Diversity and Distrust Revisited

Thanks primarily to the wackier GOP candidates for President (okay, that’s virtually all of them), we’re seeing a recurrence of socially divisive arguments about “political correctness,” abortion, religion and immigration–and an elevation, in unfortunate and not-so-veiled forms, of America’s racist impulses.

I was pondering our current unlovely public discourse, with its rejection of “otherness,” when my eyes fell on my bookshelf, and on Stephen Macedo’s 2000 book, Diversity and Distrust. The book was a meditation on the important civic role played by public schools in multi-ethnic societies like ours. I leafed through it to see where I’d highlighted observations (something that’s harder to do on a Kindle app), and I thought I’d share a few of them:

American public schools have been, in many ways, where the tension between diversity and the felt need to promote shared values has played out most dramatically. This institution has, from its inception, been the principal direct public instrument for creating a shared political culture amid religious, racial, ethnic and class diversity.

..some of the the most basic and widely discussed conflicts around public schools have been the consequence of religious opposition to basic civic ideals.

The [common/public school] was meant to pursue a novel set of civic ends: consolidation under public aegises was essential to the institution’s civic agenda.

The proponents of many orthodoxies, especially perhaps integral and totalistic belief systems, will not be happy with educational institutions that include all of the children within a pluralistic community. We cannot pursue shared civic ends without making it harder for the proponents of some moral and religious doctrines to perpetuate their views.

Macedo’s book was a full-throated–and persuasive– defense of the importance of public education in a diverse democratic country.

In Indiana, we’ve turned our backs on the civic mission of the schools, bowing to the demands of those who value particularist dogma, privatization, interest group politics and profits above the need to create and perpetuate a common American culture based upon our particular (and yes, in that sense “exceptional”) historical and legal commitments.


  1. Gotta share this one:
    “High school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
    When he said it, it was. He talked a lot about the Indianapolis public schools and Shortridge H.S. with great fondness.

  2. My public school, Riverside #44 on the west side near Victory Field, was segregated until September 1951. There were “colored families” with children within two blocks of the school but were not allowed to attend. They were assigned to School #41, approximately 4 miles or so away. How did they get there? DID they get there? When integration of public schools was announced as beginning that fall, the principal, Margaret Ambroz, stated she would resign if it happened. It happened and she resigned. I had graduated in June of 1951 so missed that event; integration began that September with no serious problems I remember and my little brother’s first girlfriend was a “little colored girl” named Stephanie in their first grade class. The kids seemed to adjust better than teachers or their parents. Isn’t that usually the way it is…at the beginning?

    The Catholics in my neighborhood kept themselves segregated; I didn’t know or understand this till years later. It was their religion that denied them to mix and mingle with all of us and they went to Catholic Schools. The Catholic family 2nd door from my home made it difficult, I kept trying to make friends with both kids about my age and was hurt at the rejection. I learned recently from a new friend through this blog that Catholic children were not allowed to associate with us because parents feared our evil would somehow rub off on them. In all my years of roller skating, bike riding, playing tag, kick-the-can, hide-and-seek and all other kid’s games; the subject of religion never came up. It must have been difficult for them; kept inside except for brief periods in their own yard – called inside if one of we sources of evil tried to talk to them.

    It was whispered that Jews (who and what Jews were I never knew) owned many businesses in the neighborhood and we patronized their businesses quietly and politely because they were an unknown entity. They lived elsewhere so there was no opportunity to know more than the goods and prices they made available.

    An integrated high school was an eye-opener for me; the diversity was a curiosity but nothing threatening or frightening about it which was supposed to happen with integration. High schools had been integrated for a few years by that time, except for Crispus Attucks High School on Indiana Avenue which my city bus passed every morning and evening going to and from school. I thought it strange that I could not get off at the corner and go to my nearest high school. I spent four years transferring buses, going back and forth across the city to get to high school. Interracial friendships were kept to school hours; I naturally carried it outside a few times and became the brunt of ugliness and gossip. That hasn’t changed completely today; I won’t live long enough to see the total change – IF it is possible.

    There is less diversity between races than those who are racists can imagine. The racial distrust remains and currently the LGBT diversity and distrust is at the forefront. Again; there is less diversity than the bigots imagine…and it IS in their imagination. We are also dealing with religious bigotry due to expanding diversity, open carry laws with gun nuts taking a toll on humanity, and the caste system is taking a foothold here in America; once known as the “home of the free and the brave”.

    I now end my sermon (which will be considered much too long by some readers) and will return to my oft repeated mantra; VOTE if you want change.

  3. This blog should be re-read by one and all whenever a school board election comes up. Knowledge about the civic purpose of public education and how school board candidates understand it should be the litmus test for obtaining such a position.

  4. JoAnn, I enjoyed reading your comments. You lived through something that I never encountered.

    Having grown up in a very rural farming community of north Indiana, there were only white families in our county. My first exposure to members of other races was at Purdue. I had no pre-conception about anyone because race was never discussed where I grew up. I held no bias against anyone and I still don’t. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for many of the people that I grew up with.

  5. And the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Indianapolis should be under the control of that elected official…not the Mayor’s Office. Partisanism now rules sections of that elected position; being a former Marine does not qualify Ballard to rule any area of our education system…or the Department of Public Safety. Marine training began with teaching recruits the difference between their weapon and their gun. And I know I will hear from old former Marines on that comment…bring it on!

  6. I do love the personal stories….I too went to school where all the children were white and it was not until 6th grade when we moved in to the ‘town’ of Terre Haute where there were children of all colors. We moved in the winter and so recess was inside and one of the black girls (African American) took me aside to show me how to dance. Talk about enforcing a stereotype.

