Inner City Diary
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The danger of government funded segregation
March 2, 2003
My first lessons regarding segregation and integration came at an early age.

My parents immigrated from Europe to make a home in the concrete jungle of New York City. I was born shortly after they settled. I started attending school, learning English as a second language. But my ethnic heritage, habits, and accent were plain enough to make me conspicuous for those seeking targets for their prejudice.

As the years went on, I tried harder to blend into a diverse population and a new culture. While my extended family talked about the old country, I was thinking more about ditching and denying our cultural distinctives.

I couldnít avoid the fact that I was not quite like other kids. My family was up-front about the good and bad in their culture. History lessons supported what my parents taught me about the evils of racism and facism in their old country.

At home we spoke German, the language of the ďbad guys.Ē When Hogan Heroes came on, I felt weird understanding the language of the goofball Commandant & Schmidt. During war films about the atrocities of Nazis, I hated the fact that there was anything German about me. I was terribly and illogically ashamed that I was able to understand the language of the monsters portrayed in the films.

I worked to deny my culture, forget my language, and write off nice stories of the ďold countryĒ as myths. I was an American now. I didnít want to be German or European any longer.

My parents didnít force me to maintain what I wasnít sure I wanted, but also werenít bashful about the good things in their culture. They understood my discomfort as an ethnic adolescent. So I grew to be an adult who is not ashamed of my heritage.

But itís not the last time I had those feelings. When I moved to Winnipeg, I heard aboriginals talking about the evils of residential schools. I felt recrimination based not on my deeds, but simply my colour. Some people wanted me to accept condemnation for something I didnít do.

Like a man in a room of angry feminists. Like a preacher in a room of people mocking Jim Baker or Jerry Falwell. Like a recovering addict and reformed criminal in a room of goody-two-shoes writing off all ďbad peopleĒ as hopeless. Like a New Yorker in a roomful of humbly arrogant Canadians denouncing everything about ďthose rotten Americans.Ē Like a conservative working alongside people who despise anyone to the right of their ideology.

Iíve decided not to apologize for things I didnít do. I canít change certain facts about who I am. And I wonít change what I believe just to raise my comfort level. These decisions, while difficult, are necessary.

I have done things Iím ashamed of. I can deal with that if you give me a chance to do better. I may share a colour or a label with people who have done bad things. I can deal with that if you give yourself a chance to know me as an individual.

Thatís why integration is so important to me. People get to know people who they feel are ďdifferent.Ē

Itís essential to the health of our pluralistic society. I love it when poor people work with rich people in a common cause. Iím thrilled when convicts and church folk work side by side on our renovation projects.

Iím glad people jumped all over U.S. Senator Trent Lott for his support of white segregationists. But I wish people would be consistent.

We should be just as critical of black, aboriginal or Asian segregationists Ė especially when it comes to government funding. A government that advocates integration doesnít benefit from funding segregation. Except at election time.

I get nervous when government funds segregationists. Separate child welfare systems. Segregated ethnic schools and a segregated aboriginal school division. Segregated funding for housing and health. A segregated judicial and sentencing system.

Iím glad my boys went to John M. King School, an elementary school here in the West End where they were a visible minority. Along with a textbook education on the static cultures of the past, they interacted with a multitude of todayís dynamic ethnicities, classes, and cuisines.

Of course, cultures and classes will continue to cluster for support. But it should be on their time and on their dime. Governmentís job is to reward cooperation and facilitate integration. They canít fund segregation and then act surprised when people donít get along.

I still feel out of place at times. It doesnít matter as much anymore. There are things I canít or wonít change about myself. But I will never regret choosing integration over segregation.
Copyright 2003
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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lehotsky@escape.ca