In the name of eliminating discrimination, we continue to pursue policies that define people by color. In schools and universities, at work, at the polling place, even in the courts, race is an important, sometimes deciding, factor in admitting students or devising curricula, hiring or promoting employees, determining political representation, and selecting a jury. It is now not only a few white supremacists who promote such policies but mainstream civil rights advocates as well.
The gravamen of the complaint against quotas or other forms of racial or ethnic preferences is that they force both benefactors and beneficiaries to elevate race and ethnicity in importance, which is fundamentally incompatible with reducing racism. It is not possible to argue that race or ethnicity alone entitle individuals to special consideration without also accepting that such characteristics are intrinsically significant. Of course, those who promote preferential affirmative action programs argue that race and ethnicity are important because they are the basis on which individuals have been, and continue to be, discriminated against. Setting employment or college admission quotas, by this reasoning, is simply a way of compensating for the discrimination that blacks, Hispanics, and some other minority groups face on the basis of their skin color.
But most programs that confer special benefits to racial and ethnic minorities make no effort at all to determine whether the individuals who will receive these benefits have ever been victims of discrimination. Indeed, the government regulations that govern federal contractors state explicitly: “Individuals who certify that they are members of named groups (Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Pacific Americans, Subcontinental Asian Americans) are to be considered socially and economically disadvantaged.”
Such programs are not compensatory but presumptive; they assume that race equals disadvantage. While there are many blacks, Hispanics, and Asians who have been discriminated against on the basis of their race or ethnicity, there are many others who have not; and there are still others for whom the discrimination was either trivial, or even if more serious, had no lasting consequences. Recently, at Indiana University following a debate in which I opposed affirmative action, a group of black and Hispanic students approached me to complain that I was not sensitive enough to the current discrimination they said they faced daily on campus. I asked them to give me some examples. Only two spoke. The first, a young black woman told me that her father was a surgeon who makes over $300,000 a year, but that her economic status doesn’t protect her from the prejudice of her teachers. When I asked her to describe how that prejudice manifested itself, she said none of her professors would give above a “B” to any minority student. I pushed her a little further, asking whether that meant that a student who scored a 98% percent on an exam would be given a “B” rather than a deserved “A” — at that point she dropped the issue with a dismissive, “You just don’t understand.”
A second student, a Mexican American woman, said that she has to deal with discrimination every day, for example when her Spanish teacher expects her to do better than the other students because she is presumed to know Spanish. Actually, I was quite sympathetic with her frustration, since I am aware that most third generation Hispanics speak only English — like third generation Italians, Jews, Germans, and other ethnic groups in the U.S. But, although being presumed to speak your ancestral language may be annoying, it hardly constitutes pernicious discrimination.
In fact, what ethnic or religious minority has not suffered its share of slights and prejudices? Certainly both Jews and Asians have faced significant levels of bigotry at certain points in their history in the United States. Jews were often the victims of private discriminatory actions, and Asians were historically the target of both private and state-sponsored exclusion and bias. The Chinese, for example, were not allowed to become citizens, or own property or enter certain professions, or even to immigrate at all for certain periods of time. Japanese Americans barely fifty years ago had their property confiscated and were forcibly removed from their homes and interned in camps in the west. Nonetheless, despite persistent discrimination, these groups, on average, have excelled in this society, and it is difficult to argue that they are entitled to compensatory, preferential affirmative action on the basis of any current disadvantage.
It is true that blacks and, to a lesser degree, Hispanics are far more likely to face present disadvantage, some of it (though a declining share) the result of past discrimination. But, again, many affirmative action programs make little effort to distinguish among potential beneficiaries on the basis of actual disadvantage, preferring instead to rely on race or ethnicity per se in awarding benefits. Some of the most prestigious affirmative action slots — such as those at Ivy League universities, Fortune 500 corporations, or Wall Street law firms — go to middle and upper class blacks and Hispanics, who suffer no clear disadvantage compared with their white counterparts. For example, a recent study at the University of California, Berkeley, found that, on average, black, Hispanic and Asian students admitted through affirmative action guidelines come from families whose median income is actually higher than the national average. Indeed in 1989, one-third of Asian students, 14 percent of blacks, and 17 percent of Hispanics came from families whose annual income was more than $75,000. Affirmative action recipients are frequently the graduates of elite prep schools, universities and professional schools. Increasingly, advocates of this select type of affirmative action eschew traditional arguments about discrimination or disadvantage, opting to emphasize the presumed benefits of racial and ethnic diversity.
