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.

So why, in this society, which has less diversity of culture than most others, are we so preoccupied with diversity and so inclined to conceive of it as cultural?

Let me offer a name—not an explanation, just a piece of terminology for our much-vaunted diversity: let me say that we are creatures of diverse social identities. The cozy truism that we are a diverse society reflects the fact that many people now insist that they are profoundly shaped by the groups to which they belong, that their social identity—their membership in these groups—is central to who they are. Moreover, they go on to pursue what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “politics of recognition”: they ask the rest of us to acknowledge publicly their “authentic” identities.4

The identities that demand recognition are extremely multifarious. Some groups have the names of the earlier ethnic cultures: Italian, Jewish, Polish. Some correspond to the old races—black, Asian, Indian; or to religions—Baptist, Catholic, Jewish. Some are basically regional—Southern, Western, Puerto Rican. Yet others are new groups modeled on the old ethnicities—Hispanic, Asian-American—or are social categories—woman, gay, bisexual, disabled, deaf—that are none of these.

Nowadays, we are not the slightest bit surprised when someone remarks upon a feature of the “culture” of groups like these. Gay culture, Deaf culture, Chicano culture, Jewish culture: see how these phrases trip off the tongue. But if you ask what distinctively marks off gay people or deaf people or Jews from others, it is not obviously the fact that to each identity there corresponds a distinct culture. “Hispanic” sounds like the name of a cultural group defined by sharing the cultural trait of speaking Spanish; but half the second-generation Hispanics in California don’t speak Spanish fluently and in the next generation the proportion will fall even further. “Hispanic” is, of course, a category that’s as made-in-the-USA as “black” and “white,” a product of immigration, an artifact of the US Census. Whatever “culture” Guatemalan peasants and Cuban professionals have in common, the loss of Spanish confirms that “Hispanic,” as a category, is thinning out culturally in the way that “white” ethnicity has already done.

You may wonder, in fact, whether there isn’t a connection between the thinning of the cultural content of identities and the rising stridency of their claims. Those European immigrants who lived in their rich ethnic cultures were busy demanding the linguistic Americanization of their children, making sure they learned America’s official culture. One suspects that they didn’t need to insist on the public recognition of their culture, because—whether or not they were happy with it—they simply took it for granted. Their middle-class descendants, whose domestic lives are conducted in English and extend eclectically from Seinfeld to Chinese takeout, are discomfited by a sense that their identities are shallow by comparison with those of their grandparents; and some of them fear that unless the rest of us acknowledge the importance of their difference, there soon won’t be anything worth acknowledging.

Something similar has happened with African-Americans. When there were still legal barriers to full citizenship, before the judicial decisions from Brown to Loving and the civil rights legislation of the Sixties, the public recognition of a unique black culture was not exactly the most important item on blacks’ political agenda. Black people wanted recognition by state and society of what they had in common with white people: their humanity and those famous “inalienable rights.” In part as a result of these legal changes, middle-class African-Americans, who have always been quite close in language and religion to white Protestants, are now in many cultural and economic respects even closer. And just at this moment, many of them have been attracted to an Afrocentrism that demands the recognition in public life of the cultural distinctness of African-Americans.

I am not denying—who could?—that there are significant differences between the average experiences of blacks and whites in the United States. We all know of the concentration of the poorest blacks in inner cities with terrible schools and no jobs; the persistence of discrimination in housing, employment, and the legal system; the tendency of whites to flee neighborhoods whose black populations rise beyond a “tipping point.” Many poor urban blacks (like many poor rural whites) are doing badly in an economy that is supposed to be doing well. All this should go without saying. But the fact is that the black middle class is also larger and doing better than it ever has; and it is largely people from that class, not the poor, who have led the fight for the recognition of a distinctive African-American cultural heritage, at a moment when cultural differences are diminishing.

