We live in uncertain but highly exciting times. As globalization hastens the shock of pluralism and as rapid social transformation disrupts traditional ways of life, Americans find themselves confronted with a choice that will shape the future of this project called American democracy. We either embrace the inevitable mass migrations of people — leading to exponentially increasing diverse and heterogeneous societies — or recoil in fear into our private orbits with metaphorical walls larger than a President Trump could ever imagine.
The infamous court case Brown versus Board of Education declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. While deservedly widely applauded marking an important moment in the ongoing struggle of human rights, some observers point to the hubris among much of white society inherent in the desegregation of public schools — that is, in order for black people to be better, they need to be around more white people, not vice versa. The discussion below argues that diversity makes us all better, including white society.
It’s best to understand diversity beyond the limitations of a multi-cultural, neo-liberal framework with its politically correct rhetoric and refusal to meaningfully address the larger issues of class and inequality. Diversity involves a more substantive transformation where we share our community spaces and institutions that grant power and resources with people from different cultures. When we embrace this, the result can be positive, and perhaps make us better.
Recently, my father received an annual medical check-up at a local hospital in a white suburban community. The doctor claimed he had a high white blood cell count and instructed him to see a specialist. The specialist, an Indian woman, explained that nothing was wrong with my father’s white blood cell count. Turns out, people from our part of the world normally have higher white blood cell counts. This is even true of people from India. If that local doctor would have had access to more diverse patients and colleagues, he would have probably known this. He would be a better doctor. A recent report also suggests that some American patients are more likely to survive with doctors trained overseas.
Or take, for instance, a recent interview I had with a narcotics agent from a major city police department. As a white male officer from a suburb, he felt like a mercenary policing black and brown inner-city residents. He knew nothing about the inner-city, its history, cultures, or its social organization. A black officer from that very same inner-city immersed this suburbanite into the social and cultural life of the inner-city. He learned about their values, lifestyles, concerns, joys, and struggles. As a result, this officer built a rapport with the community. Access to colleagues from different backgrounds taught this officer how to become a better cop.
Recently, a military veteran and senior at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who just earned a scholarship to law school, approached me about his experiences in the Middle East, where he served in some of the countries now part of Trump’s immigration ban targeting Muslims. After spending time in local villages in Iraq and other surrounding countries, he found it odd how many people, including university students, develop strange stereotypes and fears about people they have never met. He wondered whether such views would persist if others like him had access to the people he had been exposed to during military service. I believe his exposure to diverse groups will make him a better lawyer.
I also strongly suspect that people familiar with diverse cultures are more likely to oppose Trump’s immigration ban on Muslims on ethical grounds as well as the ineffectiveness of such policies in making the world safer. People with exposure to diverse cultures are less likely to fear university classes on ethnic studies, social justice, “the problem of whiteness,” or challenges to masculinity, like some state legislatures in Arizona and Wisconsin.
Much like a gene pool, any culture that reproduces itself stagnates and declines. The ethnic mixtures of Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, slaves and freemen, and Europeans birthed jazz and gumbo. Hispanic cultures from Cuba produced salsa in New York while Puerto Rican greats like Tito Puente birthed Latin jazz. Arabic, Hispanic, Asian and European immigrants in the United States make us better as they continue to shape our cuisine, music, literature, sciences, technology and add new ideas and perspectives to our world.
Our choice is simple: Build our own metaphorical walls hiding in fear or embrace our increasingly diverse world.