Multiculturalism in the United States

In the first part of this two-part essay on the anti-multiculturalism movement in Europe and United States, I attempted to carefully note that the backlash against multiculturalism was far more niched against specific groups—the Muslims in Europe and the UK and the Hispanics in the United States.

I did not mean to suggest, however, that there aren’t other groups that are singled out in those cultures. For example, ever since 9/11, Muslim communities in the US have certainly experienced bigotry in their many attempts to purchase buildings or to obtain zoning rights to build mosques. And the historic persecution of the Roma (Gypsies) in Europe recently prompted a strong list of specific recommendations from a European Commission to counter that prejudice.

In the second part of this two-part blog post, I will focus entirely on multiculturalism in the United States.

America has consistently had tensions around immigration and foreign-culture issues. Ben Franklin complained about the “swarthy” Germans and expressed his fear that Pennsylvania would become a haven for a “stream of their importation” into Pennsylvania. Franklin’s ethnocentrism would eventually match the intensity of prejudice against those of German heritage during World War I and World War II. This, in spite of the fact, Germans, at one time in American history, were the largest reported ancestral group in the United States.

The Irish also experienced extreme prejudice, particularly after their arrival in the United States during the great Irish Famine of the 1840s. They were often stereotyped as “shanty Irish” or “Lace-Curtain Irish”;were consistently harassed as papists; and stereotyped as criminals and paupers as they were in this famous passage from a Chicago Post editorial: “The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses…Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic.” Such prejudice, of course, led to their ostracism from many urban business communities that often put “No-Irish-Need-Apply” signs in their windows.

The Italian immigrant laborers had no less a challenge coming to the United States. They, too, had to fight against many stereotypes, particularly the Mafia and Cosa Nostra prototypes that plagued the Italian-American community for years.

The Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese Internment Camps in the US certainly reveal the extent to which the United States, historically, has not had a clean record of multicultural tolerance. (It is interesting to note here that the Chinese Exclusion Act was the end result of economic hard times in the late 1800s and the fears that the Chinese immigrants were competing with Americans for jobs—a familiar story paralleling those same fears with the current anti-immigration sentiments of many Americans.)

And few would question America’s brutal treatment of Blacks and Native Americans.

Blacks had moved out of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation but were, for decades, held hostage to prejudice exemplified in Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynchings, in being prevented from voting, and, more recently, in an inordinate representation in the American prison system.

There are many who, legitimately, feel that the Reconstruction promise of “Forty Acres and a Mule” still needs to be embodied in more solid affirmative action programs if, for nothing else, an historical compensation for two centuries of slavery. As most of us know, however, affirmative action has been under constant conservative scrutiny and court challenges. And, given the current economic conditions in the country, Americans are currently distracted by their economic plights; racial justice issues just cannot compete with the current economic paranoia in the country.

It may be historical karma that Native Americans have become entrepreneurs in the Casino industry; however, Native American economic ingenuity cannot erase the country’s dishonorable record exemplified in the infamous Indian Removal Act during the Presidency of Andrew Jackson. From that Act, of course, the diverse Native  American cultures experienced all the social traumas of a society ethnically cleansed into invisibility.

In hindsight, it is not difficult for historians to explain the prejudice against Blacks and Native Americans in American history.  The Anglo-Saxon/Christian sense of privilege and manifest destiny were traits of a white society that deemed itself a community of  morally superior discoverers and guardians of the “City on the Hill.” And Blacks and Native Americans were considered incompatible, by nature, with the virtues of “civilization.” This theme of moral and natural superiority is an embarrassing motif that can be found in so many of the letters and documents of early American history.

9/11 certainly explains the paranoia of many Americans who are scrutinizing–some would say scapegoating–Muslim communities with greater diligence. And the economic recession and high unemployment have added an intense level of retribution against undocumented Latino/Latina workers in the United States.

However, I believe there are also chronic, underlying issues that also explain why many Americans continue to feel threatened by foreigners.

I think it is safe to say that many non-Hispanic whites in America have, historically, been isolated from foreign cultures, and not just geographically. Unless they live in urban, metropolitan areas, the dominant, English-only, white culture in America continues to be segregated. (And zip codes within urban areas often represent the dividing lines between races and cultures often paralleling the economic disparities between those same zip codes.)

Many Americans also seem to believe that “we have it all here.” This attitude reveals a strong belief in American exceptionalism and tends to make Americans feel a certain cultural superiority and smugness. That smugness can be seen as either a cause or an effect of the belief that American culture is an exceptional/superior culture.

