Diversity That Divides

In the name of inclusion and diversity, the Berkeley City Council wants residents to endorse a divisive, guilt-laden view of history

AS a high school teacher in the Oakland public schools during the 1970s, I argued for a broader curriculum that incorporated then-neglected chapters of American cultural and ethnic history. I wanted students to learn about the distinguished record of black regiments during the Civil War and the abuse of native American labor in the California missions.

But in January of this year, the Berkeley City Council passed a resolution which tramples a basic tenant of ethnic and racial equality in American life. That is, mutual respect for each other's cultural heritage and traditions. The council voted to replace the celebration of Columbus Day from this year forward with "Indigenous People's Day." (By contrast, the United Nations wisely chose to make 1993 "The Year of Indigenous Peoples," so as not to detract from all of the Quincentenary celebrations.)

The Berkeley resolution calls on public libraries to create "exhibits which critically display existing literature [on Christopher Columbus]." Further, the city council agreed to sponsor "a monument dedicated to the Indigenous peoples impacted by the Columbus-led invasion," and a poster project in which public school children will submit works that show "the influence of the European invasion on the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and the destructive effects on indigenous people and immigrants from t he depiction of Columbus as an affirmative 'discoverer' of America."

In other words, the anniversary of Columbus's voyage should only be remembered as the start of 500 years of genocide, and not as the catalyst for the creation of a new set of vital, vibrant cultures in the Western Hemisphere.

This is not just another example of "there goes Berkeley again." It is part of an ugly national trend toward the advancement of one interest group's narrow view of American history by degrading another group's role in the creation of our culture.

The pointed negativity of the Berkeley City Council's resolution has the clear intent of making those citizens who want to publicly acknowledge the importance of Columbus' accomplishments feel somehow guilty or ashamed to do so. Thus, it fosters a quiet resentment at the displacement of a traditional holiday, even as it attempts to squelch debate over its implications. (This measure was adopted by the council without any formal notice to the city's population - itself raising troubling democratic procedu ral issues).

The mayor's office claims only "about a dozen" Berkeley residents sent letters of complaint. But I have talked to scores of co-workers, clients, and students in my adult evening classes who feel offended by this resolution but are too discouraged to register a formal objection to it. Such ill-conceived moves divide us as a society, rather than enlighten us, by trying to displace the historical legacy and the traditions of one segment of our population with the one-sided condemnation of another.

This is not to say that the sins of the past should be ignored or rationalized away. The old traditional view of history taught in America's public schools in the 1950s was undeniably insensitive or blind to the suffering and achievements of non-European peoples in the New World - and therefore inaccurate.

But by concentrating mainly on the negative effects of European colonization of the Americas, groups like the Berkeley City Council would have us substitute a chauvinistic, whitewashed view of our heritage with an equally inaccurate, hypercritical, and derogatory one. They would have us instill in our children a warped, self-hating view of the legacy of Western civilization. Along with the litany of legitimate historical grievances of various minority cultures in our society, surely the majority must sti ll be permitted to celebrate the great achievements of their ancestors.

If this kind of distortion of history is allowed to continue unchallenged, we can expect even more outrageous assaults in the future. Next year, the Berkeley council may vote to ban any patriotic celebrations on July 4th because the Declaration of Independence was, after all, written by a slaveholder. Or perhaps we'll see a resolution decreeing July 4 as "Enslaved People's Day," and instruct all public schools to teach their students that the real legacy of the Founding Fathers was the perpetuation of sl avery and the oppression of women.

Sadly, Berkeley is not alone in experiencing such political intimidations. Just before the Pasadena Rose Parade this year, the parade committee almost rescinded their invitation to the only living descendent of Columbus because of an outcry from some in the native American community. The dispute was resolved when the committee decided to invite a native American congressman to join the parade.

The real lesson to be learned from these acrimonious attempts to rewrite history is that the reasonable majority of citizens in our multicultural communities must guard against accomodating a special interest group's political agenda by trashing the heritage of another ethnic group, regardless what group it might be.

We must maintain a fair-minded, balanced, inclusive view of American history that gives each subculture within our society a sense of pride and belonging. In this Quincentenary year, let us resolve to allow both the Indigenous Peoples of America - and Christopher Columbus - to have their day in the sun.

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