Multicultural Education: An Educator Faces the Challenging Issues of Difference and Same
“F%k Mexicans!!” “F%ck Ni##as Ese!!” I can remember it as if it were yesterday. This was the exchange I heard as I stood between a group of African American students and Latino students. One of my own students ran to get me out of class. “Mr. Carr, they’re fighting again!!” By the time I got to the scene I was in the middle of 600 students staring each other down, cussing at each other and flashing what I assumed were gang signs. I cannot fully remember if I was the only teacher there but at the time it felt like it. As I tried to get the students to disperse I realized my efforts were futile. All at once a punch was thrown and before I knew it I was now in a sea of fists flying everywhere. This was the third race riot I had been in the middle of at my school. I broke up as many fights as I could and then opened my classroom to let kids in who were running for cover. Yes, you read correctly, that was my THIRD race riot I had been in the middle of. That one was actually tame compared to the others. The other two had involved the entire high school. Either kids fighting or trying to get away from the fighting. Those melees lasted the entire school day and the riot police had to be called in. What was causing this I thought and what could be done about it?
To be a high school teacher in inner city Los Angeles in the early 90’s was indeed an amazing challenge. Many inner cities in Los Angeles had gone through dramatic demographic changes. Places like Compton, Watts, South Central, Lynwood and Inglewood had been predominantly Black in the 70’s and 80’s. Although there had always been a Chicano/Latino presence in these neighborhoods, the early 90’s saw Latino immigrants move into these areas en mass. By 1993 many of these areas were now 50% Black and 50% Latino. In some areas the Latino population surged to 70%. With this demographic shift came racial tension. The tension at times would manifest itself politically. Some African American politicians found themselves either at odds or at a loss with what to make of their new found constituencies. On the street Black and Latino gangs battled for drug turf leaving many innocent victims in their wake. The worst of this type of violence was found in the Oakwood area of Venice Beach, California. In the summer of 1994, fifty-nine people were injured and nineteen people were killed in Oakwood due to the Black and Brown gang conflict. The two things all of these victims had in common were that they were either Black or Latino and none were gang members. On high school campuses across Los Angeles a spilled coke or a funny awkward look or stare could lead to a cafeteria clearing brawl between these two groups. As I stated earlier, I wanted to find out what was causing this tension and I also wanted to find out if African Americans and Latinos had any kind of historical relationship in the United States.
One could probably fill 1000 textbooks as to what has caused tension between African Americans and Latinos in our urban cities. For purposes of time (and because I like to work things out in groups of three) I came away with three main reasons for the tension. One was clearly the economic situation in these areas. Resources in these areas shrank from 1980 to 1990 and the job market in these areas was and still is virtually non-existent. Now you just don’t have one group fighting for the crumbs but two. Competition for jobs has increased and employers are just more apt to hire those without papers. It’s cheaper to do so and the feeling is they won’t cause too much trouble. The second reason for the tension has to do with language. Many of the students at our school used very racially charged language between each other. Some of the African American students would routinely refer to all of the Latino students as Mexican. Some would hear me speak Spanish and instantly ask me if I were Mexican. The Black students did not fully comprehend the diversity within the Latino community. At our school we had students from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and even Venezuela but to some of our Black students if you spoke Spanish you were Mexican. On the flip side some of our Latino students would use the word mayate to describe the Black students on campus. The word mayate translates literally into disgusting black bug. This word became the Spanish equivalent to the word nigger. The third reason I saw had to do with a sense of history and cultural baggage. It is common knowledge that anti-black or anti-dark-skinned sentiment is rampant in Latin America. This type of cultural baggage gets brought across the boarder and gets played out in our major urban cities. On the other side of the coin, many of the older African Americans I spoke to could still remember how other light skinned immigrants treated them when they arrived. Although the Italians and Irish were at the same level African Americans were economically the immigrants caught on quick as to which group they should not align themselves with. Now some wonder if they should try and deal with yet another group of new comers to the community. All of these things swirled head on at my school and other urban schools in Los Angeles and came to a head in the early 90’s. As these issues played out on campuses, the idea of Multicultural Education made its way into the educational lexicon as the quintessential buzzword of the day. Surely multicultural educators would have the answers to this intense situation?!!? Sadly enough not only did they not have answers, at times it was painfully obvious they did not even understand the questions!!!
