Lessons in hatred: Is your congressman as smart as a third-grader?

    Many years ago, I learned about Jane Elliott, a teacher who tried to teach her students a lesson in bigotry by segregating her class by eye color. I found a video on YouTube documenting the 1968 lesson. Elliott posed a question to her third-grade students: Did they know how it would feel to be judged by the color of their skin? They weren’t quite sure how to answer.

    Many years ago, I learned about Jane Elliott, a teacher who tried to teach her students a lesson in bigotry by segregating her class by eye color. I found a video on YouTube (above) documenting the 1968 lesson.

    Elliott posed a question to her third-grade students: Did they know how it would feel to be judged by the color of their skin? They weren’t quite sure how to answer. She suggested that they wouldn’t know how it felt unless they’d gone through it, so she singled out all of the blue-eyed students in the class from all of the brown-eyed students.

    She told her students that the blue-eyed people were better and smarter than brown-eyed people. “This is a fact,” she said. She told the brown-eyed students that they had to stay in from recess, and couldn’t drink from the water fountain or play with the blue-eyed children, because they weren’t as good.

    After only a few minutes, when the teacher was looking for her yard stick, one of the blue-eyed students suggested she might need it for brown-eyed people who got out of hand. A physical fight broke out among the students that day caused by a blue-eyed child teasing a brown-eyed child for no other reason than he had brown eyes.

    The following day, Ms. Elliott reversed the roles. She explained to the students that she had been wrong the day before — that actually it was the brown-eyed children who were better than the blue-eyed children.

    On the third day, the teacher questioned the children about how they felt about the previous two days. One student said that “it seemed like when we were down on the bottom, everything bad was happening to us.” Another stated that “the way we were treated, it felt like you didn’t even want to try to do anything.”

    Ms. Elliott herself said that she “watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children, turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third graders in the space of 15 minutes.”

    It took only 15 minutes!

    The teacher said that even their daily flash card exercises were affected by the experiment: On both days, the “superior” students worked with their flash cards in half the time they normally did.

    Are we making any progress?

    I’ve often thought about Mrs. Elliott’s experiment with racism over the years. I’ve wondered if things have changed. I think another video, from 2011, gives me my answer:


    I wouldn’t say that it shocks me, but I will say that it scares me. It shows a series of experiments in which very young children were asked to choose between two dolls (one black and one white) or among five images of children of various skin tones.

    “Which doll is the nice doll?”

    “Which doll looks bad?”

    “Which is the good one?”

    “Which is the smart one?”

    The children being interviewed were black, Latino, and white. Time and again the children identified the black child or the darkest child negatively. When asked why they gave the answers they did, the children gave some of the following responses:

    Asked “Which doll is pretty?” an African-American boy who pointed to the white doll said, “Because she’s white.”

    Asked “Which doll is nice?” another African-American boy who pointed at the white doll said, “Because she’s white.”

    Asked “Which doll is smart?” a white girl pointed to the white doll. Asked why, she said, “Because she looks like me.”

    It made me so sad, but I was OK until this one brought the first tear to my eye: Asked which skin color she liked, an African-American girl pointed to a picture of a white doll. When asked why, she pointed to her own skin and said, “I don’t like the way brown looks, ’cause brown looks really nasty for some reason.”

    When a Hispanic boy pointed to a white doll when asked “Which doll is good?” I could not hold back the tears. His reason: “Because I’m not scared of whiter people. Because I trust them more. But others, like this other one,” — indicating the black doll — “I don’t trust them as much.”

    We need Jane Elliott back!

    After hearing these young children’s opinions, what’s in store for future generations?

    It was only last month, twenty five years after a Central Park jogger was beaten and murdered, that the “Central Park Five” settled a $40 million lawsuit for wrongfully being convicted of that crime. It took third graders 15 minutes to learn a lesson in hatred. But that was only one classroom of students more than 40 years ago. It took the NYPD 25 years to correct their misguided assumption of five youths.

    I wonder, what will our nation be like 25 years from now? What could Mrs. Elliott’s lessons teach to our Congressmen?

    My country is being split into extremes. I no longer see respect between the political parties. Each side digs their heels into the soil and shows hatred to the opposing side. I find this hard to comprehend. I have yet to meet another human being who agrees with me on every topic, on every level, in every aspect of my life. Does this mean I can’t have a discussion with someone, disagree, and then go share a drink and a laugh together?

    How about if we force the blue-eyed Democrats and the blue-eyed Republicans into a room where they can hear all of the political discussion and debate among their colleagues, but they are not allowed to speak in any way. They have to sit for days and hear pro-life opinions and pro-choice opinions, but they are never allowed to voice their own opinions — not even to their blue-eyed colleagues. they must observe their brown-, black-, green-, and grey-eyed Congressmen scream out their opinions on gun control, same-sex marriage, the legalization of marijuana, and health care.

    Perhaps after several weeks of this torture, the blue-eyed Congressmen will observe that, while they have been forced to listen to the debate, unable to voice an opinion of their own, unable to secure the backing of other like-minded individuals, they actually heard the speakers for the very first time — even the ones with whom they disagree. Maybe, just maybe, they will realize that nothing is being accomplished because no one else is listening.

    Maybe, when they are finally allowed to rejoin their non-blue-eyed colleagues, they can tell them about how much hatred they witnessed while they were unable to participate. If these ostracized Congressmen could learn the same lessons as Mrs. Elliott’s third-grade students, I wonder if they might actually respect each other enough to consider the unthinkable: Compromise.

    Then all Americans could applaud them and be proud to live in the world’s largest cultural melting pot — one that contains people who look different and think differently, and people who respect one another enough to listen to each other, make laws with each other, and live harmoniously in the greatest country on Earth.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.