One of those forms can be seen in the limited access that most Americans have to foreign cultures throughout the world and to cultural minorities within their own country, except for Americans participating in ethnic festivals or visiting China towns as tourist attractions.  Although there appears to be a widespread belief among American historians that even American history is under siege in elementary and secondary education, there is an even greater lack of understanding of other cultures, globally, nationally, and locally in the United States.

Europeans are often fond of satirically portraying Americans as cultural isolationists citing our geographical insularity and our international illiteracy.

However, to their credit, Americans have made some inroads in the area of cultural competence in specific fields like medicine, social work, counseling, and law enforcement in the United States.

The country has also made some attempts at diversity awareness in United States corporations and institutions through Human Resource Departments (I have an Indian friend, however, who jokes about the undercurrent of tokenism, even quaintness, of diversity programs in his job, programs that are often reduced to PR photos showing at least one or two “visible” minorities.).

In the wider, mainstream American culture, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that global awareness usually takes the form of a dramatic news event. Our news media is more apt to present international news in terms of conflict, drama, or tension (to be fair, American news, in general, is crisis oriented).

Japan only gets covered if there’s an earthquake or a tsunami; China is more often portrayed as a country refusing to lower the value of its currency or as a consistent abuser of human rights; Venezuela as a country with a rogue, out-of-control socialist leader; Africa as a continuing “problem” continent of droughts, starvation, AIDS, and social turmoil; Mexico and Columbia as drug-ridden countries; and Europe in economic turmoil with the debt-ridden countries in the European Union.

In addition, the US news media often turns a foreign story into an event that, ultimately, has “implications for” or “effects on” the United States. Seeing foreign countries through this provincial lens has the effect of making most Americans believe that foreign cultures have no identities of their own unless there is some connection to the United States.

There is little doubt that multiculturalism, within American society, has been a rocky road—our history surely tells us that we have had some profound gaps in our ability to accept “foreigners” into the United States. But, thankfully, groups who were once reviled—the Irish, the Germans, and the Italians—have now become culturally homogenized into American society over many generations.

But there is still work to be done. There is a segment of American society that continues to draw itself into stereotyping minority cultures. Not unlike the Orientalism stereotypes Americans and Europeans had about Middle-Eastern cultures as naively uncivilized and needing to be culturally trained into proper Western ways, many Americans still hold on to some damaging cultural stereotypes within American society.

As a culture, we can choose to live inside the world of those stereotypes usually associated with crime, violence, terrorism, laziness, unproductiveness, lack of ambition, passivity, anger, or isolationism. Or we can choose live outside-the-box of those stereotypes by “learning” about those cultures; working at integrating those cultures into the mainstream; accommodating individuals within those cultures with strong diversity and affirmative-action programs; encouraging other languages and culture-specific programming in the arts, in the film industry, in offering a variety of ethnic-studies courses at the secondary and post-secondary levels; and offering credit lines to minority merchants interested in starting culture-specific restaurants.

There is no reason why a variety of “parallel cultures” cannot exist within the United States. We continue to have vibrant pockets of Spanish, African-American, Italian, German, and Irish cultures in America without doing damage to the mainstream culture—in fact those minority cultures have become part-and-parcel of the American mainstream culture. And ethnic neighborhoods can continue to be vibrant, particularly with an economic/merchant base.

At the same time, we can still require every native and foreign born American student to study American history and to write, to read, and to speak in English.

In this increasing globalized world we live, Americans are going to have to expand their international horizons. We are going to have to re-commit ourselves to the reality that a United Nations forum will continue to be a crucial venue for all the perceptions and values of an international community. At the same time we must support, in word and deed, the profound principles of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights.

I have made a plea here for multiculturalism. I continue to believe in its efficacy. I live in an urban community and love the vibrancy that multiculturalism brings to my city. I cherish the friendships I have made with many, many ethnic and racial minorities here. My soul has been profoundly altered by those relationships. And I dedicate this Blog Post to all of those who have enriched my cultural experiences. Vive la différence.

If you liked this blog post, you may be interested in my other other posts about  Cultural Values. I am also a firm believer in an interdisciplinary approach to cultural studies, an approach I use in my course on modern China in which I use film, history, and cultural values.

As many of you know, I am a freelance writer and active blogger. I have also chosen to have an ad-free blog and Website. However, my overhead costs (Website designs, constant updates on several Websites) continue to increase. If you like this article and my blog site, please consider making a one-time Paypal Donation by going to the Donate icon in the right-hand corner. Thanks again for taking the time. John


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