'It doesn't stop with an opinion'

'It doesn't stop with an opinion'

A pair of educators are teaming up to give college students and fourth-graders new tools to fight prejudice and racial separatism — a project that took on new significance with the appearance of white nationalist stickers on campus last week.

The husband-and-wife team — University of Illinois labor law Professor Michael LeRoy and Leal Elementary teacher Janet LeRoy — are hosting a joint class discussion next Tuesday at the UI Library’s Rare Book Library, focusing on Japanese internment camps during World War II.

“I think the best way to address the re-emergence of racial intolerance is to teach young kids and college students ... to equip them with arguments so that they can counter these intolerant messages, educating students to find ways on their own to speak up and speak out,” Michael LeRoy said.

“I think you have to do it at the grassroots level, to make it unacceptable again,” he said. “It’s not acceptable to promote the superiority of one race over another.”

The project grew out of a study he published last year, “Targeting White Supremacy in the Workplace,” which he said was motivated by the rise of white nationalism in the United States and its impact on immigration and employment.

He found that the United States is reverting to some of the patterns that predated the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act. The latter replaced an old quota system with an immigration policy based on reuniting families and attracting skilled labor to the U.S.

“Some of our immigration policies today echo the nativism of the 1920s and earlier,” he said. “And we see much more prominent displays of nooses, KKK symbols and other features of racism in an ordinary work place” today, he said.

His research looked at how courts are dealing with those issues and found that “employers who don’t aggressively handle these things pay huge damages,” he said.

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LeRoy decided to teach a Campus Honors Program course on the same topic, “Immigration and Race: Inequality in Labor,” drawing on documents from the U.S. Constitution to recent executive orders from President Donald Trump that would limit visas for highly skilled tech workers from India and Asia.

Janet LeRoy, a fourth-grade teacher at Leal, thought the curriculum tied in well with the school district’s emphasis on racial equity. She decided to use some concepts from the UI course in her own class, where students also learn about the civil rights movement and school segregation.

The LeRoys talked about having the two classes meet to share what they’ve learned, and Janet LeRoy suggested they work with the Rare Book Library. Her students had visited the library in the past to learn about cursive handwriting and find original research material for biographies they were writing.

The Japanese internment was a topic that both age groups could understand, something that “happened not that long ago on the West Coast,” Janet LeRoy said.

Her students are learning how Pearl Harbor pulled America into World War II, why Japanese people in the United States were seen as suspicious, what life in the camps was like, and what it was like for people after they returned to their homes.

Children’s literature on the subject “helped the kids see that fear and prejudice exist right in their own country,” she said.

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The class has talked about other groups that have been targeted in America, from black slaves to Chinese, Irish, Italian and Spanish immigrants, and what they can do to “make people feel welcome in our community,” she said.

They talked about fears people have today, and whether the same thing could happen if the government decided a different group was suspect.

“Would you be willing to stand up for your friend? And if your friend had to go away and come back, would you treat them differently?” she said.

Both classes are diverse. The Leal class has 24 students, a mix of longtime U.S. residents, first-generation Americans, and children who were born in other countries — Guatemala, India, China and Thailand.

On Monday, they took a field trip to Siam Terrace, a Thai restaurant owned by the parents of one of her students who immigrated to the U.S. The students learned about the Thai alphabet, played musical instruments and made crab rangoon.

Michael LeRoy’s students — 18 freshmen and sophomores — hail from Chicago, rural Illinois, other states and other countries and include a range of ethnicities and academic majors, from engineering to theater, political science and economics.

They’re learning about court cases and everything from Jim Crow laws to “sundown towns,” white communities where African-Americans weren’t allowed or were subject to intimidation.

“Just to hear rural Illinois students talking to students from Chicago about what the meaning of a sundown town is was stunning,” he said.

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The class meets at 3 p.m., after Leal’s school day has ended. But eight of his students agreed to meet at a different time next week so the classes could get together, eager to see how children are processing this information, he said.

As the LeRoys planned next week’s session, they learned about the white nationalist stickers at the UI. Similar incidents have occurred across the country, Michael LeRoy said.

For him, the danger of posters that proclaim racial superiority “is that it numbs people and makes it harder for people to speak out.”

LeRoy knows something about the topic. He lost most of his family in the Auschwitz death camp, and he learned from his father how racist propaganda was the first step down that road.

“It was an eight-year process,” he said. “It started with posters that went up in his town that depicted Jews in an exaggerated and very negative way. That turned into a boycott of his father’s Jewish-owned business. Then he and other Jews were kicked out of a public school. Then his best friend, a soccer player and a Catholic boy, was told he couldn’t play with my dad because my dad was Jewish,” he said.

“And then the storm troopers showed up at the door. It’s a continuum,” LeRoy said.

“That, for me, is what the significance of this speech is. It doesn’t stop with an opinion. That’s the starting place. The opinion turns into a pattern of separation, of segregation, and that turns into a policy by a government, and then you have internment camps in the United States, and concentration camps in Poland and elsewhere.”

So when the stickers went up last week, the LeRoys decided maybe the community would like to know that “there are lots of ways to address this. And here’s one way: through teaching.”

Julie Wurth is a columnist and reporter at The News-Gazette, writing about kids and families and covering the University of Illinois. Contact her at 217-351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter @jawurth.

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