The contemporary appeal of cultural “roots” in a nation of immigrants is not hard to understand. When as a child you gathered around the table at Passover or Easter with three or four generations of your family, and the smell of the traditional herbs wafted out of the kitchen; when you answered the priest or the rebbe in the old tongue; when you read your Torah portion or took your first communion, you may also at the same time have felt irritation with your cousin, envy of your sister, love for your grandmother, pride in the respect of your parents. The lives of immigrants were often centered on the struggle against poverty. But their emotional satisfactions were substantial, and they were shared with the same small cast of characters; those who experienced them knew they were surrounded by others who ate and worshipped in other ways. Because of this, these family memories, which inevitably shape our senses of who we are, were tied not just to families but to the ethnic labels that differentiated “us” from “them.”

For many middle-class Americans, families have changed: grandparents have moved into retirement communities, cousins no longer live down the street, parents have separated. In sum, many of the social preconditions of that extended intergenerational family life have gone, and, for many Americans, the will to live that way has gone too. Given the connection between the old family life and the old cultural identities, it is not surprising that the loss of the former has produced a nostalgia for the latter.


So much needs to be said to prepare us to think about how we should respond to diversity, both through our educational system—which is the subject of Nathan Glazer’s book—and through our politics—which is the focus of Michael Walzer’s. For, as we shall see, distinguishing diversity of identity from cultural diversity clarifies the questions raised in these two important books.

Mr. Glazer begins with a straightforward account of how, in a few short years, teachers in public elementary, middle, and secondary schools have come to take for granted something called “multicultural education.” As he tells us, this development is essentially a product of the late 1980s;5 and given its novelty, we might expect him to offer a definition of the neologism “multicultural.” That word is now used, after all, to cover an extraordinary range of educational practices, from the anodyne insistence that American students should be taught something of the history of all the world’s continents to the kooky suggestion that they should learn that the Africans who built the pyramids did so by telekinesis. But because the word has become a term of ritual abuse for some conservatives and a banner for many on the left, there is not much hope of agreement on its core meaning. Instead, Mr. Glazer suggests helpfully that what multiculturalism’s enthusiasts share is an approach to education and to public culture that seeks to sustain hitherto derogated identities. Mr. Glazer rightly sees that the “primary demand of multiculturalism is respect, and this respect is to strengthen tolerance and good relations among the individuals in the various groups whose character and achievements are to be displayed….”

We Are All Multiculturalists Now explores in detail some of the disputes that have arisen as multiculturalism has spread. It offers an insider’s account of the debate over New York State’s attempts at curriculum reform in the early Nineties, a process in which Mr. Glazer was intimately involved. It includes a reasonable discussion of what the guiding principles of curriculum reform should be, and it reflects temperately on the debate about national history standards.

So, for example, he points out that “teach the truth” is not much help as a maxim in curricular disputes because it is the slogan of all sides.

Truth is a more difficult ground for the social studies today than it once was. In academic field after field, truths are constantly challenged…. Furthermore, no one really insists that truth is the only criterion for judgment on curriculum in the social studies. We have, after all, other key objectives: objectives related to citizenship, the creation of national unity, the discouragement of group antagonism.

So much should be uncontroversial; but it has been often enough ignored to be worth restating with all of Mr. Glazer’s accumulated authority.

Similarly, though I think Mr. Glazer underrates the significance of Nubia and Kush as sites of cultural innovation and creativity, he is surely correct to see the pride of place they now have in the National History Standards as a reflection, in part, of the political urge to get Africa “into the story.” But he is right, too, to point out that this is not the only explanation for the large amount of unfamiliar material in the World History Standards. For “historical specialists…understandably want students to know more about areas of the world they consider important and that have been neglected.” In insisting that there is not always some dark multicultural conspiracy at work, he maintains a balance that one has grown not to expect in our multi-culture wars.

There is, beneath the author’s apparent acquiescence in the rush toward multiculturalism, an underlying rue. Indeed, from time to time this rueful tone becomes the theme: “I hope my own sense of regret that we have had to come to this will not escape the reader,” he says in the first chapter. Mr. Glazer’s deep ambivalence flows from his conviction that the source of multiculturalism in education is the rejection of an assimilationist ideal; a renunciation that itself flows from America’s failure to accept its black citizens on equal terms. There has been a “fundamental refusal of other Americans to accept blacks, despite their eagerness, as suitable candidates for assimilation,” Glazer writes. “One result of this refusal has been to undermine assimilation as an ideal for all Americans.”

