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"The Debate on Multiculturalism,"

by john a. powell July 1992 issue of Poverty & Race

Today's headlines indicate that the United States is facing a race relations crisis of a magnitude not seen in a generation. One issue around which passions are surging is multi-culturalism. Minorities are demanding that our schools provide young people with a more accurate and inclusive picture of American and world history.

Arguing that our society's diversity is a positive source of individual and institutional enrichment, multi-culturalism's advocates call for an end to overemphasis on the European influences in American culture to the neglect of the contributions made by minorities. Among other changes l around the country, this demand has red to textbook revisions, new curriculum guidelines for the public schools in New York State and the creation of a "cultures, ideas and values" track for undergraduates at Stanford University.

Those who take exception to this demand complain that such changes threaten the dominance of "Western Civilization" in the content of American education. The opponents of multiculturalism see any deviation from the educational "norms" set by white Americans as a threat to our society's purported "European" heritage and identity. They also claim that the concept does not accommodate any standards.

False Assumptions

The false assumptions underlying such criticisms of the multicultural approach are precisely what educators who support it want to see corrected: the assumption that American culture is basically European, and that greater ethnic and racial inclusiveness automatically means "no standards."

First of all, from the beginning, the culture of the United States has been a mixture of ingredients from different cultures. Indeed, most cultures throughout the world are amalgamations of ingredients from several cultures. At this juncture in our history, it should be clear that diversity itself is the essence of American culture. It has been predicted that by the year 2056, no one racial group of Americans will be in the majority. Contributions from different racial and ethnic backgrounds have intersected at various points, over several hundred years, to form an indivisible cultural entity that is uniquely American. Moreover, our culture is always evolving and changing.

Second, multiculturalilisms know full well that standards are important. They merely contend that standards reflecting a European perspective are not universal; they are not the only standards. It would be absurd to presume that the Japanese or Tanzanians don't have standards just because their standards are not the same as those of Europeans. Of course, one way to justify the exclusive application of one set of standards would be to say: I am the most powerful; therefore, I set the standards. But that stance obviously lacks legitimacy.

Multiculturalism's opponents are not the only ones who've staked out some wrongheaded positions. Some of its supporters have, too. For example, their belief that each racial or ethnic group should concentrate on its own history and culture, without learning much about other groups, or about the historical interaction between different groups and cultures, is counterproductive. Among other things, that approach could contribute to perpetuating the racial and ethnic hostilities that fragment society. Young people must learn about, and learn to appreciate, humanity as a whole.

Assimilation or Cultural Integrity?

Inevitably, when we talk about our cultural diversity, the question rises whether we Americans can or should melt -- the word most often used is assimilate --into one homogeneous mass. Whatever the answer is to that question, it has to be said that some white Americans who press the case for assimilation do so out of fear of, and prejudice toward, people whose backgrounds are non-European. One result of such fear and prejudice is passage of English-only laws.

The 1960s civil rights movement, in its drive for integration, indirectly addressed the assimilation question and answered it in a particular way. Many integrationists believed that ending segregation and the oppression of Blacks would trigger an assimilation process that would eventually smooth out the differences between people. Others argued that the cost of such a process was too high: People of color were expected to abandon the distinctive features of their identities and assimilate into the "white" or "European" norm, while white Americans would not have to assimilate into anything.

In the context of the present, such theoretical considerations are irrelevant. Today, instead of being mostly integrated, our society is more racially polarized and segregated than it was 20 years ago. And we know now that the "neutral and "universal" values our society purportedly inherited from Europe, which we were all supposed to accept without question, were really part of a cultural game plan for keeping some people up and others down. In short, the "neutral values" claim was often a nose used to disguise racism and domination.

Is Multiculturalism Enough?

Does multiculturalism promise an end to racism in education? No. Educators warn that, while revamping curricula along multicultural lines can go a long way toward correcting the false assumptions that have afflicted our educational system, multiculturalism is not by itself an adequate response to racism. In addition to learning about American culture, our young people must also study the history of American race relations. American society cannot be understood without a sense of the role of race and racism.

The issues in the current debate on multiculturalism are complicated, but one thing is clear: To prepare our children for the future, we must educate them about the true nature of American culture and society, celebrate our many-splendored American heritage and work harder -- together --to defeat racism.

john a. powell is Secretary of PRRAC's Board, is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School, where he directs the Institute on Race & Poverty (415 Law Ctr., 229 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55455. 612/625-5529, E-mail:

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