MLK Day: What ideology drives your community practice? | Sanje Ratnavale | 8 Min Read

January 15, 2024

The SFO airport taxi driver took a drag from his cigarette, his elbow leaning out of the window, and casually remarked, “Where are you guys from originally?” It was September 1993, we had just got married and arrived to start jobs in San Francisco. It was my first time living in the US. Before I could respond, I heard my wife respond, “We are Indians”. I looked askance with a “what” expression on my face (we are both ethnically Sri Lankan), and she responded with an icy glare that said, “Relax. I was born here and this is the best way to shorten the conversation.”  The taxi driver took another drag from his hand-rolled tobacco fix. Then stretching his hand in an arc out of the window and pointing to the hills, he said, “Cool dudes… just imagine hundreds of years ago, this was all yours.” And so it had begun, my journey into the confused and odd experience of American identity formation.

When I was a small boy my father often quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s well-known statement on being judged not by the color of your skin but on one’s character and quality of thoughts. I was made to recite it and for some reason, it had not registered that this was a quote: for years I thought this was something my father (who died when I was 9) had made up, so much so that when I read about Martin Luther King Jr., I was fascinated how much they had in common! As we celebrate MLK Day, I thought it worth pondering how much we still hold in common with this man and how civic thinking has evolved, particularly in our community time strategies. In America today there are 4 principal sociological community-building theories or ideologies: multiculturalism, pluralism, assimilation, and acculturation. Let’s take a look at the broad vision behind these approaches and then look at what we are doing in community time:

  1. The Melting Pot (Assimilation).  By the turn of the 20th century when close to 20 million new immigrants from Europe (Italians, Irish, Jews, and Catholics amongst them) entered the US, the notion of a melting pot of minorities or cultures became popular. One of those immigrants, a Jew from England, wrote the famous play called “The Melting Pot” (1908) which became very popular as an assimilationist story. Assimilation represented a better vision than that of the anglicizing notions of the past, but it also implied a new identity distinctly American and less culturally diverse. Zangwill pointed to the fusion over centuries of the various different tribes in Britain that led to a British identity and he saw this process as fluid, whereby a new American identity continued to form as the melting pot added more and more minority ingredients.
  1. The Medley (Pluralism). In almost immediate response to this unitary vision of society emerged a kinder more inclusive notion called cultural pluralism. This was more like a mosaic or as some have referred to it as a “salad bowl” or “symphony”: ethnicities maintained their own identities, their own religions and they were free to choose from parts of the melting pot what flavor of the American experience held more or less sway for them. This notion was very much in keeping with the original federalist notions of the founders of America. For minorities with histories of diasporas like the Jews, this too was appealing. Again, there was nothing truly fixed in this notion and identity was evolutionary:  the minority process was more active and empowered in that it was “integrated” rather than “assimilated”. It was this notion that bonded minorities like Jews and Blacks together seeking allyship, particularly through the 1960s.
  1. The Hot Pot (Acculturation).  Somewhere between the two, assimilation and cultural pluralism, is a hybrid called acculturation. The broth of identity remains very much preserved but the fixings are added as appropriate and with equal access. We would all be treated as Americans, but valued for whatever we valued and celebrated from our ethnicity, race, religion or other creed. This attitude likely equates most closely with the vision of MLK.
  1. The Neapolitan Ice Cream (Multiculturalism). Three different but equal flavors. Multiculturalism is very much the ideology behind today’s DEI efforts and critical race theory. Multiculturalism places difference at an even higher level of importance than the other ideologies, so much so that it can almost be exclusionary. It cuts a much clearer path towards equality of outcome rather than mere access to legal opportunity: one that posits a more Marxist vision of society where, in the words of Ibram X Kendi, unequal outcomes should be unconstitutional.  Multiculturalism is much more of a reductive approach where race, power, and your positionality (in society) are the primary frames, with ethnicity, religion, and other elements taking a back seat. It is therefore less of a fluid construct fashioned by individual experiences and more of a biological construct: “the one drop of blood” attitude towards black racial inclusion is an example of this fixed categorization approach. Multiculturalism represents a significant departure from color blindness and the pluralistic vision of MLK. 

