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Outside the So-Called Ethnic Box

A letter I wrote to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, answering an article by Marlene Adler Marks titled "Outside the Ethnic Box" that appeared 2/20/00:

Marlene Adler Marks argues that "America has re-racinated"—by which she apparently means racially divided itself. That implies America was once "deracinated." When was this golden period when the races were equal and the white majority didn't oppress minorities and immigrants of all races, colors, and creeds? The 1950s, '60s, '70s, '80s? Can anyone tell us when?

Fact is, racial and ethnic issues have always riven America. There's never been a time when the nation's majority didn't kill, enslave, or torment its struggling minorities. If things have gotten better, it's only been in the last few decades. It's happened because we've begun recognizing and promoting diversity rather than suppressing it.

The majority of Marks's examples—the widespread acceptance of Jews, the disappearance of Korean storekeepers colonizing black neighborhoods, the increase in UC applicants checking the "decline to state" box, the split in the Jewish vote, David Tokofsky's election to the LA Unified School District's "Latino seat," black and Jewish kids mixing at magnet schools, the failure of activists to define the LAUSD as "70% Latino," Latino immigrants' success at learning English and buying homes, the rise in interracial marriages—all argue that the so-called "tribalism" has decreased. Unfortunately, Marks's thesis is that tribalism has increased. Ooops.

Marks quotes Ron Wakabayashi, head of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, as saying diversity isn't good, it simply is. Says who? Any ecologist will tell you that diversity in nature is good in its own right. The varied gene sequences keep rejuvenating a species with new traits and abilities.

If that's true biologically, why wouldn't it be true culturally? Clearly it is true to everyone but Marks. America is a mixture of strong, interwoven strands: Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, African, Latino, Asian, Native American and many more.

With no evidence, Marks claims that the idea of an American culture has fallen out of favor. At the same time, she notes that America's Coke, movies, and Internet are sweeping the world. Doesn't she see the contradictions in her argument? Like people the world over, US minorities are jumping on the economic bandwagon, embracing the homogeneous aspects of the American dream. As television has shown, everyone wants to be or marry a millionaire.

We don't need more American culture—more people consuming McDonald's food, watching the latest Disney movie, or surfing to a Microsoft Web site that looks like all the rest. We need less. We need to preserve the unique beliefs and values of the world's people before they vanish irretrievably.

Though Jesse Helms might say otherwise, Americans don't have a monopoly on wisdom. After all, who punched holes in the ozone layer, almost exterminated the buffalo and bald eagle, and nuked a couple hundred thousand men, women, and children? Who confined people to reservations, concentration camps, and ghettoes in the midst of untold prosperity? Was it the minorities who don't believe in "American culture"? No.

Are minorities balkanizing America?
An excerpt from "Word Garden Needs Weeding to Blossom" by Rebecca Venable de Rodriguez. In the LA Times, 4/3/01:

Another word, "multiculturalism," is a tired euphemism whose impact even for grant writers is worn out. Why do we use slipcover words for race? Other nations don't. If we all accept that we are human beings first, it would be safer and more productive to separate ourselves simply as "the good, the bad and the indifferent." Why do we send clear messages only in anger, complaint or contempt? Fortunately, slipcovers, like slang, come and go with the seasons.

In our free society, isn't it finally time to identify primarily as Americans, regardless of race or geographic origin? Tending roots is natural and even admirable until the roots run rampant and destroy the foundation of the house.

The "minority majority" is here to stay. The new census illustrates that we all are now even more mixed up than it was ever fashionable to admit. Perhaps the United Colors of Benneton stuck. If only history courses did, we would understand that racial fusion was always the natural outcome of conquest and that the Spanish conquest was only the last one of many.

