Carnegie Mellon University
November 15, 2021

Class Addresses Racism in the Nation’s History

Carnegie Mellon University students are studying the impact of racism in the nation’s history.

Doug Coulson, associate professor of English in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, teaches “Race, Nation, and the Enemy” every other year. Coulson’s own research looks at conflicts over race and national identity in the history of the United States. Closely intertwined with these conflicts is enemyship, a common threat on which identity, unity and cooperation are based.

Students who take the course learn in the beginning of the United States’ history, Thomas Paine positioned Britain as an enemy. Since then, some members of our society have sought to make certain groups seem superior while viewing many others as an outgroup. America, specifically white America, sustains themselves as an ingroup — belonging together — still today because of this idea of “enemyship,” notes graduate rhetoric student Madison Maher.

“[This course] gives you a really good understanding of the history and contemporary implications of racism,” said Maher, who took the course in fall 2020.

“One goal of the course is to familiarize students with race scholarship, and that raises a variety of issues from defining race to understanding principles like the essentialism that is attached to race and distinguishing it from xenophobia, understanding demagoguery as a concept, understanding nationalism as a concept through a scholarly and historical lens; also really helping them understand the myriad ways negative identification occurs. It occurs in very mundane ways as well as in Hitler’s rhetoric,” Coulson said.

While many of the readings in the course are historical, the focus of class discussions changes every semester as students relate texts to current events.

“You can see that the precedent for racism in America has existed since America has existed, and it’s not a narrative that’s talked about enough,” said Victoria Avery, who took the course as a senior in the Department of English. “The content of this course is just information that everyone should know. It’s kind of like the history you were never taught in history class growing up.”

With this historical knowledge comes our responsibility to understand, respect and honor the suffering of victims of racism, such as African Americans, indigeneous people, immigrants and other minorities. Coulson’s research focuses on immigrants in a legal context.

Among the historical moments he uncovers is the Sacco and Vanzetti case. In 1927, Italian immigrants and anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in Massachusetts for murder, falsely accused due to anti-immigrant and anti-anarchist bias. Students learn about and reflect on the implications of this and other exclusionary episodes for today’s America.

“This course itself in thinking about the construct surrounding race, nation and the enemy, I think that it generates these verdict shutters in which a particular way of seeing the world is enacted legally,” said Benjamin Williams, a Ph.D. student in Literary and Cultural Studies.

Williams noted that this construction of “us versus them” persists, which motivates students to engage in productive conversations in the classroom.

During the Fall 2020 semester, Coulson curated discussion topics based around various readings. Students read Yaser Ali’s “Shariah and Citizenship — How Islamophobia Is Creating a Second-Class Citizenry in America” to understand Islamophobia pre- and post-9/11.  Ian Haney López’s “The Prerequisite Cases” fueled a part of the discussion on the legal construction of whiteness in pre-World War II citizenship cases. Course readings also included articles like Robin Kelley’s “Thug nation: On state violence and disposability,” which discusses how protests of police killings of civilians are domestic instances of a global struggle. Students also read portions from Coulson’s “Race, Nation and Refuge: The Rhetoric of Race in Asian American Citizenship Cases.” The course itself emerged from Coulson’s book.

“One of the challenges for me in teaching the course is recognizing that I speak from a position of privilege as a white, cisgender male authority figure,” Coulson said. “Recognizing this privilege requires ongoing attention to the different perspectives we bring to the conversation, and the fact that some of us have had direct experiences with historical harm, while others have not. I try to address the pedagogical impact of my privilege in a variety of ways, from building critiques of whiteness itself into the course readings and covering a variety of racial classifications to taking particular care to invite and respect the many perspectives of the students and diversifying the authors we read and other sources in our discussions. Ultimately, the trust we build in the classroom as a learning community is essential, and it looks different with every group of students.”

Coulson also incorporates conversation based on what is currently happening in the world. When the Tree of Life massacre took place in October 2018, Coulson recalls a specific focus of in-class discussion on anti-Semitism. Students more recently had discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement and its context at Carnegie Mellon, and they explored issues regarding anti-Asian hate and discrimination in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.