But what does this diversity imply? The current scientific consensus suggests that race or ethnicity is nothing more than a description of broad morphology of skin, hair, and eye color; bone structure; and hair type — hardly the basis for making moral claims or distinctions. If race and ethnicity, stripped of their power to demand retribution, represent nothing more than a common ancestry and similar physical attributes, culture, on the other hand, evinces something more controversial and enduring. Not surprisingly, practitioners of the politics of race have seized on culture as their new weapon. Americans — of all races — have grown tired of affirmative action. Many of those who still support racial preferences, like Yale law professor Stephen Carter, admit that those preferences have been a mixed blessing for the beneficiaries, conferring tangible benefits but often undermining self-confidence. The politics of race requires a new rationale and a new vocabulary. Multiculturalism supplies both.
As I’ve said, race-conscious policies now permeate not only employment and education but also the courts and even the democratic process itself. Race or ethnicity often determine political representation and establish voting procedures. In addition, the list of groups eligible to benefit continues to grow and now embraces even the most recent immigrants to America, who, by definition, have suffered no past discrimination. As the policies and the beneficiaries expand, so has their rationale.
The compensatory model has given way to one based on culture, which alleviates the necessity of proving past discrimination or present disadvantage. The demand to redress past or present wrongs evolves into the imperative to enhance and preserve culture. America becomes not simply a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society made of individuals of different backgrounds — some of whom have suffered discrimination because of their color — but a multicultural nation. The distinction is an important one, especially in the American context. It implies that Americans differ not only in skin color and origin but in values, mores, customs, temperament, language — all those attributes that endow culture with meaning. Indeed, multiculturalism questions the very concept of an American people. Multiculturalism replaces affirmative action as the linchpin in the politics of race — with a much more profound power to shape how all Americans, not just racial and ethnic minorities, think of themselves and conceive the polity.
Multiculturalists insist on treating race or ethnicity as if they were synonymous with culture. They presume that skin color or national origin, which are immutable traits, determine values, mores, language, and other cultural attributes, which, of course, are learned. In the multiculturalists’ world view, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, or Chinese Americans living in New York City, for example, share more in common with persons of their ancestral group living in Lagos or San Juan or Hong Kong than they do with other New Yorkers who are white. Culture becomes a fixed entity, transmitted, as it were, in the genes, rather than through experience.
Such convictions lead multiculturalists to conclude that, in the words of Molefi Kete Asante a guru of the multicultural movement, “[t]here is no common American culture.” The logic is simple, if wrong-headed. Since Americans (or more often, their forebearers) hail from many different places, each of which has its own specific culture, America must be multicultural. And, they claim, it is becoming more so every day as new immigrants bring their cultures with them when they come to the U.S. Indeed, multiculturalists hope to ride the immigrant wave to greater power and influence. They have certainly done so in education. The influx of non-English speaking children into public schools has given added impetus to the multicultural movement. Some 2.3 million children who cannot speak English well now attend public school, an increase of one million in the last seven years. The Los Angeles Unified School District alone currently offers instruction to 160,000 students in Spanish, Armenian, Korean, Cantonese, Tagalog, Russian, and Japanese. In New York City, for example, students come from 167 different countries, speaking 120 separate languages. The cost for such programs are astronomical: more than $300 million a year for 126,000 students in New York. Multicultural advocates cite the presence of such children to demand bilingual education and other multicultural services. Federal and state governments now spend literally billions of dollars on these programs, although an exact estimate of total spending is difficult to obtain since it is allocated across several programs and layers of government.
The multiculturalists’ emphasis on education, however, undercuts their own argument that culture is inextricable from race or national origin. The multiculturalists are acutely aware of just how fragile cultural identification is. If they were not they would be less adamant about preserving and reinforcing it. The current emphasis on Afrocentric curricula for black elementary and secondary students, for example, would be unnecessary if race itself conferred cu ture. Nor would multiculturalists insist on teaching immigrant children in their native language, instructing them in the history and customs of their native land, and imbuing them with reverence for their ancestral heroes, if ethnicity and national origin alone were antidotes to the appeal of American culture. Multiculturalists haven’t lost faith in the power of assimilation. If anything, they seem to believe that without a heavy dose of multicultural indoctrination, immigrants won’t be able to resist assimilation. And they’re right, though it remains to be seen whether anything, including the multiculturalists’ crude methods, will ultimately detour immigrants from the assimilation path.
The urge to assimilate has traditionally been overpowering in the United States, especially among the children of immigrants. Only groups that maintain strict rules against intermarriage and other social contact with persons outside the group, such as orthodox Jews and the Amish, have ever succeeded in preserving distinct, full blown cultures within American society after one or two generations living here. It is interesting to note that religion seems to be a more effective deterrent to full assimilation than the secular elements of culture, including language. Although many Americans worry that Hispanic immigrants, for example, are not learning English and will therefore fail to assimilate into the American mainstream, there is little evidence that this is the case. As already noted, a majority of Hispanics speak only English by the third generation in the United States, and are closer to other Americans on most measures of social and economic status than they are to Hispanic immigrants. On one of the most rigorous gauges of assimilation — intermarriage — Hispanics rank high. About one-third of young, third-generation Hispanics marry non-Hispanic whites, a pattern similar to that of young Asians. Even for blacks, exogamy rates, which have been quite low historically, are going up. About 3 percent of blacks now marry outside their group; but the rate in the western states is much higher, 17 percent among black males marrying for the first time.