It seemed to me that while all of these things were happening in Los Angeles the multicultural educators I was exposed to were a few days late and many dollars short of what to do. I was inundated with ideas for food festivals. I guess the idea was if these kids were eating tacos, fry bread, noodles and black eyed peas they would some how get along!! “More cultural posters relevant to our students in the classrooms!!” This was another “solution”. I found out quickly that there were people getting paid much money to put on these little festivals. They felt we needed to beef up our Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo celebrations (no one ever seemed to notice that Black History Month was just that, an entire month while Cinco de Mayo is just a day. This begged the question, “Can multicultural educators count?”) All across these schools posters were put up, the food was cooked and served and the separate celebrations were made stronger and the racist language and fighting continued. Please do not get me wrong, I do not see these things as innately evil. But when I see or hear of these things it leads me to believe that we are simply going the distance, and in our multiracial society we cannot afford to just go the distance. Tacos and fried chicken will fill your belly but it just won’t get to the heart of the matter!! We must push ourselves to go the extra mile. Even in our progressive high schools that offered Black History and Chicano History classes would come up short of truly pushing our students. When you asked if the students got together to study their historical relationship during the civil rights movements the answer was a resounding no. There were high schools that had Black Student Unions and MEChA’s (a Chicano student organization) on their campuses and these groups were not directed to meet by their advisors. So with all this being said, how does one go the extra mile with multicultural education? I alluded to the fact that I wanted to find out what the historical link between African Americans and Latinos was in the US. Here is what I found out and here is how I used it to deal with this issue.
I was able to find much in formation on the coalition work between African Americans and Chicanos in the southwest as well as the work done by Blacks and Puerto Ricans on the east coast. One of the most striking examples of this solidarity was the work done by Martin Luther King. Ok now please take a seat because what I say may shock you. Not only do I not want to talk about or even mention the “dream” speech (oops) but guess what…………you can actually talk and teach about Martin Luther King Jr. in a month other than January!!!! I fell into the same trap as a first year teacher. I too ran to Blockbuster Video and battled other teachers to find a copy of the video Eyes on the Prize. I cued up the dream speech. I photo copied it to pass out to my students. We read the speech, we recited the speech, we watched the speech and I watched eyes roll, and eyes close. I heard yawns and I saw heads being propped up by hands. Again, I do not mean to besmirch Dr. King or the “Dream” speech but by the time our students reach high school age they have seen that speech so many times it loses whatever fire and passion it had. That is why I have stopped teaching the dream speech and I talk about Dr. King after the speech. Yes that’s right King did some of his most profound work after the 1963 march on Washington. King was planning another march on Washington to deal with the issue of class. The Poor People’s Campaign was going to address the issues of livable wages, decent housing, health care and education. To do this King created a true multiracial coalition. He met with Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and Reis Lopez Tijerina, two of the most prominent leaders in the Chicano civil rights movement. He worked with Miles Horton who was organizing around the issues poor Whites were facing in the Appalachians. He galvanized leaders and members in the Native American community and in the Asian community to join in this march. He met with leaders in the Puerto Rican community on the east coast and convinced them to join his campaign. King saw that one tie that truly bound us together was the fact that no matter what you looked like if you were poor, you were destined to ride in the back of societies economic bus when it came to education, housing, and health care. That is the King I talk about with my students. Not King the dreamer, King the realist. King the multiracial organizer. In my humble opinion that is multicultural education. By teaching about the Poor Peoples Campaign you have put a new spin on Dr. King’s legacy for the African American students and now other students can see how they concretely fit into his “dream”. If all one reads and hears about King is steeped in Black and White if you are not Black or White do you need to care about this man and his movement? Does it truly concern you? In our multiethnic society we must go the extra mile and use this example of King to reach ALL of our students.
For there years after our riots on campus I worked with the Black Student Union and MEChA on campus to try and create some dialog between the tow groups. The bottom line is their community was not a Black community or a Brown community. It was a community that happened to house both Blacks and Latinos and the quicker they realized this the quicker they were going to be able to fix the problems that plagued both groups in the city. I also created an ethnic studies class that looks at the cross collaboration of African Americans, Chicanos/Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Whites and Jews during the 60’s and 70’s. If we were going to learn about history which is story telling. Then we were going to have to find out how all of these groups helped each other ultimately become…Americans. The other aspect of this is to simply make sure when you have kids of various ethnic backgrounds sitting in a classroom it behooves the teacher to make sure these kids are getting a chance to work on projects in small integrated groups together! The most powerful learning in terms of issues of difference and same can happen when race isn’t even talked about. When kids are given a task and a timeline as to when the task needs to be completed and when they are told they must work together, they can and will rise to the occasion. The more they work together and are successful together the more they themselves learn about issues of difference and same.
If we are serious about multicultural education then we must go beyond holidays and food festivals. We must go beyond celebrating our differences!! Let’s respect our differences and celebrate the ties that bind. With so many things dividing us from time to time, we must make it our business to find our commonalities. We can’t afford to just go the distance. We must go the extra mile.