The 2000 election in the United States has driven home what plurality means. So why don't we just adopt fresh words like "plural ethnia" or "ethnic pluria" into our vocabulary for diversity? Perhaps we are afraid that if we don't perpetuate divisions, we might just be absorbed into Latin America by default

Hello? Didn't Rebecca Venables de Rodriguez hear the rest of the world denounce George W. Bush* for declaring America "first and foremost" when it comes to disobeying treaties like the Kyoto global warming accord? Bush* is the only one acting divisively on the world scene with his profits-before-people declarations. His selfish, parochial attitude is exactly what multiculturalism addresses: the need to listen to and understand other cultures' viewpoints.

That Ms. Venables de Rodriguez, a person with a Hispanic surname, doesn't have a clue what diversity means in 2001 is little short of remarkable. Someone please tell her that when a minority opposes the majority, as Bush* and his rich business buddies have done, they're the divisive ones by definition. The question she should ask is why wealthy white capitalists are dividing the country, not why anyone else is.

Her thesis, which seems to be that minorities are resisting racial and cultural fusion, is silly beyond belief. Who asked for the multiracial checkboxes on the Census form, anyway? Whites who wanted to help minorities assimilate faster? Uh, no, it was the minorities themselves.

Minorities are dealing with "fusion" issues every day. Refusing to deal with these issues are—surprise!—the same white Americans who have always refused to deal with the problems they created. When the execution rates are different for whites and minorities...or minorities are racially profiled...or predominantly minority schools receive less funding...or minorities aren't represented in movies, TV shows, or comic books...or Indians but not whites are mocked as sports mascots...do white Americans stand up and demand that everyone be treated identically, as Americans first? You know the answer: Hell, **no**.

It's hard to express how stupid is the idea that minorities are balkanizing America, but I'll try.

Among other things, I identify myself as a man, a WASP, a heterosexual, a Californian, an Angeleno, a Schmidt, a Palmer, a writer, an editor, a publisher, a computer expert, an MBA, a University of Chicago alumnus, an Occidental College alumnus, and so forth and so on. Not one of these "identifications" impedes or affects my identifying myself as an American, which I do also. If it doesn't "balkanize" America for white Americans like me to identify them as white as well as American, why would it balkanize America for blacks, Latinos, Asians, or Indians to do likewise?

If you have factual evidence that minorities identifying themselves as minorities is causing some harm not caused by whites identifying themselves as whites, heterosexuals identify themselves as heterosexuals, Christians identifying themselves as Christians, etc., please present this evidence now. Either e-mail me the evidence, or e-mail me your agreement that anyone who thinks minorities are "balkanizing" America is an unthinking idiot. Thank you for your assistance.


*Not the elected president.

Multiculturalism = identity politics?
From the LA Times, 7/26/01:

Individualism Trumps Identity Politics


Norah Vincent is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City. E-mail: norah_vincent@hotmail.com

Recently, the New York Times printed a surprising profile of French poststructuralist philosopher Julia Kristeva, in which she disavowed the political correctness and multiculturalism she is thought to have invented and bequeathed to the U.S. academics who have revered her ever since.

"Many of our American colleagues have taken what we proposed and have simplified it, caricatured it and made it politically correct," she said. "I can no longer recognize myself." Even more surprising, Kristeva denounced identity politics as "totalitarian" and undemocratic, since it tends to promote community interests and subvert individual freedom.

If you doubt that multiculturalism is headed in this direction, consider UCLA's commencement exercises in which Latino, black and gay students, among others, held their own separate ceremonies, preferring to graduate in self-imposed isolation rather than communing with their fellow students of all races and sexual orientations. Surely this is Plessy vs. Ferguson, not Brown vs. Board of Education. Or have we since decided that separate can be equal after all? And if so, isn't this a recipe for adversity, not diversity? Chauvinism, not multiculturalism? Kristeva proposes something quite different. "I'd like my readers to ask 'How am I special?' 'What individual spark do I have in my life, in my sexuality, in my spirit?"'