    What is sad is my parents grew up outside of East St. Louis. High crime in the 60’s higher crime still…when we would travel through the ‘bad parts’ of Terre Haute which were defined by mostly all black neighborhood. My parents, mostly my mom would scream that we needed to duck our heads under the car seats so we wouldn’t get shot at…while there are shootings in the Haute there REALLY wasn’t a major crime wave not like what you see here and in St. Louis

  7. Thank you Sheila, this is insightful, as all of your post are.
    I am trying to put together something on civic literacy that the Brown County League of Women Voters could take into our schools. We are wanting to encourage our youth to participate in civics, educate on the struggles for voting rights, bring about respect for all cultures… I am hoping to find something that can fit into one class period. Any recommendations?

  8. Anthony; interesting, informative and – we can only hope – the truth. We have no idea how many decades the Catholic Church has simply moved known child molesters from parish to parish without notifying the new area of their past criminal history. That is lying by omission. They have also spent millions and millions paying off molesters and families for their silence; another form of lies.

    I have had so much respect for Pope Francis this situation caused me a great deal of disappointment in who I had come to believe the man to be. I will keep watching and reading; talk is cheap, I am one of many who need to see action to restore our faith in this man who appeared to serve all humanity without taking sides.

  9. My first exposure to blacks was on the pages of National Geographic and they were young topless girls which was very fine with me.

    On the other hand my immigrant grandmother, who loved me more fiercely and unconditionally than anyone since, hated everybody who wasn’t related to someone from her little rural farming community in Slovakia. Because they were all different and therefore unpredictable and therefore dangerous.

    Of course much water has flowed under my bridge since. And much of it has been exposure to other cultures about as diverse as imagination is.

    I have never been seriously threatened by anyone in my life and I have been privileged to be exposed to much of our world. Realistically today I would guess the greatest risk to me now of an untimely end by another human would be from a local gun nut.

    So, I ask, what is not interesting and is in fact threatening about the range of looks and beliefs and customs and worldviews that exist in today’s world? Is it any different than the range of life’s species that we share life with?

    I just don’t understand the fear of different in today’s world. I struggled with understanding it in my grandmother’s world until I figured out that I would never really know her world.

    Of course our future, dull though it’s destined to be, is of the elimination of difference. One race, religion, language, fashion, and culture because we’ll be as connected with everyone as my grandmother was with her Slovak community.

    A loss to me but probably and more importantly our salvation.

  10. In the movie, minions sought evil people. In real life
    minions seek dogma.

    Dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. It serves as part of the primary basis of an ideology or belief system, and it cannot be changed or discarded without affecting the very system’s paradigm, or the ideology itself.

    We are currently overrun with minions. They even show up here.

    While they’re cute in a dysfunctional sort of way they are completely unable to solve problems, only create them.

    It takes critical thinkers to solve problems. Adopt one today. Before minionation (minion nation?) overwhelms us.

    Schools create critical thinkers. When run professionally they stamp out dogma. And minions. And problems.

  11. A few years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev spoke to a group of American school administrators. He asked what they thought led to America “beating” the Soviets. He said it wasn’t the military, the political system, the financial system or the usual suspects. It was the American public school system.

    It seems like Americans yearn to adopt a Russian tradition: the Potemkin Village–all appearances and no substance, fake and portable, built impress but useless.
    My iPad Kindle does fine with highlighting. I press my finger on the selected text to highlight it, and then select the color. Maybe you use a Kindle on the laptop or something.

  12. Sheila – Bless you for sharing one of the basics of American civics. I fear we are losing the sense of value of public education to our nation’s pluralistic continuation.

    Stuart – If you know it, I’d love to have a time or place of Gorbachev’s comments to school administrators. Please share it with Sheila who knows how to share it with me.

  13. Nancy: My wife had a copy of the actual speech which was presented in Texas in the 90s to principals, superintendents or board members. We have misplaced it, but I will try to find it. His views of political situations overwhelm almost everything else which make searches difficult.

  14. My experience has been that blacks were neighbors of ours. Right next door to us. I knew they were called negros because that’s what they were called in the 60s. This family had a girl my age living there and we went to school together. When I saw her a couple of years ago (after 30 some years), we hugged each other and said hello. Nothing had changed. The people that are racist baffle me.

  15. As a zen buddhist transgender lesbian woman, a mom of two daughters and a daddie of a third (her spelling), engineer, computer systems specialist, website designer and Unitarian Universalist, I have long said that I have the same basic values as nearly everyone else. I love my family and my church, which brings meaning and greater purpose to my life. I love my community, and I value good schools (that teach my kids to think – this one may not be so universal). I think that United States is a great country (that has wandered off onto the wrong path – again maybe not so universal). The values that I don’t have in common with most people are the ones that come from the dogmas that Pete mentioned above. The categories that I belong to seem to paint me as different, but that is one of the dangers of categories. Rather than looking to the categories, look for the things you have in common with those who are different then you.

    The problem with Kim Davis’s and the religious right’s position is made most apparent by imagining that when she and her current husband had gone to get their marriage license, the clerk had been a righteous member of the Church of God. They do not believe in divorce, so s/he would have refused to give Kim and her husband a marriage license. Now imagine the chaos that would ensue from all the different religious beliefs in this religiously polyglot country if every clerk for everything you had to have a government form for, and every teacher in every classroom, and every IRS agent, and so on, got to imposed those beliefs in their particular situation. All dealings with the government would become completely unpredictable.

  16. Pete – When they were stamping out dogma at my university and many others, when they taught people to think, speak and write they were discredited by some who trumpeted that they were infiltrated by – horror of horrors – communists.
    While we were benefiting from their gifts of enlightenment, America was being dumb-ed down.

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