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Multiculturalism lite and right

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | September 2, 2010

The city in which I live is probably the national capital of multiculturalism. Its logo (shown here) displays four races in profile. (For sources of the logo, see this and that.)  An October holiday is officially listed as “Indigenous People’s Day” (aka Columbus Day). The University of California, Berkeley, where I teach, is probably the multiculturalism leader among the nation’s major research universities. For example, to graduate, a student must have taken an “American Cultures” course, one which presents the diversity of America and which explicitly reviews the experiences of three particular groups. (When I taught an American Cultures version of urban sociology, I included two-week modules on African-, Jewish-, and Mexican-Americans.) In class discussion, students display considerable sensitivity about and respect for multiculturalist ideas.

In the end, the commitment to multiculturalism here – and, I think, in most settings around the nation – is important, sincere, and commendable. But it is not that real nor very deep. It is multiculturalism lite, which is just about right.

Limits of a strong multiculturalism (I)

immigrants land in NY, 1880

Immigrants land in New York, 1880 (Harper's)

Definitions of “multiculturalism” range from describing to respecting to preserving the varied cultural heritages in a society. The U.C. Berkeley courses “focus upon how the diversity of America’s constituent cultural traditions have shaped and continue to shape American identity and experience.” But a strong version of this multiculturalism claim – that Americans’ ethnic heritages fundamentally shape their values and behavior – is wrong.

Berkeley students these days and, I suspect, college students most places typically emphasize differences among people by race and ancestry. Although the experiential differences among groups are real – there is no doubt, for example, that discrimination shapes the lives of minorities in America – their relative importance can be exaggerated. An elderly black and an elderly white grandmother have more in common with one another in experiences, concerns, and needs than either has with a twenty-something of the same race. Students, who often obsess about group differences in, say, clothes or music tastes, seem sometimes oblivious to the obvious.

More deeply, the elevation and romanticization of ancestral cultures that is part of a strong multiculturalism simply ignore the extent to which peoples from all over the globe have become thoroughly Americanized. This was true when the newcomers were “swarthy” Irishmen, Jews, Italians, and the like; and it is true today. (See, for example, this earlier post.)

I sometimes look out at a classroom full of incredible diversity – young people who are often but a generation or so removed from China, India, Thailand, Ghana, Russia, Mexico, and so on. Many proudly assert those heritages and the principle of preserving them. And then I ask them questions such as: Which of you believe that our society should be ruled by “one person, one vote”? That people should be able to speak their minds freely? That everyone should be treated equally by the law? That – and this one especially hits home – each person should be free to choose his or her spouse based on love for the other person (rather than being matched by parents)? Essentially everyone agrees with these propositions.

cartoon: "None but citizens... can be employed"

"None but citizens... can be employed"

I go on to point out that in the ancestral cultures from which almost all of them come these principles are absent. Indeed, they would be considered ridiculous in those cultures – and, by the way, in many of the cultures from which 19th-century immigrants came. The idea that the viewpoint of a peasant should count as much as that of a gentlemen, or that women could speak for themselves, or that hormone-driven young people should choose whom they will live with for life and who will enter their larger kin group – from an historical point of view, these are decidedly weird notions.

Yet, almost all the foreign-stock students accept these fundamental American values (and accept, of course, the more superficial aspects of American culture as well, such as clothing, music, language, and so on).

A further irony of the ethnic identity movement is that the very way multiculturalism activists proceed is rooted in American culture, not their homeland cultures. They use voluntary associations, often insistently running them in a democratic fashion, engage in political lobbying, hold “loud and proud” demonstrations, rely on individuals volunteering, and so on. This kind of ethnic mobilization is of course, totally foreign to most of the ancestral cultures; they are Anglo-American customs.

Limits of a strong multiculturalism (II)

Another strong version of multiculturalism is the proclamation of cultural relativism: All cultures are equally good and none should be favored, including modern American culture.

Few multiculturalists are serious about this principle, except in its most intellectual, classroom-debate form. They do not really abstain from judgment when it comes to, for example, treating women as chattel, forcing them stay in homes, binding their feet, killing them if they dishonor the clan, and so on – even if those practices are parts of traditional cultures. And they are not really neutral about higher caste people or feudal lords exploiting poor workers, nor about fathers selling their children as servants, slaves, or sex objects, nor about nomadic tribes making their livelihoods by pillaging agricultural villages – even if these practices have characterized these societies since “time immemorial.”

