Whitworth College professor Jim Waller grew up in the South of the 1960s and saw the ugly face of racial discrimination.
He wants to share that knowledge with students, but prejudice is not something easily understood in a campus lecture hall.
So Waller is putting his class on wheels for a monthlong look at racism and prejudice across the United States. He and 16 students are now in California on the first leg of an eight-city classroom-by-rail tour.
“I want them to hear first-hand how people experience prejudice,” said Waller, an associate professor and chairman of Whitworth’s psychology department.
They will travel coast-to-coast on Amtrak, spending nights in youth hostels.
Study tours commonly are offered in college, but Waller said his class is unique because it focuses exclusively on racism and discrimination. This is the first time the class has been offered at Whitworth for full-time students.
One of the first stops is San Francisco’s Chinatown where Waller wants his students to learn why Chinese immigrants gathered in an ethnic enclave to protect themselves from the racism around them in the 1800s.
Their tour guide will tell the students what it is like to be an Asian-American in San Francisco today.
Elsewhere, they will hear from experts at the Institute for Research on Social Problems in Boulder, Colo.; talk with a man who witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and tour King’s birthplace in Atlanta.
They also will attend a historic black Methodist church in Washington, D.C., and tour a Haitian voodoo museum in New Orleans.
Waller said voodoo might sound like black magic, but for many Haitians, it is a religion.
He said he wants the students to appreciate different cultural beliefs, including voodoo, from the standpoint of those cultures.
“I think it will broaden my perspective a lot,” said Joy Crawford, 20, a sophomore from Pleasanton, Calif.
Crawford said she wants to use her psychology degree to work with abused and underprivileged children, so learning more about discrimination will be valuable.
Joe Schneller, 20, a junior from Boulder, said he always wanted to travel and expand his world view, so the class is the perfect opportunity to combine travel and study.
“I’d like to get the flavor of the places we are going. I’m really excited about going down South,” he said. “I don’t know what racism is like in the South these days.”
Waller said the South is not as outwardly racist today as its legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws might suggest.
He said he wants his students to learn more about the less obvious types of racism such as discrimination in hiring and housing.
Waller said many students are from smaller towns, and they’ve grown up with limited exposure to minorities and different religions. This trip will bring them closer and give them a greater appreciation for the rich diversity of America, he said.
In Atlanta, they will visit a city where there are more blacks than whites in a place that became the focal point of the Civil Rights movement.
“I want them to see a picture of a South that’s still trying to heal from the Civil Rights struggles,” Waller said.
He spent nearly four weeks last summer planning the trip with the help of a student travel agency.
At each stop, there are several planned activities, but students also will get several hours a day to be on their own.
In Los Angeles, the class will attend a lecture and lunch at the House of Blues to examine the connection between black culture and blues music.
Waller said some academics believe it is impossible to understand black culture without understanding blues.
So far, he has not scheduled trips into large metropolitan inner city areas such as south central Los Angeles. He said he is erring on the side of safety in the first offering of this class.
The cost of the trip is $1,500 per student, including travel, lodging and museum admissions. Meals are extra.
Whitworth devotes the month of January for in-depth classes that focus on a single subject. Many involve travel overseas. Students return to campus in February for the regular spring semester.
On Waller’s tour, students are required to write a 12-page class paper and keep a daily journal. Some will use the trip to start research projects for other classes.
Waller said he wants students to realize prejudice is a complex and ingrained human trait. He said everyone makes judgments about people.
The subject lends itself to the educational goals of the Presbyterian college, which tries to develop students’ interest in making the world a better place to live.
He said his students, for the most part, want to do something about discrimination.
“All of us perpetrate prejudice in various forms at some point in our lives. Prejudice is much deeper than neo-Nazis and skinheads,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; Graphic: Whitworth students explore prejudice across America