Diversity: Where America Stands
Contributed by Sally Towns
Western Journalist to Mahatma Ghandi: "Mr. Ghandi, what do you think of modern civilization?"
Ghandi: "I think it would be a good idea!"
For the past century, the United States has been viewed by many in the world community as particularly ambitious in its efforts to translate massive population diversity into economic and cultural opportunity; and, to bring the Country as a whole to a level of intergroup cooperation worthy of Ghandi's concept of "modern civilization."
Asian states have on many occasions during the last ten decades expressed incredulity that we in America are able to compete effectively in world markets, given the many challenges they see relative to diversity that the United States has addressed while cobbling together a unified national front.
The energy with which the United States has fueled progressive social momentum has never been better illustrated than by the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall in response to President Dwight D. Eisenhower's call for minority patience. Justice Marshall said, "I'm the world's original gradualist. I just think ninety-odd years is gradual enough!"
Since 1900, not only has America adopted policies aimed at providing equal treatment under law*, but the Country has also taken significant steps to transform its essentially egalitarian spirit into authentic celebrations of individual excellence.
Mandating school attendance, adopting child labor laws, integrating the armed services, passing and implementing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and passing and implementing the Education Act of 1965 as amended in 1972 to add Title IX gender inclusion provisions were all major initiatives aimed at providing every American with the tools necessary to fully employ natural talents to his own advantage, as well as that of the Nation and the world.
In addition to government initiatives, American colleges with worldwide reputations have conducted, and continue to conduct, outreach programs that enable students from poor families to attend their campuses. This is an ongoing effort to dispel the often-repeated charge that the right to personal fulfillment in America is reserved for those with fortunate early European immigrant ancestries.
As far as we have come as a Nation, however, we continue to abide and accept the reality of vast numbers of poor children in America failing to master the skills and personal disciplines necessary for them to take their places as twenty-first century business and professional leaders.
While it is true that many students from poorer backgrounds possess fewer skills on average than their more well-to-do neighbors, it is also true that there are factors inextricably linked with poverty in America that are difficult for financially successful citizens to fully appreciate.
At risk of dwelling on the obvious, or worse, adding to our already massive collection of social generalizations, let us together briefly compare the educational and social experiences of an American upper middle class high school student with her underclass** academic and social competitor.
For the purpose of this exercise, we will place both students in the same public school classroom, since there is only one high school in their small city of Bruceville. (Also, I am going to ask you, the reader, for patience. I concede in advance that life experiences rarely are this clearly dichotomous.)
Let us award our upper middle class student, call her Valerie Jade Brown, a National Merit Scholarship (NMS), which she won by being in the top 1% of the Nation in the SAT I preliminary examination.
VJ, as family and friends call her, is blessed with a home life common to our upper middle class idyllic world.
Her parents serve her regularly scheduled, interesting, nutritious meals. Her father, Ignatius, enjoys being considered an excellent family chef, and her mother, Teresa, is an avid recipe collector.
There is peace in VJ's home. It is a place for refreshing the soul. Mutual emotional support reigns supreme.
Her parents have provided VJ with a private, bedroom/study in which to complete her school assignments. VJ very much enjoys the personal privacy afforded by this "chamber of erudition," as her father calls it.
After her graduation from middle school, her parents surprised her with an elegant, handcrafted desk from Melchior's Fine Furniture (to replace the children's desk she had used in middle school). VJ was also provided with a state-of-the-art ergonomic chair, which her mother had discovered also at Melchior's.
In addition, the studies-facilitating equipment and services ensemble includes a personal computer, DSL, laser printer, fax; and a telephone with limited, if generous, monthly pre-paid service.
In addition, VJ enjoys the home library that both her mother and father enrich frequently with book purchases. VJ has never in her remembrance searched the household library for material and failed to find "SOMETHING!"
Both her parents encourage VJ in her academic, athletic, social and spiritual endeavors. (It is common over the dinner table for the family to discuss Schopenhauer or Hegel or VJ's problems with her sociology teacher or her tennis backhand or her latest crush (Raymond Jackson).)
VJ can anticipate joining her father and mother in the family firm after graduation from law school. At this juncture, law school seems to be where VJ's leanings are. However, there is no pressure for her to make a final decision now. Financial considerations will not be a deciding factor with regard to her life choices. Her parents simply want to see VJ fulfilled.
VJ enjoys membership in the local country club (family package) where she has the opportunity to meet, socialize, date (and perhaps marry) a young man (family package) who also comes with an elegant desk and an ergonomic chair in HIS study.
Further, as with many of the young who have been blessed with country club memberships (family package), VJ has been favored with a modest trust from her grandparents on her father's side, the interest from which she will begin to receive upon attaining her majority.
VJ will also accrue no debt during her years of formal education, since her parents are comfortably able to underwrite not only high school extras, but undergraduate and graduate university experiences as well.
Finally, there will be no fast-food restaurant hours for VJ to compromise her ability to study or obtain sufficient rest. Her allowance has been established at precisely the same level paid to high school students working twenty hours per week at the ice cream parlor on Martin Luther King Boulevard. One of Ignatius' golfing foursome, Homer, owns that store, Homer's Ice Cream, and was more than willing to share the full "scoop" regarding wages. (Homer is such a card.)
Compare VJ's situation with a classmate from the poorer section of Bruceville.
We will name our challenged student Robert Callahan (16). Robert and VJ are Juniors at Bruceville High School. They attend the same classes, in the same rooms, at the same times, with the same teachers. They are competitors for the glories of excellence at BHS.