Glazer here admits that he was profoundly mistaken when he argued more than twenty years ago that, as a result of “the powerful antidiscrimination legislation of 1964 and 1965,” blacks, like other American minorities, would soon become more integrated residentially, and therefore educationally and, finally, socially, as the barriers to inclusion were lifted.6 Since this did not happen—Glazer revisits the extensive evidence on so-called de facto segregation in Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s American Apartheid—we might expect him to urge more active government-led attempts at drawing Americans together across the racial divide.7 But he is skeptical that government intervention can work here, because the “forces that will produce the changes we are looking for are individual and voluntaristic, rather than governmental and authoritative.” All that is left, if government intervention in housing and the economy is not going to work, is education: and, in education, multiculturalism is the only game in town.

Nathan Glazer’s account of multiculturalism’s roots is ingenious, but there are, as I’ve suggested, other sources of multiculturalism that have been equally difficult for many people to acknowledge. In particular, the fading of cultural difference creates a politics of nostalgia. The new talk of “identity” offers the promise of forms of recognition and of solidarity that could make up for the loss of the rich, old kitchen comforts of ethnicity.

Whether or not Mr. Glazer is right about the centrality of the connection between multiculturalism and the persistent black-white racial divide, I think that by accepting the conflation of culture and identity he concedes more to the multiculturalists than he needs to. He is thus obliged to say that because blacks are culturally distinct from other Americans, we can teach respect for them by a respectful teaching of “their” culture.

Yet surely we don’t have to teach black literature to show African-American students that we respect them or to teach non-black students a proper respect for their African-American peers.8 For that purpose The Tempest, imaginatively taught, can do just as well as, if not better than, The Color Purple (and a good deal better than The Color Purple taught in the wrong way). More than a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois learned Shakespeare in a Massachusetts school-room where black and white children sat together, and he drew the right conclusion: “I sit with Shakespeare,” the Bard of Great Barrington wrote, “and he winces not.”9 The “primary demand of multiculturalism”—to teach children mutual tolerance and respect—does not mean, as many contemporary advocates of multiculturalism assume, that the curriculum must be radically changed by the addition of a large number of new subjects.

Nevertheless, contemporary multiculturalists are right in thinking that a decent education will teach children about the various social identities around them. First, because each child has to negotiate the creation of his or her own individual identity, using these collective identities as one (but only one) of the resources; second, so that all can be prepared to deal with one another respectfully in a common civic life. Much of current multicultural education seems to me to have these reasonable aims: let us call this weak version “liberal multiculturalism.”

But there is another side of multiculturalism that wants to force children to live within separate spheres defined by the common culture of their race, religion, or ethnicity. We might as well call this more resolute position “illiberal multiculturalism.” Because both these projects—one of opening young people to the variety of social identities in the world, the other of closing them off into identities already ascribed to them—have been defended in the name of multiculturalism, we need to distinguish them. Once they are distinguished, we can claim the good one, and repudiate the bad one, and declare a victory for multiculturalism.

Michael Walzer’s approach to the management of social diversity, in his elegant little book On Toleration, uses terms that are much less familiar than those of Glazer’s book, simply because, unlike Glazer, he does not take much notice of “official” multiculturalism. “My subject is toleration—or, perhaps better, the peaceful coexistence of groups of people with different histories, cultures, and identities, which is what toleration makes possible,” he writes. But where Mr. Glazer (despite his talk of culture) is concerned with contemporary American identity politics, Mr. Walzer (despite this reference to identity) really is preoccupied with problems that arise from the coexistence of communities with distinct beliefs, values, or practices; problems, in short, of cultural diversity.

