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The Allentown Morning Call

Pursuit Of Minority Teachers May Be Wrong Pursuit

By Louis Rodriguez Special to The Morning Call - Freelance

3 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Allentown Morning Call. All rights reserved. 

Enrollment in the Allentown School District is now 70 percent black and Latino. This is a district that needs a diversity committee?

The good news is that a committee has been formed and intends to reform the educational institutions in the district to better reflect the makeup of an already diverse student body.

The bad news is that once the committee becomes institutionalized, it too may be in need of reform.

This is particularly true when it comes to managing race relations.

Studies have shown that diversity among teachers results in students being more tolerant of differences. It dismantles stereotypes, too. Other studies indicate that Latino and black students are more responsive, and that test results improve when minority students are taught by minority teachers.

No available studies, however, take into account the impact of minority teachers on white students. No research has been conducted in that area.

The goal of the committee is to "devise a plan to increase the number of Latino and black teachers and administrators." This will encourage respect for others by fostering a positive self image among Latino and black students through group identity.

The assumption is that individuals base their identity primarily on race or ethnicity. In this case, the student is involuntarily identified and labeled and responded to by the district on the bases of his race or ethnicity -- regardless of what the student may think. Consider that a recent study of census data indicates that more and more Latinos consider themselves a part of some "other" category rather than the government prescribed catch-all -- Hispanic.

This view further assumes that race is so essential that individuals from distinct racial and ethnic backgrounds must be treated differently. In other words, race and ethnicity serve to further differentiate the students. Thus, race and ethnicity are used to differentiate young people who have yet to form their own identities.

Don't get me wrong -- hiring Latino and black teachers may be a goal with an altruistic basis and rooted in sound research, but to assume that this will improve the Latino and black student body school experience is a stretch. The Allentown School District can hire as many Latinos and blacks as it wants, but it's the ability of teachers, their rapport with a classroom full of hungry, reticent, doubting, or rebellious minds, that will make a difference.

History proves race and ethnicity have their places, but they also can be a huge distraction and detrimental to the learning environment.

Teaching and reaching our young is a matter of dedication -- an effective teacher can reach students regardless of race.

In some cases, a preoccupation with race and ethnicity can obscure the obvious. Take, for example, Allentown's practice of traveling to Puerto Rico to hire teachers. To me, this is counter-intuitive.

A Puerto Rican born and reared on the mainland United States does not have the same perspective on Puerto Rican culture as a native islander. Something similar happens with hiring teachers recruited in Puerto Rico. They, too, will have difficulty connecting with a Latino child born and reared in the United States. A native Puerto Rican's view of the world may or may not illuminate a student's understanding of himself.

It may be more important to have a committee to demand the hiring of teachers who can connect with students of any race or ethnicity and inspire even the most reticent student to pay attention in a classroom.

If the diversity committee focuses on race, ethnicity and diversity -- our differences -- and not on what we have in common, the preoccupation with race and ethnicity may increase intolerance, rather than reduce it.

Constantly emphasizing race and ethnicity can perpetuate differences. Education should encourage students to discover new and different perspectives -- not limit them to a particular ethnicity or race. Of course, limiting them to the former paradigm -- an all-white layer of authority, from teaching to government to medicine and bosses on the job -- was anathema to the ideal.

But rather than promote the equally misguided notion that we are members of an "other" -- other than the all-white former schema, an exclusive ethnic "community" -- we should be encouraging individuals to see themselves as participating in myriad "communities" simultaneously. Healthy democracy needs individuals to stand up and defy collectivism. Healthy race relations require no less.

Louis Rodriquez of Allentown teaches social studies at Kutztown University.

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