TribBlog: "Diverse States of America"

The State Board of Education gets an earful on patriotism, multiculturalism and Sikhism as it hears public comment on social studies standards

About 130 people have signed up to address the State Board of Education as it takes up its controversial social studies today — probably too many for the board to accommodate by the arbitrary 6 p.m. cuttoff it set for public input. The morning included both the predictable — people pushing for and against including more history of minority groups — and the refreshingly unpredictable: A high school student pushing for study of Sihkism, the world’s fifth-largest religion.

In one representative exchange over the hot button issue of multiculturalism, board member Mavis Knight grilled Jack Kamrath of the American Heritage Education Association.

Kamrath pushed the board for more study of the founding principals of the United States — emphasis on “united” — and less of the history of racial and religious division. “We have to think of ourselves as Americans first,” he said.

Knight took him to task: “How do you get to be ‘united’ without acknowledging the contributions of all the groups in society? Aren’t we all Americans? Don’t we want to acknowledge that laws were written to keep certain Americans from succeeding, like Jim Crow? ... Why do I keep hearing we shouldn’t study multiculturalism?”

“The best way I can answer that is by saying we’re the United States of America, not the Diverse States of America,” Kamrath answered.

If the board needed a textbook example of both diversity and American values, they would find one a few moments later in the testimony of Harisman Singh, a sophomore from Round Rock. Nervous but articulate, Harisman rushed through an argument for including his religion, Sihkism, in the social studies standards.

“We learn so much about religions that are fewer in number (of believers) than Sihkism,” he said. “I was told to take off my turban by one of my teachers, and when I told them it was part of my religion, that I was a Sikh, a confounded look came over their faces.”

One teacher told him to take off his “doo rag,” then dragged him to the office, mocking him further, Harisman said. “He told me he thought only women wore coverings. I told him I was not a Muslim, I was a Sikh ... I think it’s important my classmates learn about Sikhism just like they would any other religion.”

Board members complimented the student on his presentation. Member Rick Agosto followed up with the student: “How important is this to you?”

“I’d like other people to know I’m not Osama Bin Laden,” he said. “The racist comments are dehumanizing.”

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