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.
They show, first, that although poor whites live apart from poor blacks, the neighborhoods in which both groups live have high out-of-wedlock rates and schools with low achievement records. However, once whites rise to middle-income levels they can and do move to neighborhoods where the rates and scores are discernibly different. It is also true that blacks who better themselves can leave the very worst sections. But because black families have far less freedom when it comes to choosing where they might move, the best places they can find are still subject to the kinds of problems they had hoped to escape. In other words, middle-class blacks remain much closer to poorer families of their own race than do their white counterparts. American Apartheid shows that when blacks advance economically, even reaching financial parity with whites, whites are no more receptive to social integration. As a result, most black and white children grow up amid friends and classmates of only their own race. This not only perpetuates the two racial cultures but also entrenches the disadvantages blacks bring to the various forms of competition that determine the course of virtually all Americans’ lives.
In their book of advice to black parents, James Comer and Alvin Poussaint talk of separate racial cultures: “The black child has been forced to learn to live in two cultures—his own minority culture and the majority one.” Because of the severity of segregation, few black Americans have been able to develop the kinds of close interracial relationships which would allow them easily to absorb white ways. Even black teen-agers who attend boarding schools can find subtle barriers that keep them from absorbing nuances their classmates take for granted.3 Of course, neither the black nor the white culture is of a single piece. One can be black and middleclass, black and rich, black and pursue a military career; or, like Comer and Poussaint, be black and hold professorships at the Yale and the Harvard medical schools. Still, in Raising Black Children, class differences are barely mentioned, since the authors know that for themselves and their readers, their racial identity will always be at the center of their lives.
This said, the book offers a strong middle-class perspective: as the authors make clear, a secure place in the middle class is what virtually all black parents want for their children. So after making the unexceptional statement that “the purpose of education is to help children function well in the society in which they live,” the authors go on to emphasize that this society will be one based on the codes and expectations of white culture. Accordingly, Comer and Poussaint undertake to help black parents prepare their children for that world. They acknowledge the claims that “black culture is more spontaneous” and “less time-bound.” But they reply that because “these habits make it difficult to develop well-managed institutions,” parents who wish their children to succeed in the larger world should encourage punctuality and methodical approaches to school assignments and to work generally. Comer and Poussaint point out that black children will be judged by “programs that evaluate people largely on their analysis and writing abilities.” The most widely used measure of these skills is still the Scholastic Aptitude Test (recently renamed the “Scholastic Assessment Test”) which reveals how far students have internalized the modes of thinking and the kinds of reactions expected in formal education.
Table B gives the average scores of students from four ethnic groups: first for everyone who took the test, and then for only those from families with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000.
The fact that black students rank lowest could be attributed to their coming from poorer families. Yet even when their families are from middle-class homes, their average scores remain below those of other students.
The main reason, Comer and Poissant suggest, is that “traditional black culture was an oral culture,” which continues to manifest itself in a more diffuse “learning style.” Moreover, the same cultural tendencies make themselves felt in all social classes. This comes about, as the authors of American Apartheid make clear, because even better-off black children tend to be raised in segregated surroundings, where they spend most of their time with friends and classmates of their own race. The result is that not enough black children develop the analytical skills that modern organizations will expect of them. Comer and Poussaint say that if children hear Black English at home or in their neighborhoods, they should also master standard syntax and diction, or they will limit the possibilities for improving their lives. They also argue that parents should not press for “culture-free tests,” which in fact have yet to be created. Rather, they should urge their children to excel under prevailing conceptions of reasoning and efficient functioning.4 What can and must be done is “to improve analysis and written expression in cases where it is simply underdeveloped in otherwise bright youngsters.” Comer, it should be added, has had some success in working out programs for accomplishing this goal in programs he has initiated in New Haven and other cities. He emphasizes a concerted effort by teachers, counselors, and experts at school to examine the particular situation of each child and to find in the child’s family, neighborhood, and available local service institutions people who will be helpful in encouraging study and learning. To carry out such a plan on a national scale will mean huge investments that are still far from being contemplated at the moment.