The Civil Rights Act represents one of the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr. Nevertheless, since we as schools generally are independent of public funding, it does not apply to us in the ways it does to public schools. Title 6 of the Act requires the provision of a safe environment for racial and other classes of students and is, of course, under enormous scrutiny today in the light of antisemitism at College campuses and even at public schools. Beyond that, there is the August 2023 Biden DOJ guidance to schools that race-based affinity groups are violations of Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the equal protection clause of the Constitution:

“Title VI states: ‘No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.’ As the Supreme Court recently confirmed, Title VI prohibits racial classifications that would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.”

On this MLK day of service and celebration, it is worth asking a few questions about what our current community structures tell us about what we are implying as our beliefs, even if the Civil Rights Act does not technically apply to us as independent schools:

  1. Are your affinity groups race-based or ethnicity-based? To give you an example: at the People of Color Conference you will find race-based affinity groups. There is no Jewish affinity group, I assume because it is considered an ethnicity or a religion. There are no Italian or Irish affinity groups, but there is a White European Awareness & Accountability Group. Racial affinity groups are based on Multiculturalism, whereas other types of affinity groups, particularly ethnocentric ones, represent a commitment to one of the other ideologies. What do you have? Did you just add a Jewish affinity group, like lots of schools? Do you have an Asian one instead of separate groups for different Asian ethnicities? Are your affinity groups racially or ethnically categorized?
  1. Do your affinity groups exclude others? I often see at schools affinity groups with language like “only for Asian-Americans — don’t bring your friends.” There is no ethnicity of Asian American or even South-Asian American, so if this is what you have at your school, again, it tends toward race. It assumes a fixed categorization of sorts. This would likely be considered illegal segregation in public schools under the Civil Rights Act. Why is there the need to create safe spaces that exclude others? Well, Kelsey Blackwell, an affinity advocate, provides a cogent summary in this article: “These [affinity] spaces are crucial to the resistance of oppression” so that “there can be healing”…“In integrated spaces, patterns of white dominance are inevitable…even when white people are doing the work of examining their privilege”… “The values of whiteness are in the water in which we all swim”…. “Discrimination is like plaque that covered your being at birth”… “It may be argued that to build an inclusive community, caucusing is necessary.” However, these groups, alone, are not sufficient to get the larger community to the goal of justice, or even to a community response to conflict.
  1. What is the work of inclusion that goes on in these affinity groups? This is likely the most telling question for what ideology is being embraced in affinity groups. Multiculturalists like Kelsey Blackwell are looking to “strengthen broader movements”… because “Doing race work in an integrated setting is harmful.” They are not interested in integration. Pluralists, assimilationists, and those in the middle are not looking at strengthening affinity and assimilation as incompatible because ultimately they are seeing their freedoms as enabled by the whole. That was the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. What is the learning and teaching going on in these groups? Are your affinity groups doing “strengthening work” that has a particular civic orientation and what is it? 

Education and schools are the fulcrum point for competing visions of America. Today we see a number of ideologies come into conflict with differing views of the efficacy of their approaches in creating an inclusive and free society. What ideology then is driving your community practice and is it honest to celebrate MLK Day if your practice does not align with, or advance, his views or his accomplishments?

You may be interested in reading more articles written by Sanje Ratnavale for Intrepid Ed News.

Sanje Ratnavale

Sanje founded OESIS in 2012 and serves as the President of what has grown to become the leading network for innovation at independent schools: the acronym OESIS grew from the initial focus on Online Education Strategies for Independent Schools. He has held senior administrative positions at independent schools including Associate Head of School at a K-12 school for seven years, High School Principal for three years, and CFO for seven years. Prior to making a switch to education, Sanje spent 15 years in venture capital, investment banking, and senior C-level (CEO, COO, CFO) management. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford University (B.A. and M.A. in Law/Jurisprudence). Sanje is based out of Santa Monica.

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