Arts Education and Civil Rights: Can the Arts Improve Race Relations?

No one is born a racist, but it doesn’t take long to develop racial and ethnic biases. By the time children are 3 years old, they can recognize differences in skin color and other physical traits. By the time they are 5, children can already develop negative biases toward others based on these differences. By the time children are in middle school, these biases have likely been reinforced by those around them and/or what they see or read online such that bias becomes the default lens through which they see others. 

There is room to debate how the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned his dream to be realized so that children would, in fact, be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. There is room to debate how much progress we in the United States have made toward this vision. But there is no room to debate that racial tension is more pronounced now than at any time since the Civil Rights Movement. American children of color are experiencing more harassment and anxiety than they have in generations.

One factor contributing to this animosity is the increasing segregation of K-12 schools. According to the Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2014, the number of K-12 public schools that were high-poverty and comprised of mostly African American or Hispanic students almost doubled from 9 percent to 16 percent. The number of students attending these quasi-segregated schools more than doubled. And the increasingly popular charter schools are the most segregated of all.  

It’s hard not to attribute the resurgence of racism among young white students at least in part to the increasing segregation in K-12 education. If children do not grow up and learn alongside peers who represent diversity of culture, race and ethnicity, how can they possibly determine the content of their character? All they have to go by are default stereotypes and biases formed, in many cases, before kindergarten.  

But the good news is that even though children develop negative biases quickly, once they are exposed to diversity, those prejudices can be unlearned. Arts education is an incredibly viable way to combat prejudice, especially when works of artists from diverse backgrounds are given equal billing in the curriculum on an ongoing basis throughout the school year. 

Nothing more aptly defines what it means to be human than our creative potential. So how better to encounter and learn about others’ character than studying the output of their creative thinking? Because in life as in the arts, there is always more than meets the eye.  

In the visual arts, students learn to look beyond surface impressions and examine formal elements and technique, as well as concepts and possible meanings – its character. Similarly, an individual trained as a musician hears more during a symphony performance than someone who hears only the top-line melody. They hear the character of the composition. It stands to follow that studying the work of diverse artists is at least a start toward developing a deeper understanding of diverse others.  

Through works of art that reflect the creative thinking of diverse peoples, children come to see their story from different perspectives. They also learn the stories of others from diverse backgrounds. The arts help children look more closely at both our differences and that which we have in common.  

As we remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday this month, let us consider how race relations would improve if a critical mass of students engaged in ongoing study of the works of artists, musicians, dancers and playwrights of color. At the very least, they could use the arts as a stepping stone to walk toward those they may not walk toward on the playground.