Teaching Race, Ethnicity, and Politics: Identity, Discrimination, & Inequality
Dr. Rachel Yon
Derrick Bell’s Space Traders, set in the year 2000, posits a modern-day choice of how valuable people are in comparison to resources. He considers how the value of people differs depending on who those people are, how much power they have, and whether their voices are listened to/taken seriously. Questions raised also surround whether societal status, economic status, and racial grouping play a role in how government treats its citizens regarding political decisions.
Students should leave the exercise with an understanding of the importance of having diverse groups of people in positions of power who are listened to and make a difference when it comes to the important life changing decisions that governments make for their people on a daily basis.
For those not familiar, Space Traders is a fictional story in Derrick Bells’ Faces at the Bottom of the Well. Bell creates a story in which aliens from space, who communicate through the familiar and comforting voice of Ronald Reagan, state that they will come to Earth to provide the United States with all the resources it needs to once again be a leading power in the world to monetary resources (gold), ways return the environment to a pristine state, and a safe and clean nuclear engine and fuel. In exchange for this, they wanted to take all the African Americans from the United States (anyone identified as black on their birth certificate/official documentation) with them, never to return. They would not say what they would do with these American citizens and the country had 2 weeks in which to make the decision. Through these 2 weeks, the government debated what to do, there were many arguments about the appropriate course of action. Eventually, a referendum was put to a vote and the United States overwhelmingly determined that it would “sacrifice” the majority of its African American citizens in order to improve the lives of those who were left behind. In the process of getting to this decision, the underlying racism in society became apparent as did the schisms between racial and ethnic groups (anti-Semitism reared its head strongly in the story when members of the Jewish community attempted to help African Americans). Those with economic and political power were able to disproportionately be heard and this negatively impacted those not in power – those in minority racial groups and those who had less economic say in society.
It is a powerful story with themes ranging from systemic racism to classism to the powerlessness of minority groups in the face of strong majority opposition. Bell’s argument is that despite the progress that has been made, if these schisms in society continue then this would be the fate for any group that does not have the power to push back. This would be the inevitable result if relationships among groups do not improve in a concrete and tangible way to ensure that all people recognize that no group in society is expendable. He argues that with political, cultural, and social institutions in the United States set up the way they are, it is unlikely the country will see significant attention paid to how deeply embedded these -isms (i.e. racism, classism, sexism, etc.) are in American society and how the rules, laws, policies, and daily social interactions reinforce them on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis.
The key for using this in a classroom environment is that it is done in the beginning of the semester – around lesson 5, after students have been introduced to the concepts of identity, inequality in the institutional, interactional, and societal senses, and have had an introductory discussion about diversity and minority-majority relations in the United States. It is also important to determine whether the students have read this chapter of Bell’s work as this will have an impact on their participation in the exercise as they may come in with preconceived notions about what direction the exercise should take. Fortunately (or unfortunately), it is quite rare for a student to have read this piece of Bell’s work prior to entering the classroom.
For the simulation, students are broken into different groups – the blue group, green group, orange group, and purple group.
- Blue group – the ruling elite is mostly made up of members from the blue group. However, there are some members of this group who would not fall into the categories of political and economic power, yet, they do have a psychic boost of seeing so many people that look like them in positions of great wealth and political power.
- Green group –few in the ruling elite but considered the group that the blue group has to worry least about. They are generally considered to be hard workers who cause very little trouble in society.
- Orange group – very few in the ruling elite but there are some individuals who have a great deal of wealth and power. This group has a long history of conflict with the blue group. Blue group members tend to look down orange group members for being difficult to control and problematic for society. While not all orange group members can be classified this way, the stereotype has spread to apply to a significant portion of the group.
- Purple group – very few in the ruling elite but there are some individuals who have a great deal of wealth and power. This group does not have as long of a history of conflict with the blue group as the orange group does but many are labeled as problematic for society. Stereotypes have also made their way into how members of the group are viewed.
