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The Multiculturalist Misunderstanding

On Toleration

by Michael Walzer
Yale University Press, 126 pp., $16.50

We Are All Multiculturalists Now

by Nathan Glazer
Harvard University Press, 179 pp., $19.95


Have you noticed that “culture”—the word—has been getting a heavy work-out recently? Anthropologists, of course, have used it zealously for over a century; though the term’s active life in literature and politics began long before that. But some current ways in which the concept of culture has been put to use would have surprised even mid-century readers; especially the idea that everything from anorexia to zydeco is illuminated by being displayed as the product of some group’s culture. It’s got to the point that when you hear the word “culture,” you reach for your dictionary.

Culture’s main competitor in its kudzu-like progression is “diversity,” a favorite now of corporate and educational CEOs, politicians, and pundits. And “cultural diversity” brings the two together. Is it not, indeed, one of the most pious of the pieties of our age that the United States is a society of enormous cultural diversity? And isn’t Nathan Glazer right to say, in his new book We Are All Multiculturalists Now, that “multiculturalism is just the latest in [a] sequence of terms describing how American society, particularly American education, should respond to its diversity”?

Well, yes, and yes, of course. American diversity is easily granted and so is the need of a response to that diversity. But what isn’t so clear is that it is our cultural diversity that deserves attention.

Let’s begin with a place where the idea of somebody’s culture really does explain something. When Jews from the shtetl and Italians from the villaggio arrived at Ellis Island, they brought with them a rich mixture we call culture. That is, they brought a language and stories and songs and sayings; they transplanted a religion with specific rituals, beliefs, and traditions, a cuisine of a certain hearty peasant quality and distinctive modes of dress; and they came with particular ideas about family life. It was often reasonable for their new neighbors to ask what these first-generation immigrants were doing, and why; and a sensible answer would frequently have been, “It’s an Italian thing, a Jewish thing,” or, simply, “It’s their culture.”

It is striking how much of this form of difference has disappeared. Nearly a decade ago the Harvard sociologist Mary Waters argued persuasively in Ethnic Options1 that the rich immigrant gumbo had become thin gruel. There are still seders and nuptial masses, still gefilte fish and spaghetti, but how much does an Italian name tell you, these days, about church attendance, or knowledge of Italian, or tastes in food or spouses? Even Jews, whose status as a small non-Christian group in an overwhelmingly Christian society might have been expected to keep their “difference” in focus, are getting harder to identify as a cultural group. (At the seder I go to every Passover, nearly half of those in attendance are gentiles.)

One way—the old way—of describing what has happened would be to say that the families that arrived during the turn-of-the-century wave of immigration have assimilated, become American. But, from another perspective, we might say that they became white. When the Italians and the Jews of Eastern Europe arrived, they were thought of as racially different both from African-Americans and from the white Protestant majority. Now hardly anybody thinks of their descendants this way. They are Americans: but unless their ancestors include people from Africa or Asia, they are also white.

Being white is not a matter of sharing a rich and distinctive culture with other whites in the way that immigrant Jews from Cracow shared a culture. True, whites in America almost all speak English, but so does almost everyone else. They are Catholic and Jewish and Protestant, and (despite frequent political references to a Judeo-Christian tradition) these are not the same. Many of the characteristics the Scotch-Irish of Appalachia share they also share with most Americans of all colors; and much of what distinguishes them from most Americans distinguishes them from other groups of whites as well. There’s Appalachian cuisine and folklore; but nobody, except perhaps a few oddballs in the Aryan Nation, thinks there’s a white cuisine, or a white folklore that is the distinguishing heritage of all white Americans. It’s a cultural fact that many Americans are white; but this is not so because they share a culture different from everybody else’s.

The contrast between blacks and whites seems very evident. African-Americans have been citizens since the Fourteenth Amendment, but they show no signs of becoming white. If African-Americans did become white, as the Italians and the Jews did, there wouldn’t be any point to whiteness anymore. And there is a point to whiteness. Nathan Glazer reminds us that when those earlier European immigrants were Americanizing—becoming more like the white Americans who were already here—black Americans were being educated separately in most of the United States and hardly anyone talked about their becoming like white Americans.

Many forces combined to keep things this way. Racist ideology can be fairly self-perpetuating, but it sometimes suited industrial capital, for one thing, to play white against black unions, as Henry Ford did so successfully. And, for another, everywhere in the South poor whites could reassure themselves that, while they might be having a hard time, at least they weren’t niggers. With whiteness, as with American Express, membership has its privileges.

