"A house divided against itself cannot stand." ~Lincoln
The day after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination an unknown school teacher, Jane Elliot, created a groundbreaking experiment within sociology and psychology. In order to elicit understanding and empathy from her students she artificially divided her class.
She told her students that blue-eyed children were superior to brown-eyed children. Blue-eyed children were given special privileges while brown-eyed children were demarcated by brown cloth. Initially, brown-eyed children put up resistance, but after Elliot told the children that the melanin which their eye color is what also made blue-eyed children more intelligent, their defiance disappeared.
As a result, blue-eyed children began ignoring the others and throwing insults. The effects could be seen from test scores, to class participation, and self-isolation. Brown-eyed students performed worse and became timid, while blue-eyed children performed better and grew more confident.
Elliot then reversed the roles and the same results occurred but with the vitriol somewhat diminished. Afterwards the children were asked to reflect upon their experience. What they had learned is that eye-color, like race and other artificial classifications, is a social construct.
In St. Louis artificial abstractions flourish. Not only does racial tension still simmer, but so do municipal rivalries and neighborhood stigmas. When we create these artificial barriers we forget that on the other end is a person just like us.
It is time as a region that we begin to talk to each other in a more human way. Not as someone from County or the City. Not as black or white. Not as ‘Ballwinian’ or ‘Crestwoodan’ but as a citizen of St. Louis. Only when we come together and erase our differences do we become stronger.
Aesop’s now cliche wisdom, "united we stand, divided we fall," has lasted several millennia because of its intuitive truth. It is a phrase upon which our nation found itself—a phrase with which our region must renew itself.
More details on Jane Elliot’s classroom experiment, "A Class Divided" are available on Frontline.