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Melting Pot and Inter-Group Understanding

Bringing together students of different racial and ethnic groups is supposed to improve their understanding of others ("The education melting pot?" Brookings, Nov. 1).  But a new study found doing so does not assure that.

Using a tool called the "dissimilarity index,"researchers were surprised that essentially nothing has changed in the past 25 years, despite efforts to improve inter-group understanding. The hope had been that having students from many diverse groups in any one school would lead to greater tolerance.

A similar situation is seen on college campuses.  Despite efforts to create diversity and inter-group understanding, fraternities not only continue to exist, but have grown in popularity. For example, the number of male undergraduates has increased by 50 percent over the last decade, with at least 380,000 members today ("Their Pledges Die. So Should Fraternities." The New York Times, Nov. 19). Although there are always exceptions, fraternities by their very nature tend to segregate and discriminate.

Apparently, K-12 schools have not done much better in promoting social mixing.   The high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District where I taught for 28 years was fully integrated by the time I retired.  Yet during lunch periods, students tended to eat with those from their same racial and ethnic background. There were a few students who mingled, but they were the rare exception.

My point is that student diversity by itself is no guarantee of increased tolerance, and attempts to engineer it are unlikely to succeed.  A school can achieve a stipulated mix of students and yet still not improve understanding between the groups.  But nothing can be done because of the First Amendment freedom-of-assembly protections. That doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to try, but we need to adjust our expectations.

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