More than 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that “on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
Today, as communities pause to remember the man who led the civil rights movement, students say we’ve come so far as a country but there’s still further to go before that dream is fully realized, even in a high school cafeteria.
“When it comes to the social atmosphere and the social activities, that’s kind of where it separates,” Gainesville High senior Lauren Carter said. “Even, like, eating at lunch. It’s those social times when that comfort level comes in.”
Carter and her friends say they don’t often think about diversity, but say it is noticeable that different races will generally stick together.
They said the more involved a student is in clubs and athletics, the more likely he or she is to develop friendships and be exposed to people of different cultures, but those who aren’t as involved don’t have that exposure.
“I think the normal student at Gainesville High School is going to hang out with his or her own ethnicity or own group, because that’s where you feel most comfortable,” said Gabrielle Diaz, a senior at the school.
“I feel that some of the students are maybe intimidated by other groups or just comfortable with their certain ethnicity group,” fellow senior Kacie Wimpye added. “So being involved with sports and stuff really will set you apart.”
Jason Mizell agrees that it’s more about comfort level than any hatred of another race or ethnicity.
Mizell is a kindergarten teacher at Hall County’s World Language Academy, a school that teaches students Spanish in an immersion experience where classes are taught in a mix of English and Spanish.
He said younger students, like the ones in his kindergarten class, play and interact with each other regardless of social or ethnic background. He said the separation begins taking place in the eighth and ninth grades.
“They’re not kids anymore,” he said. “They start looking for groups who are just like them. It’s basically comfort. You’re more comfortable with those who are just like you.”
In academia it’s called racial identity, which is developed throughout a person’s life in culture, family, friends and location, among other factors. So while King and others in the civil rights movement fought for and achieved integration, people still remain close to whatever culture and ethnicity they identify with. That shows itself in several ways, from school hallways to churches to neighborhoods.
Today, the Gainesville High students see tensions that might have existed between white and black people in the 1950s being transferred today to tensions with the Spanish-speaking population, many of whom are immigrants.
Diaz did a research project over the summer on the topic of immigration.
“You start with a group that is really hated universally, almost always. It’s really sad,” she said. “It’s the Irish, it’s the Germans to an extent ... and then you move into Eastern Europe, and then the Jewish groups. They’re kind of hated and they have groups against them, and it’s really difficult.
“But after a few generations, there’s a buildup of wealth in families and there’s a buildup of education. Generally, when you’re more educated and you move into other fields of interest ... you’re more respected when you’re out in the world, so people kind of get over it. They see no one is different from anyone else. They’re working alongside you. And then a new immigrant population usually comes in to transfer the hate to.”
World Language Academy teacher Marla Lear said it’s about more than skin color, as well.
From Nicaragua, she grew up in California but married a Georgia man and now lives in Buford. She said she’s taught all over the world, but never really felt like an outsider until she lived in Georgia and spoke her native language.
“I never, ever grew up feeling different because I spoke another language or because of the color of my skin,” she said. “Here, I’ve had experiences where I have been ... treated a little bit different.
“I think ... not everyone is as comfortable hearing other people speaking different languages around them,” she added. “Where some people, in different parts of the world, your ear gets used to hearing different languages, and it doesn’t bother you.”
Lear was one of the first Spanish teachers at a school prior to working at World Language Academy, and was surprised by the reaction.
“Not all parents loved it,” she said. “But the students ... are so adaptable. They really picked it up and were interested.
“You get a little bit of everything, but I think the exposure is key,” she added.
Diaz said she thinks the political climate plays a large role in how the Hispanic community is treated in the area.
“I think that when we look at immigration today, how we view immigrants in Gainesville, they’re usually coming to the industry and that’s going to set them apart economically from a lot of people,” she said. “So when you have immigrants that are mostly focused in one social class as well, that also is another factor that divides them from everyone else.”
What everyone seemed to agree on is that when it comes to diversity and embracing all backgrounds, society is on the right track.
“Where we were with Martin Luther King to where we are now, and where we’ll be when we’re having kids ... it’s going to be a totally different environment and world that we’re going to be living in,” Carter said. “At least, I hope. That’s the plan.”