Hard Truths: The Importance of Teaching Race in Introductory American Government and Politics for Undergraduates

Hard Truths: The Importance of Teaching Race in Introductory American Government and Politics for Undergraduates

by Rongal D. Watson, Beloit College

In this essay, I recount the rationale for emphasizing race in an introductory American politics course, present excerpts from student papers illustrating the relevance of this approach, and offer suggestions for how instructors can incorporate teaching race into their course design. I conclude with a discussion of the ways in which course content has changed since, and an acknowledgement of special preparatory steps and approaches that may be required to effectively address race in some classrooms. Ultimately, this essay seeks to encourage those willing to guide students in confronting the hard truths surrounding race in American politics, recognizing that one’s course may be students’ only opportunity to thoughtfully encounter how race shapes, permeates and troubles American political and social life.

Watson earned his B.A. in religious studies from the College of William and Mary in 1995, his M.A. in international peace studies and conflict resolution from the University of Notre Dame in 2001, and his M.A. and doctorate in political science from the University of New Mexico in 2010 and 2013, respectively. Research interests include the politics of race and ethnicity, domestic and global health inequalities, national health care systems, and public health policy. His dissertation explored how the historical legacies of racism, specifically anti-miscegenation laws once common across the U.S., may indirectly impact modern-day racial disparities in infant mortality rates.

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This Educate-JPSE collaboration brings together articles published in the Journal of Political Science Education that discuss classroom approaches related to teaching about race, racism, social justice and civic action. Our reading list offers a range of materials – from syllabi, reading lists to active learning assignments – that discuss classroom practices through the lens of identity, gender and power relations. It includes a model for professors who are interested in partnering with local community activists to design civically engaged courses, with specific examples covering research and organizing around affordable housing issues. 

The Journal of Political Science Education is an intellectually rigorous, path-breaking, agenda-setting journal that publishes the highest quality scholarship on teaching and pedagogical issues in political science. The journal aims to represent the full range of questions, issues and approaches regarding political science education, including teaching-related issues, methods and techniques, learning/teaching activities and devices, educational assessment in political science, graduate education, and curriculum development.