a profound impact upon my understanding of my family’s historical journey in what we now call California.
The first prominent Nieto arrived in San Diego in 1769. He was a Catalan soldier who eventually received a land grant from the king of Spain in recognition for his service on numerous overland expeditions during the Spanish conquest of upper California. That land grant extended from approximately Long Beach to Huntington Beach and from the ocean to present day Whittier. In addition and perhaps of more importance, those studies have had a critical influence on my 32-year career in public education.
My experience in public education included assignments in a bilingual elementary program in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a community day school with the San Francisco Unified School District in Hunters Point, a newcomers school in the Seattle Public Schools, a middle school world history teacher with the Long Beach Unified School District, a small school middle and high school teacher in Pike with the Sierra-Plumas Joint Unified School District, and ultimately a Spanish teacher, coach, assistant principal and principal for 23 years at Bear River High School with the Nevada Joint Union HIgh School District.
Some questioned our family decision to move to Nevada County in 1993 to accept employment at Pliocene Ridge School in Pike due to the demographic difference that exists between Sierra and Nevada County and my hometown of Long Beach in the southernmost part of Los Angeles County.
Over the course of my time in this part of California, there have been various incidents in my personal and professional life that reflect the prejudice that exists in our society, and I would like to share two that illustrate how hopefully understanding can lead to change.
In fall 1993, students in my World History class were working on the introductory assignment that included oral history research on each student’s family immigration and history story. Only one of the students was of Native American ancestry. Therefore, students’ studies focused primarily on European origins.
During a class discussion a male student made a statement that I was not American. I asked why, and he stated that I was not white and therefore not a “true” American.
He was a huge basketball fan, and I asked him who had won the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics. Without hesitation he replied, “Are you kidding, The Dream Team, the United States!.”
I responded that following his logic, the United States did not win the gold medal because the team was primarily made up of African American athletes and therefore Africa must have won. This led to numerous meaningful and vigorous class discussion around the issue of race, prejudice, and history.
At the time I was aware this young man and his friends were being actively recruited by a white supremacist organization active in Forest at the time ,and I understood the origins of his perspective. In accordance with the teachings of Gordon Allport and Thomas Pettigrew, I sought to introduce and emphasize our similarities as humans to offset the misunderstandings of prejudice and hate.
Years later, I was in a pizza parlor in Brunswick Basin picking up a pizza when I noticed a bearded young man in a baseball cap looking my way. I didn’t recognize him at first, but he soon approached me and I realized who it was.
He asked if I remembered him, and I said yes I did, and as is customary for these encounters, I asked him how life was going. Before delving into the details of the state of his state ,he said, “I want to apologize for the things I said and did while I was your student, I was young and dumb.”
I let him know that, as my father had taught me, those types of incidents must be let go “like water running off a raincoat.” Otherwise, the toll they may take will lead to a life of pent-up anger and hate, and that I was happy that he was leading a successful life.
Hopefully, this one story may assist others in understanding how the presentation of various perspectives in education may help bind the wounds that divide us and continue our nation’s journey to truly becoming “one nation under God for liberty, and justice for all.”
I suggest that a key component of a strong nation is that we are able to consider various perspectives on our history and come to our own conclusions, and respect the views of those with whom we may disagree.
Jim Nieto lives in Auburn.
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