Teaching Scalia about History, Diversity and Physics

copyright by
Rhonda Sherrod, J.D., Ph.D.

I taught a “diverse populations” counseling course in the graduate psychology department at a historically black university in the deep south. The students in my class, many of whom were White, were enrolled in a theoretical and research-driven, skills-based course. The objective was to learn how to deliver effective counseling and meaningful therapy to individuals whose cultural background is considered different from the so-called “mainstream.” They studied Black history so they could learn about people who are, in fact, the apotheosis of American citizenry, people who have been fundamental to the building of the country they all enjoy, to the extent that each one enjoys it.

The class was guided by the American Psychological Association’s enlightened approach which, among other things, encourages “sensitivity/responsiveness, knowledge, and understanding about ethnically and racially different individuals.” * It makes sense that, in order to conduct therapy with an individual from a “minority” group, one should know something about the group’s history, culture and what they have endured. Hence, before we grappled with therapeutic issues that frequently arise when one conducts therapy across cultures, the class featured a crucial component wherein students read literature that has intelligently confronted and interrogated the savagery of racism.

Although we studied many “diverse” populations, since race dynamics are often played out in Black and White in America, students spent a great deal of time on the Black experience. They read from documents as wide-ranging as Frederick Douglass’ What to the Slave is the Fourth of July to Fantz Fanon’s theory of colonization, which has been adapted to provide instruction about the brutality of  “internal (or domestic) colonialism.”  They read about Ida B. Wells’ investigative and theoretical brilliance, which she used to successfully challenge the lies undergirding lynching, as well as Paula Giddings’ classic work, When and Where I Enter, about Black women’s struggle for freedom, respect, strong communities, and ownership of their own bodies.  Students read from other significant works including, Black Like Me, Slavery by Another Name and W.E.B. DuBois’ writings on the convict lease system, as well as writings on the racial disparities in the criminal “justice” system. They read (law) Professor Cheryl Harris’ insightful work on Whiteness As Property, which was published by the Harvard Law Review, and beyond. In short, they accessed the education they were supposed to receive — one that made them infinitely better prepared for the therapeutic encounter, and that, hopefully, launched them on an intellectual odyssey that will make it possible for them to contribute to the betterment of society.

The point was to expose students to the devastating ways in which racism and white supremacist thought function in Black people’s lives. (Why do Black family members fear that calling the police will escalate a problem rather than resolve it? What’s the history there?) They also learned about the terror that has characterized White/Black relationships, and how Black people have never had equal protection or due process under the law. They learned that Black people have had to struggle mightily for self-determination, even as they built this country, and they had never heard of Black Wall Street or sundown towns.

Sadly, and somewhat shockingly, most of my students — even the Black ones — were not in possession of basic racial historical knowledge, such as the terror and intimidation of lynch and rape culture, or the difficulty involved in integrating schools. They disputed the pervasiveness of racial inequities in the legal system, and in policing, until confronted with the evidence. Despite the fact that many of my students were from the South, they had no real understanding of how harmful, demeaning, exasperating and baffling Jim Crow laws and mores were, nor did they fully comprehend the ferocious threat they posed. They had never heard of “White privilege” until we studied Peggy McIntosh’s work; and they were disabused of the stereotypical notions about Black people being lazy, brutish and promiscuous. They had no idea those despicable stereotypes, that most of them subscribed to, developed out of a need to justify and support White supremacist thought and action.

To say that my students, White and Black, were astonished by what they read would be a profound understatement. Yet many of the students, Black and White, after arguing, crying, debating, disputing, and ultimately accepting the un-sanitized racial history of this country, stated that my class was the “best course” they had ever taken. They received the education they deserved — and in that I take pride.  White students acquired a much better understanding of American history. Many of them began to apprehend that their standing in American society is not simply the product of their “hard work” (because, apparently, many had not fully realized that Black people work hard, too) but is also the product of their White privilege. The knowledge base they acquired gave them the confidence they need to interface constructively with Black, and other “minority,” patients — and the world. Black students took away an exalted sense of self, as many of them had previously thought Blackness was a condition to overcome. They also emerged with a strong sense of pride in their racial identity, which was built on something sustainable. All of the students took away a real understanding of some of the ways that racial issues seep into the therapeutic process.

I despise the term “diversity” and all that it has come to connote. It is anathema to me, because it has been rendered empty; it is an empty term. Diversity often means one Black person, or person of color, is present. Given that America could not be America without the presence of Black people, and given that Blackness is synonymous with what it means to be this American “superpower,” I reject the idea of being marginalized and pushed to the periphery, especially in the sphere of education.

Black people are central to the history of this country and have played an enormous and indisputable role in forcing this country to begin aligning its reality with its soi-disant article of faith: “land of the free.” If we had proper educational systems, we would be in a much better position to eradicate some of our horrific problems — like police brutality, racism, sexism, discrimination, and unacceptable unemployment rates in the Black community. We need to be brave enough to confront the truth and to take concrete steps to liberate ourselves from social and economic injustices.

So, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wants to know how a physics class benefits from “diversity?” Well, let’s look at the question from a “holistic” perspective. For the record, different students may bring different strategies and frames of reference for coping with the difficulty of the subject matter, as well as different ways of learning it. The same can be said for learning the true history of this country. Black and White students can help each other cope with the emotional difficulty of the subject matter as they learn the true, tragic history of America with respect to race. They can also help each other ascertain different ways of digesting and assimilating the almost incomprehensible losses Black people have suffered on every conceivable level (e.g. economically, educationally, socially, physically, psychologically, etc), while they work on how to make this country live up to its ideals.  And since physics is concerned with “matter, energy, motion, and force,”** they can learn about the energy, motion and matter Black people used to invent brilliant products, develop outstanding theory, and work assiduously — even when they were exhausted — to build this country. And while they’re at it, students can learn about the force that was applied to make them do it without proper compensation.

If Black people did not exist in all the places that matter, neither would America.

Rhonda Sherrod is a lawyer, clinical psychologist, educator and life coach. She is the author of the upcoming book, Surviving, Healing and Evolving: Essays of Love, Compassion, Healing, and Affirmation for Black People. She blogs at hearherspeak.wordpress.com.

*APA Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice and Organizational Change for Psychologists, see Guideline 2


Blackmon, Douglas A.  Slavery By Another Name:  The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

Douglass, Frederick.  What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

DuBois, W.E.B.  The Spawn of Slavery: The Convict Lease System in the South.

Fanon, Frantz.  The Wretched of The Earth.

Giddings, Paula.  When and Where I Enter:  The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (Note:  contains extensive information on Ida B. Wells)

Griffin, John Howard.  Black Like Me

Harris, Cheryl I.  Whiteness As Property

McIntosh, Peggy.  White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

Updated 11:00 pm CT


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