White people rarely think of anything in their culture as white: normal, no doubt, middle-class, maybe, and even, sometimes, American; but not white. Black Americans, by contrast, do think of much in their lives in racial terms: they may speak black English (which some respectfully call Ebonics), go to black churches, dance and listen to black music. (And this isn’t just how black people think; other people think that way about them.)

These black forms were not inherited from the Old World, the way the ethnic culture of immigrants was: they are decisively inventions of the New World, as American as apple pie. The first generations of slaves naturally came from Africa with the same range of cultural baggage as the later European immigrants: languages, religions, music, narratives, cuisines, notions of kinship, and all the rest of it. Some brought technologies—rice cultivation, for example, from Senegambia—that were crucial to the developing economies of the South. But the traditions from which they came were multifarious, the languages mutually incomprehensible, the gods distinct, the stories different; and American slavery was designed to take full advantage of these divisions. Black people created a culture in the slave quarters from pieces of Africa, pieces of Europe, pieces of North American Indian tradition, and a fair amount of heroic innovation. Africans became blacks here, just as the European immigrants became whites.

Yet to contrast black and white stories is to neglect much that they have in common. There are, indeed, forms of English speech that are black, even if there are also large regional and class variations in black, as in white, speech. But these are all forms of English we are talking about. Indeed, despite the vast waves of immigration of the last few decades, something like 97 percent of adult Americans, whatever their color, speak English “like a native”; and, with the occasional adjustment for an accent here and there, those 97 percent can all understand one another. Leave out recent immigrants and the number gets close to 100 percent.

Not only blacks and whites but Asians and Native Americans share the English language. Even Hispanics, the one American ethnic group defined by language, prove no exception. People talk a great deal nowadays about the Hispanization of America, and you can indeed hear Spanish spoken in stores and on street corners in places you wouldn’t have heard it thirty years ago. But as Geoffrey Nunberg, who teaches linguistics at Stanford, pointed out recently, the “Census figure for residents over five who speak no English is only 1.9 million—proportionately only a quarter as high as it was in 1890, at the peak of the last great wave of immigration.”2 He cites a Florida poll that shows 98 percent of Hispanics want their children to speak English well; and, he adds, a “recent RAND Corporation study shows that more than 90 percent of first-generation Hispanics born in California have native fluency in English, and that only 50 percent of the second generation still speak Spanish.”3 If being American means understanding English, then US-born Hispanics overwhelmingly (and increasingly) pass the test. Rates of English fluency run equally high among the children of immigrants from Asia.

Language is only one of many things most Americans share. This is also, for example, a country where almost every citizen knows something about baseball and basketball. Americans also share a familiarity with the consumer culture. They shop American style and know a good deal about the same consumer goods: Coca-Cola, Nike, Levi-Strauss, Ford, Nissan, GE. They have seen Hollywood movies and know the names of some stars; and even the few who watch little or no television can probably tell you the names of some of its personalities.

Even the supposedly persisting differences of religion turn out to be shallower than you might think. American Judaism is, as is often observed, extraordinarily American. Catholics in this country are a nuisance for Rome just because they are…well, so Protestant. Unlike Catholics in many other countries, for example, even the most devout tend to celebrate the separation of Church and State. They also claim individual freedom of conscience—so they don’t automatically take the Church’s line on contraception or divorce.

Above all, most Americans who claim a religion (which means most Americans) regard it as essentially private, something for which they desire neither help nor hindrance from the government. Even Christian Coalition parents who want prayer in the schools generally just want their own children sustained in their faith; they don’t claim the public schools should set about converting the children of others. In these key respects—the sovereignty of the individual conscience within the confession, and the privacy of religious belief—American religion, whatever its formal sectarian designation, is decidedly Protestant. Many of the religious traditions from Asia that have increased in significance in the present wave of immigration are also quickly Americanizing: much of American Islam, for example, is as happy with the separation of Church and state as most Muslims elsewhere are resistant to it.

Coming, as I do, from Ghana, I find the broad cultural homogeneity of America more striking than its much-vaunted variety. Take language. When I was a child, we lived in a household where there were always at least three mother tongues in daily use: we spoke English (Ghana’s official language and my mother’s) and Twi (my father’s first language); and our cook and steward, who came from further north, also spoke the language of Navrongo, where they were born. (The watchman spoke Hausa.) Ghana, with a population smaller than that of New York State, has several dozen languages in active daily use and no one language that is spoken at home—or even fluently understood—by a majority of the population.

  1. 1

    Mary Waters, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (University of California Press, 1990).

  2. 2

    Geoffrey Nunberg, “Lingo Jingo:English Only and the new nativism,” The American Prospect, July-August 1997, No. 33, pp. 40-47. Quote from p. 42.

  3. 3

    Nunberg, “Lingo Jingo,” p. 43.

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