The impetus for multiculturalism is not coming from immigrants — even among groups such as Hispanics and Asians — but from their more affluent and (ironically) assimilated native-born counterparts in their ethnic communities. The proponents are most often the elite, best educated, and most successful members of their respective racial and ethnic groups. Not surprisingly, college campuses are fertile recruiting grounds, where the most radical displays of multiculturalism take place. In May 1993, for example, a group of Mexican American students at UCLA, frustrated that the university would not elevate the school’s twenty-three-year-old Chicano studies program to full department status, stormed the campus faculty center, breaking windows and furniture and causing one half million dollars in damage. During the same month, a group of Asian American students at UC Irvine went on a hunger-strike to pressure administrators into hiring more professors to teach Asian American studies courses there. These were not immigrants, or even, by and large disadvantaged students, but middle class beneficiaries of their parents’ or grandparents’ successful assimilation to the American mainstream.
The protesters had almost nothing to do with any effort to maintain their ethnic identity. For the most part, such students probably never thought of themselves as anything but American before they entered college. According to the Berkeley study cited earlier, most Hispanic and Asian students “discovered” their ethnic identity after they arrived on campus. Speaking of Asian students, the researchers reported: “After being around (the University of California) for one or two years, students who were integrated into predominantly white worlds of friendship and association in high school report a shift towards having predominantly Asian American friends, roommates, or affiliations with an Asian American organization.” The same was true for other groups as well, including blacks. “On arrival on the Berkeley campus, these students are surprised to discover themselves no longer the ‘token black person.’ These students experience a new kind of pressure: it comes from other African American students on campus, and it is experienced as pressure to make decisions about friends, networks, even who [sic] you sit with at lunch, on the basis of race.”
For the first time, many of these students also learn to define themselves as victims as well. As one Mexican American freshman summed it up, she was “unaware of the things that have been going on with our people, all the injustices we’ve suffered, how the world really is. I thought racism didn’t exist here, you know, it just comes to light.” The researchers went on to note that all “students of color” had difficulty pinpointing exactly what constituted this “subtle form of the new racism.” Instead of empirical evidence, the researchers said. “There was much talk of certain facial expressions, or the way people look, and how white students ‘take over the class’ and speak past you.” But if terms like racism and discrimination can be applied to such innocuous behavior, what words do you use to describe the real thing? As George Orwell said in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” By misusing words like racism, we undermine the very legitimacy of the concept.
The re-racialization of American society that is taking place in the name of multiculturalism is not a progressive movement — but a step backward to the America that existed before Brown V. Board of Education and the passage of the major civil rights laws of the 1960s. We are at a critical juncture in our history. Even if we are not, as the multiculturalists claim. about to become a majority minority nation; nonetheless, racial and ethnic diversity in our population is increasing. If we allow race and ethnicity to determine public policy, we invite the kind of cleavages that will pit one group against another in ways that cannot be good for the groups themselves or the society in which we all must live. The more diverse we become, the more crucial it is that we commit ourselves to a shared, civic culture. The distinguishing characteristic of American culture has always been its ability to incorporate so many disparate elements into a new whole. While Dr. Russell Kirk was indisputably right that America owes much of its culture to Great Britain — our legal tradition, particularly the concept of the rule of law; our belief in representative government; certainly our language and literature — American assimilation has always entailed some give and take. And American culture itself has been enriched by what individual groups brought to it.
But it is more important that all of us — no matter where we come from or what circumstances brought us or our ancestors here — think of ourselves as Americans if we are to retain the sense that we are one people, not simply a conglomeration of different and competing groups. It is nonsense to think we can do so without being clear about our purposes.
We can do this by acknowledging that it is more important for immigrant children to learn English than to maintain their native language, although the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We should make sure that American students have a firm grasp of the history of this nation, the people who helped build it, and the institutions and principles on which it was founded. We should be careful not to repeat past errors, when American history courses excluded convenient facts. But neither should history become simply an exercise in building the self-esteem of those who were previously left out. Finally, we need to get beyond the point where race or ethnicity are the most important factors in the way we identify ourselves or form our allegiances. The principles and values that unite us remain far more important than our differences in ancestry, a lesson which bears repeating in our schools and universities.
If we fail to repeat these lessons — loudly and often — we should not be surprised at the consequences. Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, Russell Kirk noted: “‘Culture, with us, ends in headache.'” But he went on to warn: “Should the multiculturalists have their way, culture. . . would end in heartache — and anarchy.” Kirk was optimistic that “Love of an inherited culture has the power to cast out the envy and hatred of that culture’s adversaries.” We can only hope he proves to be as prophetic in that assertion as he was in so many others.