No, even multiculturalists abhor these practices because they violate a set of cultural principles that emerged over the last couple of centuries in one corner of the world, western Europe and its colonial offshoots, and are now enshrined in international organizations and official constitutions all over the world. The spread of equality and human rights values is a clear instance of cultural imperialism, one which even staunch opponents of western “hegemony” – especially them – embrace.

Multiculturalism right

Despite the romantic and polemical excesses of strong multiculturalism, most of the multicultural efforts at Berkeley and elsewhere are worthwhile; they are multiculturalism lite.

They educate students about the long history of American cultural diversity, about the particular experiences of heritage groups other than their own (or of just the English), and in the end promote that American value of mutual respect.

An anecdote: I once had a student in my “American Cultures” class who came to office hours after our module on Jewish-Americans. He was a recent transfer student from a junior college in East Los Angeles, an overwhelmingly Mexican-American area. He told me that he had really learned something new from that material, because before he had mistakenly thought that “Jews were white.”

What he meant, of course, was that he had considered them to be among the advantaged groups in society, in contrast to “people of color.” He had now learned that Jews in America had also encountered decades of opprobrium and discrimination. It is a small lesson, but one that expanded mutual awareness and respect – multiculturalism lite and right.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Multiculturalism lite and right

  1. I don’t think that we will be one big country that soon, however in 100 years it might be well possible

    — Jessica

  2. Multiculturalism is not, as the above author seems to imply, something that could have only emerged in America, espoused by people ignorant of the fact that the only reason they can talk of these things is due to American values. In fact, throughout history there are many periods during which cultural exchange among different ethnic groups and nationalities did not only occur, but was consciously encouraged by wise and forward-thinking leaders. For instance, Mongol emperors encouraged and promoted religious tolerance among Muslims, Christians Buddhists and others, even enacting a monument to memorialize this ideal of coexistence. Most tellingly, while they certainly had the military and political strength to do so, they did NOT impose their own religion or even their own language on the diverse peoples across their vast lands. Of course, they were not democratic, but this only shows that values of tolerance and respect are not exclusive to one place and one time, namely American culture.

    Mr. Fischer says that the great irony is that many of these movements are based on American democratic principles, yet, as mentioned earlier, that very American habit — the meeting tradition, involving informal, ad hoc group discussions, horizontal decision-making, a climate where anyone can speak their mind — was not a feature of European governance, but a Native American convention, the committee. Again, I cannot overemphasize my point that to ignore the contributions of nonwhites reflects the greatest intolerance and casts doubt on whether those who vocalized these values and those who came afterward, really were responsible for them in first place.

    • Thegreatnorthwest–

      This is exactly how I felt when I read this piece. I felt that it was very Eurocentric. Ideas such as the dictomy between “civilized, logically based civilizations” versus “emotional, uncivilized” was thought to be a European colonial idea, but actually this idea can be traced back to the Eqyptians. There are probably many ideas that can be traced to a variety of origins. For instance the idea of monothesism can be traced back to Zorastrianism in Iran. Many of the ideals of “Western Civilization” that you speak of can be said to trace back to ancient Iran and Eqypt. There are rarely new ideas. It’s obvious that most major civilizations just take ideas from the past civilizations and repackage them.

      The second disagreement is that there is a substancial difference between Northern versus Southern European culture and intellectual traditions. European Americans, often, pull ideas from the ancient Greeks and Romans saying that this is the intellectual trajectory of Europe. However, this was never the belief systems of the Romans or Greeks. From the level of cultural interaction, it suggests that the Greeks and Romans were looking to the South and to the East far more than to the North. Also, the Greeks spent a great deal of time interacting and co-opting ideas from Egypt. It seems like Northern Europe has co-opted this intellectual tradition because it fits within their racial paradigm and gives legitmacy to their current hegemony, but that does not suggest that there is a great deal of truth in it. This whole race/European paradigm is a modern conception and one that disfigures our ourstanding of history and how the ancients saw the world.

      There are so many non-European leaders who have preached religious and ethnic tolerance. This is definitely not a new idea, nor is it only based in the Western traditon. In fact, it seems that Northern Europe can to these ideas quite late.

      Every society, including Europe, has some horrible traditions such as for instance in Europe their torture practices which arguably were the worst in the world. Modernization helps to change these practices because they change the average education and the functionings of the polity. This is demonstrated in Europe, since many of these torture practices have at least partially gone away. (partially, i.e. rendition, treatment of foreign suspects)

      Every society has positive and negative aspects and this is what makes them human societies. Just like the cultural practice of female gentile mutilation is wrong in our modern conception, so is the racialized profiling practices in America and horribly unfair treatment of African American men in the prison system. The fact that every society has good and bad. This is what makes us all these societies — human and equal. Every society demostrates both the best and worst of people.

