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DANIELS: Miscalculating Multiculturalism in America

Lee A. Daniels | 10/16/2013, 3 p.m.
Lee A. Daniels

Given the political gridlock in Washington that’s pushed the country to the brink of economic calamity and caused needless distress to millions, one might think America has rarely been more polarized, more “dis-united.” Actually, the opposite is true. American society – in terms of expanding democracy to all of its citizens – has never been more unified. That’s why the country seems so dis-united.

That assertion seems contradictory – unless you view the current scene through the prism of that adage and basic principal of chemistry: every action provokes a reaction.

Accordingly, the budget and debt-ceiling crisis the Republican Party engineered this fall is just the latest expression of the conservative movement’s virulent reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency and the changes in American society that emerged and coalesced to make that extraordinary breakthrough happen.

Those changes principally stem from the growing numbers of black, Hispanic and Asian Americans. Their political activism and joining within the Democratic Party with gays and lesbians, and politically progressive White men and women have in little more than a decade transformed American politics from its old, overwhelmingly Black-and-White affair.

That multiracial, multicultural coalition twice produced electoral success for the Democratic Party, underscoring the fact that dramatic demographic changes have come to fruition far sooner than the conventional wisdom had predicted less than two decades ago.

It’s also produced something else: more proof that multiculturalism works.

If you’ll recall, that wasn’t supposed to be true. Instead, from the early 1990s well into the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency, plenty of centrist and conservative scholars and pundits sneered that multiculturalism was just so much empty ethnic boasting and advocacy of self-segregation, pushed by “romantic ideologues and unscrupulous hucksters.”

Those specific words and more general assertions come from the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s 1991 bestseller, “The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society.”

The title, of course, tells the tale. Schlesinger, a former adviser to President John F. Kennedy and a celebrated historian, was particularly harsh toward Afrocentric educational curricula, which some blacks advocated, and a bilingual approach to educating Hispanic children proposed by some Hispanic educators and activists, claiming that they would undermine the efforts of the masses of these minority groups to fully reap the benefits of their American citizenship.

Schlesinger readily acknowledged that the United States had long fallen short of living up to its heroic ideals about tolerance and freedom, especially for people of color. But he declared that the great changes that had occurred since the 1960s should inspire in all Americans “a common adherence to the ideals of democracy and human rights.”

The reality is that multiculturalism has been the banner under which all these groups have found a way to pursue their fierce desire to integrate more securely into the American mainstream. And their realizing that common bond has led them to put aside whatever points of potential tension Schlesinger and others had predicted would lead to hostility.

Instead, the divisive forces in today’s American society are those whites who’ve camped in the Republican Party and its even more conservative faction, the Tea Party. They resent having to share on a more equal basis the decision-making authority and resources of the land with Americans of color.

The recently published book, “Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America” by scholars Christopher Parker and Matt A. Barreto, provides fresh data on how intolerant GOP members generally, and particularly those who support the Tea Party, are of those who hold different beliefs or opinions. Their study also shows that the “reactionary conservatives” of the Tea Party have a “thin” commitment to democracy. Instead, they place a much higher value on getting their way.

These findings, as important as they are, are no surprise to those who’ve followed the GOP’s divide-and-conquer political strategy during the last four decades. Of course, the stark example of that anti-democratic attitude is the government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis it’s forced on all Americans.

It’s too bad Arthur Schlesinger didn’t understand that when he warned Americans of the danger of dis-unity from the Left, he was looking in the wrong direction.

Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is "Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America."