Exactly. Cultivating individualism is the way to bring about true multiculturalism, because healthy individuals cannot be broken down into their component parts, their jingoistic prides and jaundiced world views, whether of ethnicity, sex or sexuality. They are wholes, always greater than the sum of their parts, and this tends to make them much less susceptible to bigotry. The barriers between "us" and "them" collapse, as do caustic xenophobias that fuel most of the world's ongoing conflicts, from Northern Ireland to Kashmir to the Middle East to Eastern Europe.

Again, if you doubt that the estranging quarantines of identity politics are this dangerous, you need only remind yourself that the race riots in northern England this summer are directly related to the rise of the British National Party, a watered-down version of its 1970s predecessor, the neo-Nazi National Front. The BNP's rallying cry that England be for whites only won them votes in the June 7 national elections. Support for the BNP was strongest in towns like Oldham (16.4%) and Burnley (11.3%) where the worst of the rioting took place.

Ideas are inflammable. This doesn't mean, of course, that they shouldn't be expressed freely. But it does mean that, because philosophy and politics are inveterate bedfellows, an educated electorate has a duty to think through, to consider the ramifications—not simply the immediate rewards—of the trends its culture embraces and the programs its politicians espouse.

This is why it's important to understand what's troubling about the multiculturalism and so-called political correctness that began in humanities departments at our best universities and have spread in innumerable ways.

Diversity, in the true sense of the word, is good. No one committed to liberty and equal opportunity disputes that. Every fair-minded person wants America to live up to its promises. To be inclusive. To be sex-, class-, color-, race-and lifestyle-blind. The problem is that multiculturalism, in its current form—identity politics—has been having quite the opposite effect. It excludes. It estranges the very cultures it purports to integrate, by overemphasizing rather than de-emphasizing the categories that keep us from seeing each other as human beings. And only by seeing each other as unique, irreducibly complex individuals rather than as prototypes of gay, Asian American, bourgeois masculinity or straight, white, working-class femininity and so on—can we avoid the very separatist, clannish hatreds that are endemic to fascism.

Do I blame leftist academics for the world's problems? Of course not. But as the French writer Julien Benda said, it is treasonous for intellectuals to lend themselves and their ideas to the base uses of tyranny. Perhaps it is time we thought more carefully about what multiculturalism really means and how best to achieve it.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

Rob's reply
Even for Norah Vincent, her screed on "identity politics" has to rank as one of the silliest, weakest, and most pathetic excuses for a column she's ever written. I barely know where to begin demolishing it. But let's give it a try:

In the decades since multiculturalism was first defined (1941), in a nation of several hundred million people, Vincent gives us exactly one example of the multicultural conspiracy consuming America: a few college commencement ceremonies. Horrors! If that's the best she can do, it suggests how insignificant the problem is.

Nevertheless, Vincent strongly implies—without even trying to justify her flight of fancy—that these commencement ceremonies are leading us down the primrose path toward "totalitarianism." If Vincent thinks commencement ceremonies lead to totalitarianism, I'd hate to hear what she thinks Greek fraternities and sororities lead to. Utter annihilation?

So overwrought is Vincent by her one example, she ignores the myriad of other examples she could've used to bolster her argument. Here are just a few of the groups that practice "identity politics" in the US:

Any religion (Catholics, Jews, etc.). Any political party (Republicans, Democrats, etc.). Any veterans' organization (the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, etc.). Any professional organization (medical associations, bar associations, etc.). Any business or trade organization. Any professional sports team. Any alumni organization. Any country club. Etc.

Then there are groupings based solely on biological traits. Any group that worships one's ancestry (Daughters of the American Revolution, children of Thomas Jefferson, lovers of the Confederate Flag, etc.). Any group that lives in proximity to one another (Little Russia, Little India, Little Tokyo, etc.) Any group that celebrates an ethnic holiday such as St. Patrick's Day or Columbus Day. Any familial group, period. (If you identify yourself as a Smith rather than a human being, you're excluding me and other non-Smiths from your group.)

