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Diversity’ and Its Dangers

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America

by Ronald Takaki
Little, Brown, 508 pp., $27.95

American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass

by Douglas S. Massey, by Nancy A. Denton
Harvard University Press, 292 pp., $29.95

Raising Black Children: Two Leading Black Psychiatrists Confront the Educational, Social and Emotional Problems Facing Black Children

by James P. Comer MD, by Alvin F. Poussaint MD
Plume Books, 436 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation

edited and with an introduction by Gerald Early
Penguin/Allen Lane, 351 pp., $23.50

Race Matters

by Cornel West
Beacon Press, 105 pp., $15.00

The Scar of Race

by Paul M. Sniderman, by Thomas Piazza
Harvard University Press, 212 pp., $18.95

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 cultures brought by Irish housemaids, Japanese farm laborers, or Africans transported in chains. While newcomers often published newspapers of their own and took part in ethnic organizations and occasional holidays and parades, they did not presume to ask for or expect bilingual education for their children. Richard Rodriguez has recalled how in California schools, Mexican children were punished for speaking Spanish even in the playground.1 In the South’s racially separated systems, black pupils were treated equally in that they too were assigned Hawthorne and Shakespeare. The same curriculum was imposed at reservation schools, which mixed different Indian tribes together in order to efface regional loyalties. Those in charge had confidence in the universal application of their culture.

Of course, assimilation has varied in direction and degree, and is not a precise process. Still, successive generations have moved from outward conformity to internal acceptance. For this reason, Takaki’s argument that “Americans have been constantly redefining their national identity” is not wholly persuasive. From the earliest settlements until today, national and personal identities have been defined along what Alexis de Tocqueville called Anglo-American lines. In its latest variant, simply being “white” is what remains as earlier ethnicities fade. This holds largely for 58 million people of German ancestry, as well as the 47 million who cite some British descent, including the many Scotch-Irish from Ulster. Indeed, in the 1990 Census, 78 million Americans replied that they are some kind of mixture, which was also true of the 40 million who put down that they were generic “Americans” or could not specify a lineage.2 The ubiquity of intermarriage continues to blur even more ancestries. Thus the most recent published figures from the census show that almost half of all Japanese American women marry men from other national origins. In a similar vein, the growth of “non-ethnic” suburbs has served to reinforce a revival of Anglo-American dominance.

We also hear much about “diversity” in the workplace, with the warning that companies will have to adapt to the cultures and dispositions of their new employees. If this means that everyone should be judged fairly for hiring and promotions, there can be no argument. And it should be obvious that if firms that take on immigrants care about job performance, then managers must become familiar with social styles that may be strange to them. (But this is hardly new. Those who oversaw the building of the Central Pacific Railroad got excellent work from their Chinese laborers, without benefit of sensitivity seminars.) Still, it should be stressed that the great majority of these new workers are willing, indeed anxious, to learn American ways. Not least, they know that what they make of themselves will depend on how well they perfect their English. Even so, people seem hesitant to say this openly. (Note the paucity of comment on a recent swearing in of new citizens, where the judge administered the oath in Spanish.)

At one level, those who oppose assimilation hope to end a process they see as turning Americans into a bland and vapid population. But the multicultural criticism is also directed at what America has come to represent. All of the groups discussed in A Different Mirror are described as having been exploited, vilified, even decimated, at the hands of the dominant institutions of property and power. Yet, according to Takaki, these groups also displayed a strength and solidarity in which their descendants should take pride. In this rendering, Chinese, Cherokees, and Chicanos are seen as caring and cooperative people, raised to be respectful of nature and capable, as Anglo-Americans are not, of commingling body and spirit. So depicted, they offer an alternative to a modern world disfigured by commerce, competition, and technological arrogance. Here the multicultural impetus has much in common with earlier idealizations of rural life in Vietnam and Nicaragua. Moreover, a concern for endangered cultures would seem to have a lot in common with the late-twentieth-century cause of saving endangered species.

What, then, of warnings of balkanization? While Takaki wants each ancestral group to foster a particularistic pride, a stated purpose of his book is to infuse mutual respect and understanding among the components of the mosaic. Even so, A Different Mirror shows how often animosity has been the rule. Just as Irish immigrants sought to improve their status by turning on blacks, so Hawaiian plantation owners found it easy to fan tensions among Filipino and Japanese laborers. The current and often complex hostilities between, and sometimes within, groups of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Chicanos, Koreans, and blacks, among others, are barely mentioned, given the perspective of A Different Mirror. Nor does it allude to the experience of colleges that allow separate facilities based on ethnic origins and then find that suspicions and divisions among groups become inflamed. Pride can cut both ways, which is why Takaki deplores identifying his own group as a “model minority,” since the term can be an oblique way of reproving blacks.

As it happens, “diversity” and “ethnicity” are relatively modern phrases, more academic in tenor than reflecting of real life. For a far longer time, people have spoken of ties based on “blood,” which, if it is to be cherished and saved, must often be shed. Alas, the ties of ethnicity when acted on in everyday life often become reduced to simplistic feelings of hostility toward other groups. A multicultural America may seem benign in a classroom syllabus, but we shouldn’t be surprised if the result is conflict in the streets.

Not all separation comes about by choice. Black Americans, in particular, live what are largely segregated lives because they find it difficult to move into more mixed neighborhoods. While many may add that they feel more at ease among members of their race, they don’t like knowing that their ancestry can keep them from living in a place they could afford.

I have, for most of my adult life, wondered what, exactly, is the stain we black Americans carry, what it is about our mere presence, our mere existence, that can inflame such passion,” Anthony Walton asks in his contribution to the collection Lure and Loathing. A good part of the answer is given by the sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton in American Apartheid. Making imaginative use of census statistics, they show that white householders simply do not want blacks as neighbors, and that the rates denoting racial separation have barely budged in recent years. By 1990, in cities like Detroit, New York, New Orleans, and Cincinnati, blacks and whites were actually living at a greater distance from one another than they had a decade earlier. And while we are told that there are many kinds of ethnic enclaves, strict segregation is imposed only on blacks.

Within most metropolitan areas,” Massey and Denton note, “Hispanics and Asians are more likely to share a neighborhood with whites than with another member of their own group.” Nor is this a reflection of class. Whites are just as apt to pull out when middle-class blacks begin to enter a neighborhood. Today this can be seen happening when black families that have bettered themselves take steps to leave the city. “Once suburbs acquire a visible black presence,” Massey and Denton found, “they tend to attract more blacks than whites, which leads to rapid racial turnover and the emergence of a suburban black enclave.” While it is popular to approve of the movement of black families to the suburbs, most commentators fail to add that this usually “involves the expansion of an urban ghetto across a city line and does not reflect a larger process of racial integration.”

American Apartheid tells a sad story, especially when it shows how even black families who play by the rules are still unwelcome as neighbors. The figures in the accompanying table, drawn from Philadelphia, apply generally across the United States.


  1. 1

    The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (Godine, 1982).

  2. 2

    Bureau of the Census, Detailed Ancestry Group for States (US Government Printing Office, 1992). Also see Richard Alba, Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America (Yale University Press, 1990) for a perceptive analysis of assimilation among Irish, Italians, Poles, and Jews.

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