A year or so ago, Gerald Early asked several acquaintances and colleagues to write personal essays on “what it means to be an American of African descent.” To provide a common theme, he cited the statement with which W.E.B. Du Bois opened his The Souls of Black Folk at the turn of this century: “One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” The nineteen contributors include writers with varied viewpoints, among them Glenn Loury, Molefi Kete Asante, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Nikki Giovanni. All took their assignment seriously, and the result is an illuminating book, filled with frank and revealing insights on the decisions and dilemmas that come with being black. The contributors to Lure and Loathing mostly agree that despite their centuries on this continent, descendants of chattels will never be allowed to become full Americans. So despite whatever efforts they may make to adapt to the majority culture, they must live with that recognition.
Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale, echoes Comer and Poussaint when he notes that “if one wants to move upward in the professions, one must accept that most of the rewards one seeks will be distributed by white people, according to rules they have worked out.” He has obviously mastered these rules himself, as he described a few years ago in Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby.5 He tells of the sense of isolation and self-betrayal he has experienced within a “frustratingly segregated integrated professional world.”
Stanley Crouch is less willing to affirm the “Negro” half of Du Bois’s dichotomy. While that part may represent one’s primal past, he also acknowledges that “we came into the discussion of sophisticated modern life very late,” if only because “our level of intellectual engagement on the grand stage of the world was quite humble throughout our tragic arrival in the Western Hemisphere.” Crouch, a powerful essayist and a brilliant writer on jazz, has confidence in his people’s capacities but he argues forcefully that the life of the mind must have a literary base, that blacks must master written intellectual traditions, and that attempts to isolate and rely on an oral heritage will only constrain their intellectual potential.
The racial cultural divide has had a practical impact. “We are in danger of becoming superfluous people in this society,” Anthony Walton adds, largely because blacks do not have enough of the skills the economy now demands. “With the exception of the military, popular music, and professional athletics, all of which could have done without us, we probably have been superfluous since World War II.” The message that most of them are not wanted or needed has not been lost on all too many young blacks. And this realization, Walton says, helps to explain “the current dominance that youth culture and its vapid disregard for the future, its materialism, religion of instant gratification, sexual permissiveness, and unrelenting violence, is visiting upon black communities.”
To compound these tendencies toward self-destruction, Itabari Njeri adds, “our numbers are shrinking relative to the growth of other minorities.” While America has always been ambiguous about immigrants, it is willing to make room for them if they fill an economic niche, remain unobtrusive, and acquiesce to the demands of the majority culture. She sees many Asians and Hispanics already being cast as “honorary” whites, “in an effort to exploit intraminority conflicts and permanently marginalize Blacks.” The white majority is also aware that its share of the population is declining. To preserve its primacy, it is prepared to make use of the talents of newcomers and accept them as neighbors, so long as they do not make multicultural demands and are willing to attune themselves to Anglo-American ways. Students of Chinese and Korean ancestry already approach a third of the enrollments at MIT and the Juilliard School.
Cornel West, who teaches black studies at Princeton, takes a strong position against assimilation. Or so his position seems to be. Race Matters consists of eight essays, most of them previously published, on such subjects as sexuality, leadership, conservatism, and nihilism within the black community. Since the book contains only eighty-eight pages of text, his views are presented rather abruptly, often leaving the reader to draw out implications. Thus in discussing Malcolm X, West deplores a “pervasive self-loathing among many of the black professional class,” whose members “have lived so intimately in a white world in which the devaluation of black people is so often taken for granted or unconsciously assumed.” He also speaks of:
The propensity among highly assimilated black professionals to put “whiteness” (in all its various forms) on a pedestal.
A…colonized mind-set [which] seems to lock black people into the quest for white approval.
Black people who…persist in viewing themselves through the lenses of the dominant white society.
Almost immediately, one wants to know which black people he is talking about and if in fact they occupy the prominent positions within the black middle class he ascribes to them. It does not appear that West has in mind avowedly black conservatives, since he considers Thomas Sowell and Glenn Loury elsewhere and attacks them on other grounds. (He does suggest, however, that such writers evoke greater approval from whites than they do among blacks.)