Mr. Walzer asks us to think about problems of coexistence comparatively, exploring how five different “regimes of toleration” have operated. His models range widely: there is the largely obsolete multinational empire, like the British Raj or the Ottoman Empire; the relative anarchy of international society; the consociational structure adopted with greatest success by the Swiss; and the nation-state, like France, where everybody but the dominant group is treated as a minority. But his final case is what he calls the immigrant society; it is, so to speak, the nation-state without the majority. And it is, of course, a model for our situation in the United States.

[T]he members of the different groups have left their territorial base, their homeland, behind them; they have come individually or in families, one by one, to a new land and then dispersed across it…. They cluster for comfort only in relatively small numbers, always intermixed with other, similar groups in cities, states, and regions. Hence no sort of territorial autonomy is possible.10

In the nation-state, such as France, the only publicly celebrated identity is that of the dominant culture: tolerance and full civil rights may be extended to minority groups but the national history is the history of the majority. In the immigrant society, by contrast, there is no group whose culture is the official culture, whose language has special pride of place. Even when the Irish controlled Boston’s City Hall, they didn’t try to force Irish history on the public schools or impose Catholicism on the Brahmins. The only nation that might have had a claim to be our official ancestor is England; and more English history has, indeed, been taught in the United States than that of any other nation. But it has been made explicit, at least throughout this century, that this is because the United States inherits British legal and political institutions, not because the majority of the population is “really” English. The reason we speak English here isn’t that our public culture is a celebration of the persistence of Englishness; indeed, part of the standard revolutionary narrative is that “we” kicked the English out.

Naturally, there must be some sort of official culture. Government has to go on in a small number of languages and is most easily conducted in one. For people to identify with the nation, they need some kind of public history, some national meanings, what Rousseau called a “civil religion.” If the diverse groups in the immigrant society are to get along, if there is to be the civil peace whose achievement is the purpose of toleration, it is, as Walzer says, “a legitimate form of… education to tell stories about the history of diversity and to celebrate its great occasions.”

Walzer’s discussion of these models is, like his remark about education and civil religion which I have just quoted, both sensible and humane. Consider, for example, what he has to say about the American liberal tradition, which constitutes the political core of our official culture.

Liberalism is also a substantive political culture that has its origins, at least, in Protestant and English history. The recognition that American schools in fact reflect this history, and can hardly be neutral with regard to it, has led some non-Protestant and non-English groups to call for a multicultural education—which presumably requires not the subtraction of the liberal story from the curriculum but the addition of other stories.

It is commonly and rightly said that the point of multiculturalism is to teach children about each other’s culture, to bring the pluralism of the immigrant society into its classrooms…. Multiculturalism aims to recognize [children] as the hyphenated Americans they are and to lead them to understand and admire their own diversity. There is no reason to think that this understanding or admiration stands in any tension with the requirements of liberal citizenship….

This is the liberal multiculturalism I identified earlier; and Walzer goes on immediately to identify what I called illiberal multiculturalism, which sets out to force on each child its “proper” identity.

About this illiberal education, which aims to capture a child for a particular identity, Walzer’s position is more permissive than Mr. Glazer’s or my own. He argues that the success of the Catholic parochial schools suggests we can allow some children an education that propagates a particular religious identity so long as most are in classrooms whose ethos is more consistent with the official impartiality among identities of the immigrant society. He even entertains (extremely skeptically) the possibility that we might be able to sustain our liberal society if all children got “their ‘own’ version” of a Catholic parochial (or Afrocentric) education, so long as life outside the school—“the everyday experience of mass communication, work, and political activity”—provided the necessary basis of mutual knowledge and respect.

Mr. Walzer’s concern with cultural difference as a source of conflict leads him to explore divisions over religion, over language, over “family arrangements, gender roles, and sexual behavior.” In such cases the way conflict arises is clear enough: differences over what God wills, over whose language will be spoken in government offices, over whether girls should be subjected to genital mutilation, are of enough practical or symbolic significance that it is natural that those who disagree about them should contend with one another. But in the case of some of the most dreadful intergroup conflicts of recent times—in Bosnia, for example, or in Rwanda and Burundi—there is reason to doubt it was cultural differences that led to the slaughter. To an outsider, few groups in the world looked as culturally homogeneous as the various peoples—Serb, Croat, Muslim—of Bosnia. (The resurgence of Islam in Bosnia is a result of the conflict, not a cause of it.) Hutus and Tutsis speak the same language, have long lived side by side, and (racial ideology notwithstanding) it is often extremely hard, even for Hutus and Tutsis, to tell them apart. Different identities can appear to require at least as much toleration as different cultures.