One literally could list a thousand groups that are no different from the groups holding commencement ceremonies. That Vincent identified a couple of groups by race and sexual orientation—rather than by occupation, military status, political affiliation, socioeconomic class, or any other defining characteristic—says more about her than it does about America. Apparently only blacks, Latinos, and gays frighten her.

Check the dictionary, Norah
Vincent talks about "multiculturalism in its current form." The current form of multiculturalism is what the dictionary says it is. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, the Cambridge Dictionary of American English, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, and other dictionaries, "multicultural" means nothing more than "Of, relating to, or including several cultures." Vincent's definition—multiculturalism as "identity politics"—is one she apparently fabricated out of thin air. She provides no justification for this definition, perhaps because there isn't a justification.

As part of her invented definition, Vincent invents a corollary that multiculturalism "purports to integrate" cultures but really "excludes" them. Actually, multiculturalism does neither. As the correct definition suggests, a multicultural society is one that includes several cultures. Period. Nothing about multiculturalism says whether these several cultures will be integrated, segregated, or some combination thereof. Any of these cultural mixes would be "multicultural" as long as it included "several cultures."

If "identity politics" is a problem, Vincent may want to concentrate on America's real balkanizers. Republicans who vote in lock-step to shut down the government or impeach the president. Fundamentalists who would rather kill abortion doctors or homosexuals than admit their humanity. Corporate executives who feel an obsessive obligation to their shareholders but none to society.

Police officers who practice a code of silence rather than a code of honor. Sports fans who storm and riot after their teams win or lose. Young girls who want to be beauty queens rather than astrophysicists. Yes, these examples of identity politics are a problem, but they aren't necessarily a multicultural problem. Identity politics and multiculturalism are two different things.

That Vincent concludes her article saying, "Perhaps it is time we thought more carefully about what multiculturalism really means and how best to achieve it," is nothing short of hysterical. Vincent has proved she doesn't know what multiculturalism means with her content-free diatribe. Perhaps it's time she thought more carefully about getting a dictionary and using it.

What critics of multiculturalism really mean
What all these critics really want is for minorities to shut up and stop complaining about injustice and unfairness. They want minorities to stop reminding them that America doesn't live up to its ideal of "liberty and justice for all," much less "equal opportunity" and "a level playing field." Because if minorities keep quiet, these naysayers can convince themselves that all is well. And then they won't have give up a scintilla of the perks and privileges they've inherited as the arbiters of American culture.

Ironically, the 9/11 terrorist strikes have shown how hollow the idea of "getting over" the past is. Americans have weeped and whined as if the 3,000 dead were the worst tragedy to ever hit the continent. But as many American Indians have noted, 3,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of their people whom terrorists killed.

As Jodi Rave Lee put it in the Lincoln Journal Star, c. 11/7/01:

For those who feel Natives should get over the loss of their land, language and culture and a way of life as they once knew it, they should ask themselves: How long will it take them to heal over the loss of 5,500 people they never knew? For those people who find it hard to understand the plight of modern day Native people, one need only look to New York.

When white Americans get over that day of horror, they will have survived only a fraction of the horror experienced by Native Americans, African Americans, and other minorities. When they get over that horror, they may have a fraction of an inkling of how minorities feel. Until they get over that horror, perhaps they're the ones who should keep their mouths shut.

Related links
Multiculturalism defined
Political correctness defined
More on the so-called need for color-blindness toward race
America's cultural mindset

Readers respond
"The histories of bilingual and bicultural societies that do not assimilate are histories of turmoil, tension, and tragedy."
"What if white college kids decided to have their own separate main ceremony...?"
Letter:  Latino pride in progress is not racist.
"[W]hat are your plans for the future and the future of your seed?"
"Humanity would be better off if the US was more like Africa or Mexico."
The idea that race determines destiny is "strictly pagan."
"Shines expect everything to be handed to them."  (WARNING!  This page contains adult language.)

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