A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America
American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass
Raising Black Children: Two Leading Black Psychiatrists Confront the Educational, Social and Emotional Problems Facing Black Children
Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation
The Scar of Race
What is intended by the demand that the United States should recognize—and recast—itself as a “multicultural” society? In physical appearance, we are ethnically more diverse than at any other time in our history. Americans who describe themselves as “white” now account for less than 75 percent of the population, and only 55 percent in California. But the issue has less to do with our varied origins than what we make of them. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., is not alone in worrying that the current stress on diversity is already causing “the disuniting of America.” Others—most recently, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—warn of “balkanization.”
Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror is a clear account of the basic assumptions and intentions of the advocates of diversity. While his subtitle is “a history of multicultural America,” his book is also a manifesto for the future. He believes we should stop giving so much emphasis to the activities and decisions of persons of European stock. In the multicultural model, other groups should be given parity with Europeans because of the importance of their contributions to the general culture and their special perspectives on how this country works. To this end, A Different Mirror devotes most of its attention to the outlooks and experiences of Americans who are other than white, and its opening chapter records how the Powhatans and the Wampanoags reacted to the arrival of the Europeans who were to usurp their continent.
The author, a third generation Japanese American who is a professor of ethnic studies at Berkeley, wants Americans to sustain their ancestral identities. This means not only ensuring that these cultures remain alive, but that they continue to guide the way people lead their lives. “America’s dilemma has been our resistance to ourselves,” he says, “our denial of our immensely varied selves.” In this view, we carry within ourselves a tribal self, a primordial anima, which we abandon at our moral peril. While not all of us can claim Powhatan roots, we can reclaim our neglected identities. A Different Mirror includes chapters on Irish immigrants and Eastern European Jews which describe their distinctive cultures before they entered a more amorphous American mainstream. A new America will respect, even resurrect these pasts: “We have nothing to fear but our fear of our own diversity.”
By this time, it should be clear that, as used here, “culture” and “diversity” are anthropological terms. The emphasis is on language, custom, and lineage; on preserving folkways from simpler days. In fact, the current multicultural impetus constitutes a break with past practices. Until recently, it was assumed that immigrants would adapt to the prevailing culture. English would be the language of the workplace and marketplace, as well as most local schools. The presumption was that people who came here voluntarily had chosen their new home, aware of its Anglo-American origins, political institutions, and identity, and wanting on the whole to take part in them. There was no official recognition of the …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.