In a recent column, Pulitzer prize-winning author William Raspberry1
writes about routine discourtesy and humiliation experienced by African Americans. Raspberry observes that some seem to be more enraged by this than others, but he emphasizes that no black adult, regardless of social standing, manages to escape occasional racial slights.
Middle-class whites may be surprised by the comment, and some may doubt its validity, even if they know Raspberry's reputation for moderation and fairness. My reaction was to think about non-whites who are young and poor. If even secure professionals cannot escape belittlement now and then, it must happen even more frequently to children of color—and with even more devastating results.
Maybe small put-downs shouldn't matter so much, and maybe they wouldn't in a world where race was unimportant. But in the world as we know it, race is one of the ways we define people, to the point that we sometimes confuse cause with effect. Marc Elrich (p. 12), a teacher in suburban Maryland, tells of shocking conversations with his 6th grade students, mostly African American and Hispanic, who have internalized the stereotype that they are by nature lazy and bad. Views such as these, Elrich believes, are shaped by the media and by students' interpretations of what they see around them. Changing such attitudes, he contends, will require much more than including a few non-white heroes in textbooks.
James Banks (p. 28), respected authority on multicultural education, agrees. Unquestionably, he says, schools should take steps to reflect the diversity of modern society by adding material by and about minorities and by recognizing minority contributions. Eventually, though, he advocates a more “transformative” approach. The inherited structure of some school subjects, he points out, makes it awkward to incorporate non-European cultures conveniently. The way to have a more representative curriculum is to plan from scratch.
But Banks also believes that multicultural education involves much more than curriculum content. His conception of educating for diversity includes teaching for equitable student achievement and acting to reduce prejudice.
Should schools take responsibility for trying to achieve equality? And if they try, can they succeed? Forty years after the Brown decision, we still don't have a national consensus on the matter. Nonetheless, I think most educators are united in the view that, while we cannot reform society single-handedly, we can and must play a key role.
How could we think otherwise? We know that the natural feelings of discomfort we experience around those whose appearance or practices or beliefs are different from ours can lead to distrust, hostility, and even hatred. When aggravated by perceived unfairness, these feelings often explode into physical violence, as they have periodically in the United States and recently in the unspeakable horrors of Bosnia and Rwanda. The only available remedy is education.
ASCD's new strategic plan declares our intent to promote diversity within our own organization and elsewhere. We know that differences sometimes bring confusion and discord, but we believe they also strengthen us. The aim is not just to accept differences, although that is the starting point. The goal is multiculturalism, which, as James Banks says, involves an “unequivocal commitment to basic American values of justice and equality.”
W. Raspberry, (April 13, 1994), “Trivial, Hurtful Encounters.” The Washington Post, p. 17.