The students are given the following background:
- All these groups live in one country with limited resources, significant negative environmental issues, and crippling government debt. Then miraculously the gold group comes along (played by the instructor) from outside the country and can fix all of these problems with the snap of their fingers BUT everyone in the orange group must leave the country with them never to return and with no questions asked or answered as to their fate.
- Each student will be given a role within the group – an assigned position in society, as well as a racial and ethnic background as well as a class status. They will need to embody the assignment they have been given and respond to this situation as though they are the people they are playing. They need to answer the question, realistically (not idealistically – everyone would like to think that they would reject such a deal out of hand), what would you do in a situation where everything is going to be handed to your society as long as you are willing to hand off a portion of your citizenry to an unknown fate?
The students will be given time to figure out how they want to organize this society and discuss their plan of action with regard to their response – the clock is ticking as it is in the story and the determination must be made within the class period, so they are under pressure when making this choice.
Obviously, depending on the class, the results may be different, but the expectation is that it would eventually result in what Bell predicted. That the weight of the “gifts” would outweigh the lives of those being forced to leave.
The goal is for the students to consider the following:
- It matters who is in power as those are the people who will have the most say. Those are the people who are in the room when decisions get made about other people’s lives and they are the ones that will have more of an ability to direct the future.
- How people are chosen for powerful positions also matters. The way institutions have been created and allowed to grow and develop may result in certain groups of people being listened to more while others are excluded. How does that happen? Are there ways to create rules and policies that do not result in this end?
- If there is not diversity in the room where decisions are made, where people of a variety of backgrounds are included, then it is easy to take advantage of the “other.” This is not necessarily purposeful but if someone has not been exposed to other people and their lives and backgrounds, they cannot possibly understand how to properly consider them when important decisions are being made.
- It is important to listen to and understand the rhetoric that is being used when these types of decisions need to be made. When fear and hatred, and sometimes greed, become involved then negative rhetoric can be used to build up an image of this “other” to make them seem less human and potentially disposable. Examples to discuss at this point would be the rhetoric and arguments that surrounded slavery in the Americas and the rhetoric that enabled the Holocaust. The students should attempt to brainstorm how to stop these things from happening again when Derrick Bell’s argument is that they will continue to happen in the power structure that we perpetually recreate.
- There should also be a discussion of how groups without power and those with power can work together/not work together depending on their mutual survival. Consider why multiple minority groups do not band together for a common purpose when it would ultimately be to the benefit of groups with less power. There does seem to be a reluctance by some minority groups to work together. It appears those who are willing to band together with the majority against whatever minority group is currently causing issues receives some (at least temporary) benefits for doing this. It is clear that over time the majority has often purposely included groups underneath their umbrella to keep them from joining with other minority groups (e.g. Irish and Italian Americans were moved from non-white to white when there was potential for them to band together with other low income groups and cause some detrimental harm to the majority in the early 1900s) or they have created favorite minority groups that are less likely to want to have this favoritism removed by working with members of less favorite groups. Overall, it is important to recognize that in-group and out-group dynamics are important and can have a significant impact on policies, institutions, and long-term decision-making processes. Considering the exercise, the questions would be: would purple and green band together with orange to prevent this from happening? Or would they turn their backs on them despite having more in common with them than people in the blue group? Would they band together since there is strength in numbers or would they focus too much on the differences among groups rather than their similarities which could encourage people to work together?
Students should leave the exercise with an understanding of the importance of having diverse groups of people in positions of power who are listened to and make a difference when it comes to the important life changing decisions that governments make for their people on a daily basis. Without diverse thought, decisions that can have a negative impact on small groups of people are much too easy to make. Good decisions are rarely made in echo chambers.
 The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
 Bell, Derrick. 1992. Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. London, England: Basic Books.
 See Bell, Derrick. 1992. Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. London, England: Basic Books, 158-194.
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