In 1957, E. Franklin Frazier of the University of Chicago wrote Black Bourgeoisie, a biting portrait of a middle class that was starting to become larger amid postwar prosperity.6 Because members of the black middle class then lived largely in segregated worlds, their business and professional standing carried authority within their communities. While Frazier described this group as insular and snobbish, they still seemed less concerned to emulate whites than occupied with their own symbols of status and success. In fact, members of today’s black middle class seem politically more active—or at least more concerned about political issues—than their earlier counter-parts. Many take open and often angry stands on issues ranging from police misconduct to discrimination in employment and they increasingly address themselves to black city officials and black state and national legislators. It is therefore not easy to identify those who, in West’s words, put “whiteness” on a pedestal.
True, there are blacks who have committed themselves to corporate careers, just as Cornel West and Toni Morrison have chosen to be professors at Princeton. Yet many in business have discovered that they hit an early ceiling, since their companies fear that too many black faces in high places might damage their corporate image. In view of West’s accusations, he might have provided a few examples, so readers could see what forms the alleged obsession with whiteness takes. (A single reference is to Michael Jackson’s experience with cosmetic surgery, which was graphic but aberrant.) One professional person he might have considered is General Colin Powell, who has allowed the greater part of his life to be guided by canons of military conduct. Although presiding over an organization more open to black advancement than other large American institutions, he hardly ever talks about race. Would West cite this as a sign of “self-loathing” subsisting beneath an equable exterior? The basis for West’s judgments is not made clear.
It hardly needs reiterating that white Americans spend an inordinate amount of time musing about the capacities and conduct of their black fellow citizens. Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza seek to explore these feelings and put them in perspective. In their view, there is a consensus among experts that “contemporary conflict over racial policies is still being driven by bigotry, both openly expressed and covert,” while the idea persists “that white racism remains a dominating force in our culture.” They contest these assessments, and seek to counter them by using survey data to show that racism and bigotry are far less prevalent than “fashionable opinion” would have us believe. In particular, they argue that many of the assessments whites make of blacks reflect values that exist independently of race.
While Sniderman and Piazza draw on several sociological studies, their book relies largely on telephone interviews, conducted under their supervision, with some eight hundred white residents of the San Francisco area. These householders, chosen at random, were asked over one hundred questions, many of them quite elaborate, which must have required staying on the phone for at least an hour. The authors hold that people can be induced to state their real feelings about race, especially if the colloquy is guided by “computer-assisted telephone interviewing.”
Thus they are heartened by their finding that “only 6 percent of whites concur with the characterization of blacks as inherently less intelligent and able than whites.” Yet even in 1993, it is not easy to accept that 94 percent of white Americans believe that blacks have the same inherent intelligence and abilities as whites. In fact, we know that whites very often lie when racial questions are raised.7 In exit polls at elections which presented a black and a white candidate, many more white citizens will tell white interviewers that they voted for the black contender than in fact did. Apparently, they wish to present a tolerant face, even to persons they do not know and will never see again. As long as people will not reveal how they really feel, we will be left to speculate on how many whites still believe that blacks are innately inferior—including those who wish they could rid themselves of that opinion.
By the same token, what are we to make of the book’s report that 78 percent of the whites interviewed disagreed with the statement that “blacks are more violent than whites”? By this time, Bay Area residents must know that black men commit more than their share of crimes commonly described as violent. To be sure, it can be argued that whites are just as aggressive, but in ways that do not involve personal violence, such as looting financial institutions or ordering the bombing of villages. But the book offers no signs that this is what its respondents had in mind.
As I have noted earlier, a central thesis of The Scar of Race is that responses that appear to concentrate on race may in fact reflect more general views about human behavior. On its face, this theory makes sense. Sniderman and Piazza undertook some computer-based experiments to find out whether views whites express about blacks apply mainly to members of that race, or if they would say much the same things about other people who showed similar traits or acted in similar ways. If we find that white respondents are almost as judgmental about white women on welfare, it could be argued that mutterings about “welfare mothers” are only marginally racial.
