With all the lip service given to the goal of "diversity" in you name it--schools, corporations, media, any place organized enough to have a mission statement--you'd think the idea would have been raised in the discussions these past few weeks about the 50th anniversary on May 17 of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down separate-but-equal schools. There's been a lot of meaningful discussion of the role the decision played in the lives of African Americans, both in the (theoretical) end of second-class school systems and the loss of institutions that played important roles in the black community. But, I've looked and asked around and haven't heard about an aspect that is just as important to American society--the value of integration to the rest of the community, and how important that is to solving so many of our problems.
It took my 11-year-old daughter, Lillie, to remind me of that. She's a fifth grader at Club Boulevard Elementary in Durham, and in their study of the anniversary they had an historic figure come visit--Ruby Bridges, who as a 6-year-old endured a white boycott when she was the first black child to attend William Frantz elementary school in New Orleans, and who has worked closely with child psychiatrist Dr. Robert Coles ever since.
Lillie wrote a short article about the visit and what she'd learned. Here's part of it:
She was a black girl. She wanted to make new friends like everyone else. She wanted to go to school and learn. Her name was Ruby Bridges.
Instead of going to school with black children, she went with whites. Because of that she was different; in some people's eyes that was good, in some eyes badÉ
She told us she was hated and in trouble every day for coming to school and wanting to learn. She told us to look around and see what different colors we saw. We said, "You know--black, white, Hispanic."
She looked at us and said, "Okay, you are all going to jail because you are all with each other." And she said, "That's what they would have done in 1960. Do you think that is fair?"
We all shook our heads and said no, but really she was just trying to get us to understand how horrible it was...
School back then was so much harder in a way. I really can't imagine not having any black children in my class. I think a class isn't a true class without it being multi-racial. It helps me realize that just because people are different doesn't mean they are bad. I am sometimes scared of different-colored people on the street, but it reassures me to know that I have different-colored friends. And they are just like me.
I wonder what this country would be like if we had all lived among truly diverse cultures, filled with people of different colors, languages and traditions. I wonder if we'd have a better understanding of the agonizing legacies that brought so many people to the United States. I wonder if we'd shape our priorities accordingly. I wonder if we'd better understand people in other parts of the world and why they see us much differently than we see ourselves. I wonder if we'd have a more effective foreign policy. I wonder if we'd be at war.
The importance of the Brown decision isn't just about black and white, and isn't only about education. It's about creating a society in which we strive to understand other people and learn not to be afraid of them.
Maybe our children will learn that lesson better than we have.