Patricia Payne remembers the moment.
The moment when she began to grasp how pernicious systemic racism was and is.
It was in the early 1960s. She was just out of Indiana University, a fresh, young second-grade teacher in the Indianapolis Public Schools.
An energetic young Black woman—both product and member of a tightknit Indianapolis Black community—she was eager to teach the children in her charge.
This was at a time when Indianapolis and IPS were different than they are now. The urban restructuring that came with UniGov was still nearly a decade away, as was the desegregation order by federal Judge S. Hugh Dillin that initiated the busing of many Black children to suburban schools.
That order also accelerated white flight to the suburbs.
In those days, Payne found herself teaching both Black and white students. But she found that the teaching materials—the books, exercises, etc.—were aimed exclusively at white children.
That was wrong, Payne thought.
It told Black children, before they even had really begun in life, that they didn’t belong. That they weren’t as important or as good as the white children at the desks in the room with them.
So, she began teaching Black history and Black culture in her classes, weaving the stories and the lessons into the curriculum.
Some white parents were less than thrilled, she said.
They would pace outside Payne’s classroom, trying to hear what was going on inside. She invited them in. She said they could see for themselves what and how she was teaching.
The white parents told her they wanted to make sure she was teaching white history, too.
“What do you mean?” Payne said in response.
She showed them the textbooks and the materials.
There was George Washington, she said. There was Thomas Jefferson. There was one white face—one white American—after another.
But there were no Black faces.
No Black Americans.
Her point was that white history—white Americans, white children—don’t have to fight to be included in the American story.
Black history, Black Americans and, yes, Black children do have to fight to be included.
Payne tells me that story during a livestream conversation for a college convocation.
It fits with her larger argument that race and racism touch everything in this country and world. She walks through much of Indiana’s and America’s history and points to decision after decision after decision that was made without consultation with Black people or regard for how those decisions might affect Black people.
That isn’t just because Black people often haven’t had a place at the table.
It’s because, all too often, they haven’t even been considered part of the story.
This all but destroys any notion of equity, of fairness, of equal justice for all citizens.
But it also does damage to something just as fundamental.
Payne points out that we can’t understand American history, American culture, American reality if we strip out huge parts of our national experience. Because whites and Blacks have been living together in this country for more than 400 years, we cannot understand our own stories, whether we be white or Black, without understanding each other.
And race seems to be something we Americans cannot discuss without screaming at each other.
That is why Payne has dedicated her career to expanding understanding of the ways race and racism affect American life.
She recently turned 80 and still is going strong. She now serves as director of the IPS Racial Equity Office and the Crispus Attucks Museum. The post is the culmination of a long career spent as an educator, activist, civic leader and thinker.
The night before she and I talked, the interview Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, gave with Oprah Winfrey aired. During that interview, the expatriate royal couple said at least one member of the royal family had expressed reluctance to treat Harry’s and Meghan’s children the same as other members of the family because of their skin color.
Markle is biracial.
Even in the most privileged, protected circle in the world, race is still a factor.
When Payne hears the question about Harry, Meghan and their son, she shakes her head.
One more reminder that race touches everything in this world.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.