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What Should We Teach Our Children About American History?
The fiercest struggle going on in education is about who owns the past. Militant multi-culturalists say that traditional history teaching has brushed out minority ethnic identities. Their opponents say that radical multiculturalism leads toward national fragmentation.
February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
The multiculturalists have come up with their radically new situation—a Europhobic, unassimilable mass of new immigrants- by lumping together Asian immigrants, black Americans, and Hispanic immigrants. But there is rather little multiculturalist pressure from Asian immigrants, who are staggeringly successful in assimilating, and the old European immigrants seem indifferent to the Asian migration. They’re panicky about trade rivals on the Pacific Rim but not about Asians in this country.
The sense of a yellow peril has disappeared, except insofar as it is concentrated on what the Japanese are doing to us in world markets.
Multiculturalists tend to imply that Hispanic immigrants are unified in a racially distinct mass. But Hispanic immigrants come in a great array of colors, and many assimilate with speed and success. So while multiculturalism’s exponents represent themselves as speaking for a great coalition, doesn’t their political constituency seem, in fact, to concentrate in a very old group, black Americans?
That is true in the 1990s, but I don’t think that’s the way it began. The cult of ethnicity started up after the Second World War. It was the cry then of whites from Eastern and Southern Europe who resented the Anglo-Saxon Establishment—the so-called unmeltable ethnics plus Jews suddenly galvanized into a sense of identity by the Holocaust and by the establishment of Israel. It’s ironical because for various reasons these groups are both quite anti-multiculturalist these days. Yet they were the first to denounce the image of a melting pot and the idea of assimilation. I’ll bet most of them are looking at the melting pot with a good deal more enthusiasm today.
Those self-described “unmeltables” greatly overstated their own durable distinctiveness, but in the fifties and the sixties, the “ethnics” were the great carriers of the ideal of multiculturalism. After the civil rights revolution, emphasis shifted, and it’s become mainly a black political cause, with some Hispanic support, particularly on the linguistic side. These are the main carriers now.
You’ve said that if some Ku Klux Klan Kleagle had decided to devise the most cunning and malicious plan possible for injuring the social mobility of black Americans, he could not do better than promote an “Afrocentric curriculum.”
Well, yes. The Afrocentric curriculum withdraws blacks from America in favor of a fictitious connection with Africa. Many black American families have been in this country for eight or ten generations. The whole notion that black Americans are not part of America, that they are part of African culture, is absurd. Its consequences are potentially disastrous. There are those, for example, who argue that blacks should not be taught standard English, that they should be taught black English. If there is anything that is going to disable people for a role in American society, it would be to speak a separate dialect. The whole enterprise is designed to re-create American apartheid.
“Afrocentricity,” the idea that black Americans, the vast majority of whom have ancestors who have been in this country for more than three hundred years, have some kind of live, potent cultural connection with Africa, is unsustainable. Blacks are very much a part of American culture. Given the fact they are only 12 percent of the population, they have played rather an extraordinary role in shaping that culture. And the idea that the continent of Africa from Saharan desert to rain forest to savanna to Nile Delta to the Cape of Good Hope has in any sense a homogeneous culture is ridiculous. The artificiality of this whole thing is particularly dismaying. In its more extreme form it is not merely historically mistaken, it is profoundly racist. The only case that can be made is a virulently racist one: that because black Americans have dark skins and Africans have dark skins, they have some kind of mystical affinity.
Racism is not an Occidental invention, but political antiracism is. This fact is generally suppressed by the multiculturalists; it was .not suppressed by Frederick Douglass.
Aren’t these assertions by some intellectuals that black Americans are and should be hostile to European culture a very recent phenomenon? You’ve pointed out that over the last three centuries most black Americans have rejected the notion that they are not part of the weave of American life and Occidental culture.
W. E. B. Du Bois was quite explicit about this. He wrote that “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas. … I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.” Frederick Douglass was even more explicit: “What I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery and a powerful vindication of human rights.” He loved Burke, Sheridan, Pitt, and Fox; he said that reading them “enabled me to utter my thoughts.” Martin Luther King, Jr., took as his models Thoreau, Gandhi, and Reinhold Niebuhr—none of them figures from the African tradition, and yet they don’t seem to have lowered his self-esteem.