And despite all the criticisms heard of people on welfare, the book’s survey finds white respondents expressing a willingness to support assistance for blacks who genuinely need it. And while they show a growing impatience with many black demands, Sniderman and Piazza’s whites profess to be upset when qualified blacks are denied positions or promotions. This leads the authors to conclude that principles transcending race take priority: “Claims for government assistance made on behalf of blacks as individuals are treated as fairly as those made on behalf of individual whites.” At the same time, even whites who give liberal responses elsewhere are apt to oppose policies like affirmative action, which are construed as advancing a “race-conscious agenda, which centers on awarding preferential treatment to blacks.” While most of the whites who were surveyed show sympathy and desire justice for individuals, few feel they owe anything to “blacks as a group.”
Yet on a closer reading, this distinction between individuals and groups recalls the one that used to be drawn between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. Every white American, including the most ironbound bigots, can and will cite some black people of whom they approve. These usually turn out to be persons who conduct themselves by white standards, and who do not come across as complaining or threatening. In this view, women of any race can legitimately ask for welfare stipends if they have been abandoned by a husband and plan to remain only briefly on the rolls, while they prepare to enter the job market. In a similar vein, virtually all whites would object if black college applicants were rejected even though they had the same academic credentials as whites who were accepted.
The problem, of course, is that when these principles are applied in practice, relatively few blacks meet such standards either of equity or need. It has been years since the leading colleges turned down blacks with high grades or scores; instead, we see frantic searches for blacks who are thought to be adept at college work. By the same measure, only a minority of the black women currently on public assistance pass the “deserving” test. Most have a child without having been married, whereas white women on welfare are more likely to be separated or divorced. But few whites complain about other whites with inauspicious records who ask for and are granted special consideration. Indeed, this occurs each year among thousands of children of college alumni, who receive preference in admissions. Principles that purportedly are based on the needs and merits of particular individuals all too often end up revealing hidden racial distinctions.
Sniderman and Piazza do not deny that prejudice persists. In their closing chapter, they stress that prejudice “remains the same compound of malignancy and ignorance notwithstanding the repeated pronouncements of the demise of old-fashioned bigotry.” Yet if this is the “scar of race,” the authors seem to be saying that it is fading, since their survey responses reveal that there are fewer “bigots” than ever before. The reason, the authors feel, is that Americans are spending more time at school, and this experience makes them more tolerant by providing “the information and skill, needed to think a political point of view through.”
This is not the place to analyze the impact that added years in a classroom have on thought and behavior. What can be said, though, is that the more education people have had, the less likely they are to blurt out their true feelings. The experience of college and building a career makes one careful about appearing coarse or untutored. Indeed, the very word “bigot”—which the book uses repeatedly—brings to mind the twisted faces of those who lined up to intimidate the first black children to integrate schools. If we hear fewer outward expressions of bigotry, it then remains to be explained why such severe social and economic disparities still separate our two principal races. To this question, The Scar of Race suggests no answer.
MULTICULTURAL OR AFROCENTRIC?
At least one group has shown little enthusiasm for a multicultural curriclum, as it is currently construed. Not that many black parents give high priority to having their children taught Chippewa customs or the contributions of Koreans. Nor are they sanguine that lessons in mutual understanding will alter the racial outlooks of whites.
However, many of them do want their children to learn about the history and accomplishments of their own people. But being cited as simply another “ethnic group” in a crowded syllabus cannot satisfy that aim. There is also the suspicion that curriculum planners are more comfortable celebrating American Indians that confronting slavery and its aftermath.
October 7, 1993
The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (Godine, 1982). ↩
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. ↩
See Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff, Blacks in the White Establishment (Yale University Press, 1991). ↩
See Charles W. Cherry, Excellence Without Excuse: The Black Student’s Guide to Academic Excellence (International Scholastic Press, 1993). ↩
Basic Books, 1991. ↩
Free Press, 1957. ↩
See Larry Hugnick and John Zeglarski, “Polls During the Past Decade in Biracial Election Contests,” paper delivered at the American Association for Public Opinion Research, May 1990. ↩