UW News

November 5, 2012

Raised in segregated south, diversity expert reflects on progress, upcoming conference

News and Information

James Banks headshot

James Banks, director of the UW Center for Multicultural Education

The Center for Multicultural Education, part of the University of Washington’s College of Education, will celebrate its 20th year with a conference and book launch Friday, Nov. 9. The anniversary is particularly significant for the center’s director, James Banks, who experienced racism first hand growing up as an African-American in the segregated south.

He remembers not being allowed to use the public library, despite being an avid reader. He used the “colored entrance” at the movie theater and watched movies from the projection room, where he strained to hear over the rattle of the movie projector.

He was a seventh-grader in rural Marianna, Ark., when the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case declared segregated schools unconstitutional, and he recalls the decision was met with tension and silence in his community.

His experiences propelled him toward a career seeking equality in education, becoming an elementary school teacher in Chicago and then earning a doctorate in elemen­tary education and social science from Michigan State University in 1969.

“This has been a personal journey,” Banks said. “I felt that even though I escaped this segregated environment, others just as bright didn’t.”

He came to the UW in 1969, the first African-American hired as a faculty member by the College of Education. While the university hired some African-Americans with tenure, Banks was the first African-American to earn tenure at the UW.

Banks helped create the Center for Multicultural Education in 1992 to improve education practices related to diversity issues. It aims to foster better understanding of cultural differences  among ethnic groups and bolster academic achievement of all students.

Students must be educated “in an environment that reflects the reality of the nation and the world and that teaches them how to get along with each other and how to solve problems in a multicultural world,” Banks said during his UW faculty lecture in 2005.

Recently reflecting on progress in multicultural education during his lifetime, Banks said he’s seen “tremendous progress,” especially in textbooks. When he was growing up, he said, textbooks included a scant three black people – Marian Anderson, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver – and depicted slaves as “happy.”

African-Americans and other ethnic groups now have better representation in the school curriculum. But “it’s not enough,” Banks said. “A big struggle now is that blacks are in textbooks but their stories are told from the white perspective.”

He says that the future of multicultural education is global, as nations including England, France and China face new challenges involving discrimination, religious freedom and diversity. The field of multicultural education is “getting bigger, but it’s not changing the nature of what I do,” Banks said.

This global theme is evident in the center’s Nov. 9 conference. The event will take place in the HUB from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The university and surrounding educational communities are invited. Email centerme@uw.edu for more information or to RSVP for the conference. A pdf of the conference’s agenda is here.

The keynote speaker will be Linda Darling-Hammond, from Stanford University and a former education adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She will talk about her 2010 book “The Flat World and Education: How American’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future.”

Another session will discuss diversity and educating youth in the humanities and sciences, and an afternoon panel will cover teacher education in Korea, Canada and the United States.

book cover for Encyclopedia of Diversity in EducationThe event will also commemorate the publication of the four-volume Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education. Edited by Banks and published by Sage Publications, the work is intended to be a reference for understanding diversity issues in education around the globe. It provides statistics, case studies, best practices, programs and policies. The UW Libraries carry the print and digital versions of the book.

“This conference and book launch mark a significant achievement of work in the UW College of Education related to diversity during the last two decades,” Banks said. “The publication of the Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education indicates the extent to which studies related to diversity in education have attained a high level of legitimacy and acceptance both in the United States and in nations around the world.”