How a simple game of chess can break through stereotypes

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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we reported earlier, President Trump visited the African American Museum of History and Culture today, spending time considering the struggle to overcome racism in the United States.

Tonight, another installment in our series Race Matters, focused on finding solutions to racism.

Special Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports from Athens, Georgia, on building bridges through the game of chess.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: This is one of Lemuel LaRoche’s day jobs, teaching graduate students in the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work.

But LaRoche is a man of many parts, one who doesn’t separate town from gown, especially the parts of town populated by troubled youth.

LEMUEL LAROCHE, University of Georgia School of Social Work: These kids are looking for opportunities, looking for a way out, bouncing from foster home to foster homes.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And, to that end, LaRoche puts all of his teaching skills to work with troubled and not-so-troubled youth, and others from other places, with chess, the game he loves and sees as more than a game.

LEMUEL LAROCHE: While in Israel, I got an opportunity to play chess with this old Russian man.

And although we didn’t have — we didn’t speak the same language, while we had the chessboard, as were playing chess, I kind of stepped outside of myself and realized, like, wow, and how I was able to connect with this person, that even we didn’t play chess — even though we didn’t speak the same language, we were able to connect through the chessboard.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But you learned something from it?

LEMUEL LAROCHE: Yes. Yes.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What was it that you learned?

LEMUEL LAROCHE: What I took from that lesson was more of a — this is a game that can really unify races. This is a game that can really unify people.

Chess is such a metaphor for life. When I teach chess, I try to teach it from the perspective of, how do you take this game and correlate it with the real world?

And when teaching children how to play chess, I try to teach them how to look at the world different. The same goes, when you give a man fish, he eats for a day. When you teach a man how to fish, he eats for a lifetime.

I try to apply the same concept with chess.

DIONNE MCALLA, Chess Player: I think more critically. I have to focus more, because, in chess, if you mess up moves, then you can basically throw your whole game off. So, you really need to think about what you do before you do it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But you also begin to close doors — well, close spaces between black children and white children and Latin children. Tell me how you did that.

LEMUEL LAROCHE: Adults are programmed in their own viewpoints, their political views, their religious views.

But kids are still innocent. So, if we can succeed at putting children together, getting children to shake hands, look into each other’s eyes, have that socialization in where they can engage and touch each other in a positive way, then, when that child becomes a mayor or a commissioner or is put in a position, he or she has an experience or have had an experience with African-American youth.

So, using chess as a tool to bring kids together, we do it through chess and pizza, chess and ice cream, where we bring these kids together. That, in essence, force the parents to come together, and before we know it, we have a community that is really beginning to build collectively.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And they begin to understand each other beyond chess?

LEMUEL LAROCHE: Indeed, because that’s important.

And, oftentimes, chess is just used as the hook to bring them to the table. But, beyond chess, now that I have a relationship with you — if I have been programmed to see you as a criminal, as a thug, as a racist, chess is a way for you to have that one-on-one interaction, and now I realize that man what — who I thought was a thug just beat me in chess.

MICHAEL MORRIS, Chess Player: What this is doing is helping me learn in life that you think ahead and plan ahead before you move.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What happens when the police play chess with these kids?

LEMUEL LAROCHE: To watch the police officers engage with youth in a game of chess is — to me, it’s a brilliant thing.

One is because, a lot of times, the way we have been programmed and conditioned to see each other, kids have been programmed to hate the police, based on historical mistrust, as well as relationships that they have had with parents, or if they have seen a police officer incarcerate their parents.

So there is a negative stereotype about police officers in our community. And, oftentimes, police officers have been programmed to see a lot of young African-American youth as criminals because of the things that they have dealt with.

Engaging the kids with the police officers in a game of chess, it helps both the youth, as well as police officers, to break the stereotypes that we have developed about each other.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you get reactions from …

LEMUEL LAROCHE: Very positive reactions, because, one, the kid now recognizes he has seen a police officer smile. There’s positive socialization. People are beginning to engage with each other.

The police officer is telling a kid, man, you beat me in chess. It develops a relationship that you don’t see.

So, once a year, we have what’s called Justice Served. And this is a way for the kids to whoop up on the police officers through chess, but all in positive interaction.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, for communities where they don’t have a chess master, or even a griot, are there lessons beyond chess, do you think? When you they have these divisions, how do you bridge the gaps?

LEMUEL LAROCHE: By bringing people together.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How? You can’t just stand on the street and you say, you all come. We’re going to get together tonight.

LEMUEL LAROCHE: By building what we have built locally in Athens.

It was a process. You first have to allow those who are in positions of power to engage with people who are affected by policies that are being joined. So, to get both in a room, we have helped to strengthen that process through our annual chess conference.

This is a conference that brings policy-makers in the room with kids that are affected by policies.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But now you’re talking about chess. I want to talk about how you do it if you don’t have chess as the centerpiece?

LEMUEL LAROCHE: I truly believe that it is important to try to reach them at the youth, at the ground level.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Who has to take the lead? What kind of people do you think need to get engaged in this, and how do they go about bringing this in?

LEMUEL LAROCHE: If we begin to look at things as we are all small pieces of the big puzzle, then that helps to make the picture a lot more clearer.

The great WEB Du Bois said that the problem with the 20th century is going to be the problem with the color line. And it’s sad that, in the 21st century, we still find ways to erase that color line or find a way to turn that line into a circle, where we can include everyone.

I’m optimistic because I see how we engage the youth on the ground. I see what happens when we engage little white boys, little white girls, and, you know, Asian and Hispanic. We bring the kids together.

I see that type of engagement that they have. I see the genuineness in it. And I’m in a position that, when I see parents, the parents, the parroting of the parents, when the kids are repeating what they hear from the parents. Then it’s an opportunity for me to redirect that concept, redirect that thought.

So, by engaging the youth on the ground, having them engage, talk to each other, having them play with each — socialize with each other, I believe that that is the one way that we can erase it.

And it’s about allowing those who have been programmed to see you a certain way, or how we have been programmed to see other people certain ways, that we really begin to have that genuine dialogue, that genuine interaction.

And I try to do that through my work. But I am very optimistic that it can happen. It’s tough, but it can happen.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you very much, Lemuel LaRoche, for joining us.

LEMUEL LAROCHE: Thank you so much. It’s an honor.

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