Assimilation's end

We are All Multiculturalists Now

April 25, 1997

In this elegantly written book, Nathan Glazer provides a historically rich account of the rise of multiculturalism and explicates its political significance. He argues that the diffusion of multiculturalism has been driven by the singeing faultline of 20th-century America, the position of African Americans. In the book's best chapter, on assimilation, Glazer explains how the discussion of this topic elided and ignored the position of black Americans - it was the assimilation of eastern and southern Europeans which exercised the assimilationists in the 1910s and 1920s; African Americans, if thought of at all, were considered unassimilable.

Glazer takes relatively few shots at the absurdities and oddities generated by the multicultural debate. One vignette is the rewriting for the Californian school system of the history of the American west. In the words of one critic, the new curriculum "puts everyone in the covered wagons", Asian Americans, Hispanics and black Americans. Elsewhere he discusses the new "great civilisation" courses which give due attention to the recondite histories of Nubia and Kush, "hitherto in the wings as far as Egyptian history is concerned. No longer. This area of Africa is now thrust into the center of the stage.". The emphasis upon "global history" requires discoursing on many obscure events or persons, remote - both geographically and politically - societies, at the expense of European and western history. Individual teachers, caught up in stark classroom realities, take a low-key view of these revisions as Glazer learned from one instructor: "He didn't care that much what his students read, as long as they could read and write."

The theme binding these previously published essays together is Glazer's interpretation of multiculturalism as a manifestation of the US's failure towards its African American population. Glazer adumbrates on this point subtly and persuasively. And whereas the aim of African Americans until the 1960s was to destroy segregated race relations and to achieve integration and assimilation, since the 1970s the failure of this integrationist project has spawned separatism and multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is a fundamental rejection of the melting-pot ethos. Black Americans stand as "the storm troops in the battles over multiculturalism". Providing historical models and reference points in the new curricula is designed to improve their lot.

Glazer remarks that in respect of African Americans "we are still, in some key respects, two nations", exemplified by intense segregation in housing. Historically, black Americans were excluded from conceptions of the assimilated American. He reminds the reader that Woodrow Wilson's and Theodore Roosevelt's attack on so-called "hyphenated Americans" entirely omitted blacks from the realm of American citizenship. It is the legacy of this oversight combined with that of segregated race relations which explains why African Americans are the "storm troops" of multiculturalism, explicitly turning their back on assimilation: the explanation for this rejection "is to be found in black experience in America, and in the fundamental refusal of other Americans to accept blacks, despite their eagerness, as suitable candidates for assimilation". As a consequence, assimilation has become an unattractive ideal for all Americans.

This is a timely and thoughtful book. Glazer's historical sensitivity and, above all, his appreciation of the need to place African Americans at the centre of any engagement with multiculturalism, enables him to dissect and explain this phenomenon far more cogently than most commentators.

Desmond King is professor of politics, University of Oxford.

We are All Multiculturalists Now

Author - Nathan Glazer
ISBN - 0 674 94851 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £13.50
Pages - 174

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