Robert lives with his mother and two sisters in the second floor apartment of a 1940's style three-storied wooden tenement (pine green paint) directly across the street from the subsidized housing project. Robert's father is absent; and his mother, Megan, is struggling to raise her three children, Robert and his two sisters, Shannon (8) and Marie (12), working two jobs, both of them of the minimum wage variety.
All four persons share the apartment's one bedroom.
There are no desks or books in Robert's home, except for the tattered Bible that is kept on one of the two bedroom bureaus, the one near the window overlooking Daniel Johnson's rust and blue 1960's style mobile home.
There is little personal space in Robert's home, and rarely an opportunity to quietly study assignments for school. There is no DSL, no equipment of any kind except the gas stove in the small kitchen and the television in the corner of the undersized living room.
As an aside, one of Robert's chores each morning is to turn on the kitchen lights, thus ridding the room of roaches which panic-stricken scatter as if they were being surprised by the police during one of their random raids, conducted with the aim of interrupting one of the many low stakes perpetual poker games in Robert's neighborhood. The mayor's wife is particularly concerned with this type of gambling, since it seems that the losers are so often those who can least afford additional misfortune.
Food is usually from their church's food locker, with occasional baskets being provided by Loaves and Fishes on 23rd Street.
Despite their poverty, as a treat, once per week, Megan escorts her family to the McDonald's on 20th Street. They then walk like the unified cadre they are to the ice cream parlor on Martin Luther King Boulevard for the "treat of the week." (If Robert is especially polite to his sisters, he is rewarded on this weekly pilgrimage with an extra topping for his sundae. His sisters use more complex feminine "formulae" to earn ice cream honors. Robert never understands his sisters' rituals.)
When Robert graduates from high school next year (only 60% of the students from his section of town do) there will be little or no support structure to aid him in finding his way in the world. (He has been trying to get a job at Homer's, but there have been no openings. He is in line though for a twenty-five hour per week position at the local McDonald's. Unemployment is at 25% among the adult male population in Robert's ten-block area. A legitimate job, any legally unobjectionable position, is a status symbol for the youth of the neighborhood. Many of the local teenage boys serve as runners for the neighborhood drug traders. Robert has had "street offers," but has, as a consequence of a truly clarion-like lecture from Megan, managed to avoid.)
As with many from his neighborhood, Robert is just getting by in his high school classes. Others, like Valerie Jade Brown, seem to Robert to actually enjoy "killing" time in school. (Megan has been informed by several of Robert's teachers that he is several weeks behind in his class assignments, even though his academic acumen is at the very highest level when compared to all but a few of the students at BHS.)
Without further belaboring this comparison, we who are fortunate to be in a situation more like VJ's than Robert's need to ask ourselves how we might contribute to providing the Roberts of America with more encouraging academic vistas. The problem seems so large that many of us feel powerless to intervene. Nothing could be less accurate.
Many prosperous Americans have been conditioned as children to believe that the poor among them present real or imagined threats to their social positions. Issues may include worries about physical safety or moral contamination or the incongruity of "street" behaviors with advancement in businesses and professional environments. (For example, VJ's parents have often singled out poor children like Robert Callahan, and explained in some detail the terrible consequences of "acting as he does.")
Such fears and lessons tend to limit contact between students of different groups. This is true on and off public middle school and high school campuses.
It is accurate to suggest that poor children in Robert's town are more likely to recreate in the streets than in their homes or one of Bruceville's three country clubs.
Also, Robert and his peers are more likely to have arrest records as a result of their consistent energetic presence on public streets. At the request of local residents, police actively patrol Robert's neighborhood on an hourly basis, searching for youthful delinquency. Daily police captain briefings, and the natural laws of reticular perception demand that these public servants discover that for which they are officially ordered to seek.
So what can be done? I suggest that we as a society could take a substantial forward stride in the direction of providing better life opportunities for all the students of America by teaching our children to forego acting on the all too often negative generalizations that are attributed to groups rather than to individuals.
Sadly, in our public schools, the majority of students have learned negative lessons well. More than ever before students are being discouraged from mingling with those outside their religious, ethnic or economic group. In study after study, more than 80% of all public school students both rich and poor, when given a choice, socialize exclusively with individuals in similar life circumstances. (Unwisely, we as a Country have accepted a definition of "diversity" as relating to groups, rather than applying the term to the level of the individual. This application of language has done nothing to heal separations among various segments of the population, and, in fact, has exacerbated a sense of alienation, exclusion and anger.)
When we in America elevate cultural identities to the status of virtue, especially in our public schools, without understanding the alienating consequences of looking exclusively to religious, ethnic or economic groups for caring, safety, and 'specialness,' this can only contribute to the weakening of the Country's integrative social fabric. (Both Robert and VJ in our examples will almost certainly perpetuate their family's exclusionary stereotypical behaviors as adults, unless we as a culture subvert formal glorifications of group characteristics, celebrations that when carried to levels common in the United States perpetuate hatreds for those who are by definition are on the outside, the people often referred to by the pronouns "us" and "them.")
Only when we have changed our outlook regarding diversity will we as a nation be worthy of Ghandi's vision.
Only then will America secure its future, a shining future realized through the creative genius of its children; a destiny of diversity well applied.
* Ed. Note: The concept of equality under law was foreign to English common law from which American jurisprudence was derived. (On the contrary, English common law was in many ways congruous with aristocratic privilege and its exercise.)
** Ed. Note: Term originally credited to economist Gunnar Myrdal who borrowed the Swedish word "underklass" to signify the lower economic stratum of a society.