Multiculturalism comes with a price

The word sounds great on first read, but multiculturalism actually does more to push Americans apart than to bring them together.
Monday, January 12, 2009 | 8:45 a.m. CST

“Multiculturalism” sure sounds good. It conjures up those ideas of diversity and equality that make U.S. citizens want to high-five one another in the street. The very roots of the word seem to connote the egalitarianism we all imagine emanating in great red, white and blue clouds from the Founding Fathers and everything they wrote.  But connotations can be deceiving.

Multiculturalism, a concept popularized in the 1960s by leftist academics, was presented as an alternative to the “melting pot” construct, which had been criticized by minorities who felt that it gave whites of European descent (i.e. the dominant American ingredient) license to run American culture and to expect conformity from others. Multiculturalism demands almost the opposite, its ideal being that various ethnic and racial cultures exist distinctly but equally within a single society. 

Tariq Modood, a sociology professor at the University of Bristol, describes a positive view of the concept in his book “Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea.” Modood asserts that multiculturalism is a form of “progressive politics” that was born in a time when “the related ideas of humanism, human rights and equal citizenship had reached a new ascendancy,” and which allowed “being true to one’s nature or heritage and seeking with others of the same kind public recognition for one’s collectivity.”

It all sounds great on first read, but what Modood romantically describes as human empowerment is actually a call for segregation.  In trying to reach the noble end of preserving individual integrity, the tenets of multiculturalism actually demand that society divide itself into (separate but equal) ethnic pockets that think firstly of themselves. Any common goals Americans might pursue inevitably suffer as a result of this diffused and confused sense of purpose.

One of the most telling examples of how multiculturalism has bred this damaging division in America came from a great diversity proponent, political scientist Robert Putnam. In a study of 30,000 people released in 2007, Putnam found, much to his chagrin, that the more differentiated a community’s parts became, the worse off the community was as a whole. A writer from the Boston Globe, Michael Jonas,  summarized Putnam’s findings like this: “the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects … virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.”

Jonas also pointed out a finding of Putnam's study that seems likely to explain those negative effects: “In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings.”

Historian David Hollinger explains the root problem in his book “Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism”; on a basic level, multiculturalism reinforces the idea that people who look or act a certain way are inherently different. Yes, it encourages people to respect cultural equality but it also encourages people to feel separate from others on a basis of color or creed. Separation inevitably leads to ignorance, which then leads to suspicion and assumption, which leads to further separation. And on the cycle goes.   

Rather than inspiring people to learn about others as individuals, multiculturalism teaches people to believe that everyone can be defined by their race or another single trait. As Hollinger explains, “I believe the multiculturalism of our own time has helped us to recognize and appreciate cultural diversity, but I believe this movement has too often left the impression that culture follows the lines of shape and color.”

Hollinger’s argument is not new; it was used by the biggest players in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. championed sameness and proposed an eradication of those invisible lines dividing people on the arbitrary basis of color. In 1963, another prominent civil rights activist, James Baldwin, wrote a book calling for the erasure the “color line,” explaining that any such divisions were not human realities but political realities and that as long as Americans believe in those lines, real equality and meritocracy cannot truly exist.

The fewer divisions there are in society, the better. Though multiculturalism is supposed to encourage learning and togetherness whilst allowing for cultural autonomy, the reality is that it just colors in those lines between ethnic groups a little darker and makes them harder to erase. 

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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