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What Diversity Teaches Us

The Importance of America’s Endangered Diversity Education Programs

SOURCE: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Young singers perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as liberal activists gather in the nation's capital to participate in the "One Nation Working Together" rally to promote job creation, diversity and tolerance.

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Given the consistent population projections that say our country will no longer have an ethnic majority by the year 2050, one would think that diversity education would become even more crucial in order to deepen our understanding of multicultural studies and the various communities of color that are growing in significant percentages. Instead, there is a disturbing trend emerging across the country where the current economic climate is used to justify budget cuts and these diversity-based departments are the first to go.

In the past few years, we’ve seen a troubling trend where academic programs in both public schools and universities centered on tenets of diversity such as African American studies, ethnic studies, women’s studies, and others get the axe. Despite the fact that many of these programs were the result of hard-fought battles won by the civil rights and women’s movements, we’ve seen proposals to either eliminate whole departments or considerably cut their funding in California, Texas, and Nevada, among other states.

Arizona, as a state where the generation gap is particularly pronounced between older Americans—who are largely white (83 percent)—and children under 18—who are increasingly members of communities of color (57 percent)—is at the center of just such a battle. On January 1 the state’s ban on ethnic studies went into effect, targeting the popular ethnic-studies curriculum in the Tucson Unified School District, or TUSD. Former Superintendent of Public Instruction and current Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne pushed House Bill 2281, which would ban “classes in kindergarten through 12th grade that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of one ethnic group, or advocate ethnic solidarity.”

Tuscon’s teachers, however, have refused to stop teaching, boasting that the ethnic studies program’s success is evident in the fact that 80 percent of its Latino students go on to college, in comparison to only 24 percent nationwide. They have even waged a federal lawsuit against the ban, and the district continues in turmoil while students, parents, and teachers wait for the new superintendent to rule whether TUSD’s Mexican American Studies program is in violation of H.B. 2281.

In the face of these attacks on diversity education, we can find inspiration not only in the students and teachers in Arizona who continue to fill classrooms and create lesson plans that teach our youth that there is nothing to fear in our multicultural reality, but also in the accomplishments of students who have successfully prevented efforts to eliminate departments and decrease funding—like the Asian Pacific Students Coalition at the University of Pennsylvania who protested a budget that its students felt undermined diversity on campus. And as we move closer to becoming a minority-majority country, we could all stand to learn from and through diversity to help eliminate the prejudice that weakens us as a nation.

In fact, numerous studies show that living in diverse communities can decrease levels of racial and ethnic prejudice. Robert DeFina’s work on metropolitan housing segregation, for instance, demonstrates that “the racial threat effect” and fear of diversity significantly diminishes in communities where people of different races and ethnicities live in close proximity to one another. Often dubbed “contact theory”—because of the premise that contact with people different from you will often reduce prejudice—findings are global and spreading. A team of Italian researchers, for example, recently showed that Italian hospital workers become less prejudicial toward immigrants the more they come into contact with them at work.

A small county in Texas is proof of contact theory in action. According to a recent CNN study, the state’s Lee County closely resembles the current racial and ethnic makeup of the United States. With a population of only 16,612 people, 65 percent of residents are white, 11 percent African American, 22 percent Hispanic, 0.3 percent Asian, 0.3 percent American Indian, 0.1 percent Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, 0.4 percent “other,” and 1.2 percent said they were two or more races.  Compare that to the broader population of the United States—which is 64 percent white, 12 percent African American, 16 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian, 0.7 percent American Indian, 0.2 percent Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, 0.2 percent "other," and 2 percent are two or more races—and you have a pretty close matchup of our country’s demographic spread.

Touted a “national mirror,” Lee County is held up as an example of what racial and ethnic diversity looks like in the United States at large. It was settled by German immigrants in the 19th century and experienced a surge of Mexican immigration after 1900. An oil boom in the latter part of the 20th century attracted even more racial diversity—particularly in the town of Giddings, Lee’s county seat.

New residents of color were often shunned by Giddings’s insular German community but it seems a combination of their fortitude to be accepted and the rapid rise in the Hispanic population forced people to “confront their fears,” according to Sandra Lopez, a Lee County native who grew up speaking both Spanish and English. "Once we all sat in a room, and everybody smiled and everybody laughed and everybody held hands, we all were friends—and there was no color in the room," she says. "It didn’t matter anymore."

There are still stories of tension, and accounts of residents who are less pleased about the changing population—a change that is indeed occurring in the nation at large—but Lee County at least draws our attention to some positive examples of how living in a diverse community can help defuse fear of that change.

But is Lee County really what diversity in the United States looks like? Despite the increasing levels of diversity in the national population, we know that communities of color are concentrated in some regions while other parts of the country still have very little experience with racial and ethnic diversity. The pie charts and bar graphs illustrating these national demographic shifts fail to demonstrate that this growing multicultural reality is not equally distributed around the country. For instance, consider the distribution of minority populations in 2010 on the map below:

diversity and the censusThere are clearly swaths of the United States that are predominantly non-Hispanic white. Consider Rich Benjamin’s work on whitopias—growing white enclaves around the country where residents allegedly try to find refuge from the country’s growing multicultural reality. In exploring why people are drawn to these communities, Benjamin argues that the country is still more racially and economically segregated than those who claim we live in a “postracial” society are willing to admit.

If we can’t make sure that everyone in the United States lives in communities where they can experience diversity through contact first hand, as Benjamin’s journey across the country demonstrates, then it’s ever more important that we teach about diversity in our classrooms. And that’s why America’s endangered historical approach to diversity education is so crucial to our society. Lee County might not be representative of what America looks like, per se, but it serves as an example of a community where people who are different from one another have overcome their fear of change by calling the same place home.

Julie Ajinkya is a Policy Analyst for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
202.478.6331 or apreiss@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
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Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
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