"To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications."
It may surprise readers to discover the preceding passage from a book,
Notes on the State of Virginia,
published in 1781. The power of the passage comes not from its tone, which was probably common during the Revolutionary period of American history, but from the identity of its author. He was Thomas Jefferson, the author of a better-known passage, published only five years earlier, which had proclaimed, "all men are created equal."
If Jefferson saw no contradiction in these passages, then it should come as no surprise that a conflict between the ideas of political equality and racial inequality has persisted throughout American history. It is certainly evident to the students I teach, in a racially diverse New Haven public school. And yet, my students too rarely see the connection between their country's past and their own present.
Therefore, my unit will use Jefferson's contradictions to support an exploration of our own regarding race conflict. The question addressed, under what circumstances does this type of conflict explode, is far too broad to explore in all of its macro-dimensions, so the unit will focus itself as a comparative study of two micro-topics. One case will focus on a riot that did happen, in 1967, in my home city of Detroit, and the other, a riot that did not happen, in 1970, in the city in which I teach and in which most of my students live, New Haven, Connecticut.