Indeed, much of the home-grown social friction that preoccupies our press and television is generated among educated middle-class people in colleges and in the professional workplace, people who are, as I have suggested, by all objective standards culturally quite similar. I am thinking of the sort of edginess which shows up in college classrooms when the white kid from Shaker Heights says blandly, “I don’t know why we can’t just all be human,” and the colored kid from Andover snaps back, “That just means you want us all to be white.” It is an edginess that attends our most engaged identities: in relations between men and women. It is the same edginess that recurs in the workplaces of the professional classes, described in such books as Ellis Cose’s The Rage of a Privileged Class and Jill Nelson’s Volunteer Slavery.11

This edginess is surely a sign of our struggle to live up to the dream of the immigrant society, which is that people of many kinds should share the public sphere on equal terms. We are naturally impatient for harmony, but we should recall that this process has only recently begun. Even for Jews, Mr. Glazer’s model assimilated ethnic group, equal participation in the life of elite universities was largely a development of the early Sixties. Only since the late Sixties have we tried seriously to make both the workplace and the university equally hospitable to non-white and to white people. Real attempts at gender equality in the public sphere began at about the same time, and claims of equal respect for different sexual preferences are, in many places, still highly contested. Before all this, we have to remember that—in the lifetimes of most American adults—blacks were largely invisible and unwelcome in the Ivy League; women were rare and patronized in the professions; and the homosexual was everywhere a figure of ridicule or contempt.

The university—the spawning ground for so much of our rhetoric about diversity—has always been an intimidating place. When most young Americans go to college they leave home for the first time, nervously testing their minds and their educations against people who have done as well as they did at high school; deciding what they are going to “do with their lives”; beginning to deal with adult sexual relationships. When universities were more officially homogeneous, some of the inevitable anxieties could be met by conforming to the norm. It was easier to share the Ivy League with people who thought the ideal American was a white guy in a tweed jacket with a wife and kids at home; especially if you were a white guy in a tweed jacket looking for a wife. When women and blacks arrived and, a little later, when gays “came out,” new terms had to be negotiated.

Well-intentioned attempts to make the university a place that everyone can feel they belong has led to a tendency, in students and their teachers, to ascribe too many of the inevitable anxieties of college to problems of race and gender and sexuality. I suspect this is true of the tensions of the professional world as well.

But if we explore these moments of tension we discover an interesting paradox. The growing salience of race and gender as social irritants, which may seem to reflect the call of collective identities, is a reflection, as much as anything else, of the individual’s concern for dignity and respect. As our society slouches on toward a fuller realization of its ideal of social equality, everyone wants to be taken seriously—to be respected, not “dissed.” Because on many occasions disrespect still flows from racism, sexism, and homophobia, we respond, in the name of all black people, all women, all gays, as the case may be, taking the high road of Kantian principle. But the truth is that what mostly irritates us in these moments is that we, as individuals, feel diminished.

And the trouble with appeal to cultural difference is that it obscures rather than illuminates this situation. It is not black culture that the racist disdains, but blacks. There is no conflict of visions between black and white cultures that is the source of racial discord. No amount of knowledge of the architectural achievements of Nubia or Kush guarantees respect for African-Americans. No African-American is entitled to greater concern because he is descended from a people who created jazz or produced Toni Morrison. Culture is not the problem, and it is not the solution.

So maybe we should conduct our discussions of education and citizenship, toleration and social peace, without the talk of cultures. Long ago, in the mists of prehistory, our ancestors learned it is sometimes good to let a field lie fallow.

This Issue

October 9, 1997