America's Schools Bleach Out Minorities and Fail to Teach Multiculturalism

Pop Quiz:

1) How were Native Americans affected by European settlers?
2) What are two examples of the effects of the women's rights movement?
3) Which social problem did Brown v. Board of Ed. address?

When the National Assessment of Educational Progress asked these U.S. History and Civics questions of fourth, eighth, and 12th grade students, less than one-fifth could give a grade-level answer. Recent reports have well documented the crisis occurring in American schools. In fourth and eighth grade, a little over a third of students perform at grade level in reading and mathematics. In science, the field that drives discovery and technology, only a third of American students perform at grade level. These deficits are sobering, but schools are failing our children in another way, a substantive way. Emphases on multiculturalism have disappeared.

We live in a diverse, pluralistic, and global society. Social shifts and technological advances have whittled the distance between cultures to next-door margins. Multicultural approaches recognize and appreciate the differences borne of socio-economic class, gender, and race and ethnicity. While capitalizing upon traditional economic stimuli like information and technology, businesses and advancing societies have taken creative measures that incorporate multicultural approaches. This is innovation economics, and diversity is capital and key. Modern social and economic systems demand the innovations engendered by diversity, which can only occur through deliberate capitalization upon the differences that multiculturalism brings.

From innovation economics, American education can learn. 

The U.S. has one of the world’s most multicultural populations. The 2010 Census recognized 38 racial groups, sociologists identify as many as six distinct socio-economic classes, and sexual identity and gender roles continually redefine. This cultural diversity requires incorporation into the national identity though civic participation, social inclusion, and institutional recognition. American education, then, must recognize the responsive value in addressing the cultural histories and realities represented by students across the nation. While strengthening and improving students’ performance in core subjects, classroom pedagogies must take a multicultural approach.

Schools have a role in promoting a national culture and identity that reflect the history and foundations of American society. However, it will be no boon to education if pedagogies erase multicultural realities in favor of partisan accounts. Curiosity and engagement do not thrive on a single story. To participate in a diverse America and a multicultural world, children must learn the alternate narratives, different perspectives, and new ideas wrought by the nation’s cultural diversity.

In recent years however, many classrooms have seen the opposite. Though all core subjects are soils in which to plant multiculturalism’s seeds, curricula have bleached out people of color and muffled the voices of marginalized groups. Not only are American students performing poorly in core subjects, they are doing so without introduction to the cultural truths of our present and past.

In 1954, Brown v. Board of Ed. sounded the death knell for de jure school segregation and the starting gun for the second chapter of the Civil Rights Movement. Brown marked a period of self-reckoning and ideological innovation that had effects both domestic and international. After World War II, racial segregation plagued U.S. foreign policy. We were a country of contradiction: While waving democracy’s flag with one hand, the other pummeled the rights of Blacks whose screams echoed in international headlines. Brown gave the American democratic ideology teeth. We became a nation of possibility.

A decade later, the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, and reactions to the Stonewall riots changed national discourses; multicultural cognizances begat socio-political innovation and activism. With the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968lawmakers recognized discrimination’s realities with remedial laws. By the 1970s, spurred by these movements and immigration, schools had begun to implement curricula conscious of innovation economics. Pedagogy retreated from the assimilation rhetoric of the earlier 20th century and began incorporating Americans’ multicultural histories.

Fast-forward to 2012. A country that once took audacious steps toward recognition and inclusion retreats. In 2010, Arizona passed HB 2281. The bill purports to prevent ethnic bias in public schools; in practice, it forbids schools from teaching America’s ethnic and racial truths. Several Tennessee groups have demanded that school textbooks not portray minority experiences that besmirch the contributions of the Founding Fathers or Americans in leadership positions.  Texas, which supplies textbooks to over 4.7 million schoolchildren, recently adopted standards that whitewash multicultural histories. Among other grievous changes, these new standards reduce the role of Latinos in American history, eliminate discussions of sex and gender constructs, and describe the Civil Rights Movement as creating "unrealistic expectations of equal outcomes" among minorities. Multiculturalism has been reduced to holidays and days off.

A proper education demands multicultural cognizance. Without the principles of innovation economics and multicultural education, American children will be less able to participate in our diverse, democratic republic and in global society. Our schools have the potential to remedy this, but without purposeful action, potential is an abstraction — as are the possibilities borne of innovation. To progress, we must embrace our cultural diversity — we must take the possibilities of what we could be and transform them into what we are.

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Felicia A. Reid

Felicia focuses on civil liberties, racial and juvenile justice, and criminal justice reform. She is the editor-in-chief of thisthatSAID--an online magazine that offers critical commentary on contemporary issues from diverse perspectives. Felicia received her J.D., with a concentration in Social Change Advocacy, from New York Law School. In 2007, she received her B.A. in Comparative Literature from Fordham University, where she focused on postcolonial literature and social identity theory. She also has a certification in French Language and Civilization from Paris-Sorbonne University.

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