Let’s End the Slouch Toward Segregation 

Sociological studies since the 1950s demonstrate that distinguishing people by group spawns antagonism.

Tima Miroshnichenko via Pexels.com
Students in class. Tima Miroshnichenko via Pexels.com

As our children return to school, we need to examine how the schools are teaching them. Are they encouraging students to value what they all share, regardless of their ethnic origins, or are they balkanizing them based on those origins? Legal threats have averted flagrant instances of segregation, but schools across the country continue to promote group divisions.

Earlier this year, an Illinois high school offered calculus classes that it allowed only Black and “Latinx” students to attend. In response to a civil rights suit, the school relented and allowed others. However, it still insists the classes are “intended to support” Black and Latinx students, deterring others from registering. 

The arrangement evokes Chief Justice Warren’s words in Brown v. Board of Education: “To separate [Blacks] from others…solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

My own state, Oregon, publishes social science standards that obsess on group differences. For example, it calls for students to “define diversity, comparing and contrasting visible and invisible similarities and differences.” Imagine the discussions: “see Hafsa, she’s Muslim, and Joe, he’s Black.” 

These standards also expect each child to “identify the cultural characteristics of my group identity.” This compels students to view themselves not as Americans or as individuals but as members of separate groups. Moreover, it nudges them to conform to ethnic stereotypes. Suppose a child’s family has Vietnamese origins and loves to make pizza and celebrate Thanksgiving. Would he feel comfortable describing his family’s enjoyment of shared American culture, or would he feel pressured to re-affirm typecast notions of Vietnamese culture to fulfill the requirement?

Not only do the Oregon standards emphasize group differences, they infuse those differences with grievance, requiring students to “identify how systems of power, including white supremacy, institutional racism, racial hierarchy, and oppression” affect them. Whether this focus on group grievances might threaten communal harmony is a question seldom asked, let alone answered.

This Balkanization also extends to extracurricular activities. When I accompanied my son to the 2023 National Speech and Debate Tournament, I was surprised to discover that an entire day was devoted to segregated coaches’ meetings: 9 a.m. for “Hispanic/Latine,” 10 a.m. for “Indigenous Persons,” and so on. A meeting for people who think we are all Americans wasn’t scheduled.

The pattern of Balkanization also prevails in higher education. Colleges across the country promote ethnic “theme houses” and graduation celebrations. Columbia University now boasts six separate graduation celebrations; Occidental College surpasses that with seven. While outsiders are not explicitly barred, the designation of facilities and events for specific groups broadcasts an unmistakably divisive message.

Having studied ethnic conflict over the last two decades, I am troubled by the increasing emphasis on group distinctions. Sociological studies since the 1950s have repeatedly demonstrated that distinguishing people by group spawns antagonism. The authoritative grouping of people, by itself, spurs “us-versus-them” animus even when the grouping is completely random. Some of these experiments ended with subjects violently attacking each other. There is something about dividing humans into groups that unleashes malign instincts.

I have observed this in my own research, hearing disturbing echoes of Oregon’s social science standards from Rwanda’s past. Before the 1994 genocide, Rwandan students — like Oregon students — had to identify in class which group they belonged to; teachers frequently lectured about past group privilege and oppression. Genocide perpetrators I interviewed attributed much of their deep-seated hatred to this indoctrination in group division. 

I have also researched an analogue to Balkanization in American  colleges … in the Balkans. Like American colleges, Bosnia’s “two schools under one roof” policy segregates facilities and programs by group. This fosters a sense of difference and alienation between groups, along with a smoldering animus that threatens to reignite violent conflict. 

Although America is unlikely to devolve into another Bosnia, our schools’ relentless focus on group differences instead of shared identity tears at our delicate social fabric. If we want to foster a peaceful and cohesive national community, we need to abandon the Balkanization and promote a superordinate identity, emphasizing that — regardless of our diverse origins — we are all Americans.


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