Making progress one step at a time

History was made Tuesday as Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

As the education reporter for both the Bremerton Patriot and the Central Kitsap Reporter, I’ve been intrigued by what local teachers are doing to teach students about the enormity of this moment, which many believed would never come.

In a recent conversation with Cherry Rachal, who attended the inauguration, I was reminded again of how different the Northwest is from the South in terms of dealing with the issues of race and teaching diversity in public classrooms.

Growing up across the state of Texas, I was aware as a child as young as 5 or 6 years old that there were different parts of town and there were boundaries, which were respected by blacks and whites. On one side of the tracks was the white part of town and on the other was the black side of town, and there weren’t many blacks living in traditionally white neighborhoods.

We went to the same schools and were friends during the school day and at afterschool events, but beyond that, there wasn’t much interaction and on Sundays each race went to their own church.

That was back in the 1980s when Jesse Jackson made his futile runs for president. Fortunately, things in the South appear to have changed for the better.

In school, I remember learning about black pioneers on a regular basis. There wasn’t the need for a black history class or any special emphasis on the accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans, because it was right before our eyes every single day.

There were black doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals, who every kid looked up to and in some way wanted to be like because of the example they set that wasn’t just on an athletic field. Role models were everywhere and my favorite teacher in elementary school, Mrs. Anderson at J.E. Langwith Elementary School in Terrell, Texas, just happened to be black.

Mrs. Anderson stressed the importance of legible handwriting and told every one of us to be proud of our names and make sure that when we wrote it, people remembered it.

We dealt with the issue of race on a daily basis. As kids, we never let it faze us unless an adult pointed it out, but it never broke the bonds of friendship and understanding we nurtured.

Coming to the Pacific Northwest nine years ago in the military, I expected a cultural difference, but I didn’t expect the level of apparent apathy and indifference toward the African-American culture.

As I’ve written for the Kitsap News Group for almost the past five years, I’ve found that race is the white elephant in the room everyone knows is there, but no one wants to talk about. Instead of incorporating cultural appreciation and awareness into everyday life, the tendency appears to be ignore it altogether and maintain the status quo, which is in many ways no better than the overt racism Northerners use to stereotype the South.

Students can’t be blamed for not knowing what’s not being taught in schools and if cultural diversity is expected of future generations, then it has to start by educating those leaders about the contributions of all races and cultures to this great country we call America. It also must come from their parents and other adults who are working with them to make better leaders.

However, things are changing and Tuesday’s celebration at Olympic College was a perfect example of the blending of cultures and races to mark an historic occasion. Students in both the Bremerton and Central Kitsap school districts had opportunities to watch the inauguration ceremony as my son, who is a first-grader, told me Tuesday afternoon.

Next month, Crossroads Neighborhood Church in Bremerton will be the site of not only the county’s annual Salad Bowl Sunday event on Feb. 22, but also is one of the main sponsors for a men’s retreat on the weekend of Feb. 6-8, which is an opportunity for all men, regardless of their race, profession, background or any other identifying characteristic to come together and enjoy brotherly fellowship and stand together with a common purpose.

Diversity shouldn’t be a special class or emphasis, it should permeate through every piece of classroom instruction. Teachers shouldn’t have to be encouraged to find historic role models for each race, ethnicity and culture represented in their classrooms. It should come naturally. With Obama’s presidency, it’s great to see things are starting to change for the better on the local level as well.

Charles Melton can be contacted at cmelton@bremertonpatriot.com.

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