FEATURES
Volume 17 Number 6
Diversity a Matchless Plus
01 December 2004

When racial segregration came under attack in the 1950s, Bob Webb defended it in his columns and editorials. But he came to see things differently.

Dark-skinned Salvadoran-born Ingris Reyes, 22, had been a legal resident of Alexandria, Virginia for 17 years when she received the emotional jolt of her lifetime.

Reyes and her five brothers and sisters had known discrimination—in the look they sometimes saw in people’s eyes, for example. ‘If a Hispanic had recently been charged with a (publicized) crime, people would look at one of my brothers as though he were a criminal,’ she says.

Nothing, however, prepared her for that morning she attended traffic court with her older sister, who was there for an alleged violation. A lawyer, who had nothing to do with the case, suddenly heaped abuse on them, saying that people like them should be returned to their native lands if they broke the law. The incident left her distraught and weeping. This was not the America Reyes had been taught about.

Her experience demonstrates that while African-Americans continue to bear the brunt of most discrimination and abuse, other minorities suffer too.

Martin Luther King’s dream of a society where character, not colour, counts falls somewhat short of fulfilment. But clearly much has been achieved. When the Brown ruling shook the South with the emotional force of a hurricane, I was a reporter in New Orleans where segregation was as rigid as anywhere. Blacks knew ‘their place’ and were expected to stay in it. Most did.

Segregation was so much a part of me I defended it in articles after becoming associate editor of the State Times in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, where I was reared. It took a transforming experience at a Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change) conference in 1957 to shake my faith in the system I had defended. The result was I began to write to unite instead of divide, to heal rather than hurt, to reach out to African-Americans in a different way and to bring people of every race, colour and creed into my heart.

The Supreme Court’s school decision has been the major catalyst for a new way of thinking in America not only about education but about multiracial and multicultural diversity. For all its failure to make every classroom truly diverse, the ruling brought new respect for the Constitution across the divides of race, religion and ethnicity. It removed the stigma of ‘legal’ segregation.

Attempts to halt or slow white flight to the suburbs and achieve integration have largely failed. Moreover, many black parents put a higher premium on academic rather than multiracial achievements of schools. In 1998, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute cited a poll which showed that ‘by by an 80 per cent to nine per cent margin, African-American parents want public schools to focus on academics over promoting integration and diversity’.

When an African-American reporter and I did a neighbourhood survey in Cincinnati in the mid 1960s, we could only find one parent who favoured busing her child to another school for racial integration. The others preferred the local school.

But racial and ethnic diversity remains the ideal. Where it exists, it offers a matchless plus to education. Ingris Reyes says that one of her best friends at high school was a scarved Sudanese Muslim girl. ‘We had students from all over. In the lunchroom white students would be with other white students, but with an African-American, Hispanic and maybe a Muslim with them. African-Americans would be together, with maybe someone from the other groups, and Hispanics, who can be any colour from white to black, would be with one or two from other groups.’

However limited this diversity, it taught different cultures, traditions and behaviours. There may be no grades for that education: but most educators would rank it as one of the most important learning experiences.

Bob Webb is a former columnist and editorial writer for the ‘Cincinnati Enquirer’.

See also 493Rob Corcoran’s Guest Column.


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