  3. Mr. Fischer cites that ‘American value of mutual respect’, but were it not for ethnic-based movements throughout history, nonwhites would still be on the bottom. Yes, Anglo-Americans may have espoused the principle of equality, but even a quick read of history shows that they resisted granting equal rights, in practice, to blacks, Native Americans, Jews, and so on. So much for the value of ‘mutual respect’. In fact, without flowery language, rhetoric, charters, or legal framework, many (but not all) Native American peoples showed true respect for the first immigrants to America, the English settlers–but the respect was not mutual. My point is not to put down Anglo-Americans, or ignore many of the values and practices that they are responsible for, but to emphasize that many values–such as ‘mutual respect’, whether between individuals or groups–are not exclusively American, as Mr. Fischer wishes to believe. Indeed, it reflects a deep DIS-respect of non-Anglo-Americans to take sole claim of these values and ignore the long history of these complex ideas–specifically, the fact that they are not entirely, and in some cases not even mostly, Anglo-American ones. Like the American version of democracy, so different from the rest of the West when it emerged that Tocqueville had the mind to take note. One important innovation was the meeting tradition, what we now call ‘town halls’, characterized by horizontal decision-making where anyone, whoever they are, has the right to speak up. This actually comes from settlers’ observation of Native American practices–where do you think the word ‘committee’ comes from? These informal, ad hoc, open-ended sessions were like nothing in Europe at the time, nor did they characterize most of the original settlements. They were closer to the way the Amerindians did things, and Anglo settlers quickly took notice. In fact, many of our founding Fathers, like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, often cited Native American examples when arguing the need for settlers to govern themselves democratically.
    And this is just one of the many examples of why Multiculturalism is important. It helps explain why Americans are who they are, what shaped our values. Mr. Fischer seems to want to say that Anglo-Americans set up a value system, and then everyone else from the world benefits from it. Values like democracy. So, understanding cultures and how they shape each other is the real multiculturalism, one that shows true respect by at least considering the possibility that, say, Native Americans might have contributed something useful to America–rather than simply assuming that cultural progress is a one-way street. Nothing could be more close-minded, nothing could be less respectful, nothing could be less American– than to simply ignore the ways in which American values and traditions have been shaped, sometimes deeply and sometimes less so, by many cultures and peoples. Indeed, we would not need ‘multicultural’ studies were it not for years of ignoring the intellectual and cultural contributions of blacks and Native Americans and others, by academics and leaders who were anything but open-minded, tolerant, or respectful. In a country that espoused equality but enslaved blacks, enacted the Chinese Exclusion act, and spent the 19th century fighting the Indians and corralled them into reservations…where DID the value of mutual respect
    really come from? The last example, about Indians, is particularly ironic, since many Native American peoples governed themselves in ways that are strikingly modern and democratic, yet making war on them, denying them the right to stand on their own two feet on their own land, let alone vote, was actually the opposite of democracy. And if we now criticize Native Americans for wanting to declare their history, sometimes loudly (because they don’t have any other platform)–this is somehow wrong, should be labeled ‘strong multiculturalism’?

  4. This post isn’t all that insightful. People like Nathan Glazer to Arthur Schlesinger have all weighed in on how strong mutliculturalism is wrong and dangerous, and that broad narrative of America has been that of Anglo-conformity and the triumph of Western hegemony. Fischer shows how brave he is to the mighty political correct police by claiming that human rights is a product of cultural imperialism. It would be all too easy to blow huge holes into these convictions–but to do so would be taking us all so back into the cultural wars of the 1980s and I just don’t think people who seriously thing about the role of race and ethnicity in American society want to relive and refight these issues. If one wants a fresh and more nuanced and complicated take on these issues, one should look to Obama’s speech on race during his campaign. By the way, Fischer gave the wrong advice to the Mexican American student. Jews are whites in the U.S.–they could naturalize into American citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1790 that declared only whites could become citizens, unlike Mexicans they did not have to go to separate schools that provided inferior education (ever heard of the Mendez Decision?), and Jews were never subject to mass deportation like the Mexicans. Perhaps such a teachable moment would have helped the Mexican American student from East LA why Jews in Boyle Heights could move to West LA and the San Fernando Valley while Chicanos are still largely concentrated in East and South LA. It seems that “strong” version of ethnicity does in fact exist, and it seems odd that such an esteemed sociologist would miss it.

  5. Multiculturalism is the latest fad these days. Now harldy any city in the world has uni-cultural population. ALso, the world will be one country soon.

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