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Cultural Pluralism and Racism

by Colin Greer - 1969

It must be understood that to challenge racism is to challenge the efficacy of the lenses through which we magnify our pimples.

Several months ago, the National Educational Television aired its program on "Prejudice." Viewers watched a group of affluent American youngsters, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, discover an uncomfortable and frightening degree of prejudice in themselves. In discussing their feelings toward each other, they showed quite clearly how far a country which once called itself Christian may now be accurately styled "Protestant, Catholic, Jew and Negro." This is not to deny the identity conflicts of Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics as Irish and Italian, old Protestant groups as Yankee, and the respective Jewish groups as non-Israeli. It is rather to point up that in the United States the cliches of acculturation debates are an intrinsic part of being an American. The hyphen is still an independent variable.

Inevitably the issue of Black Power took its predictable place in the train of conversation. A young Negro made it clear that he was distrusting of dominant America, that he sought the security of ethnic pride and the strength of ethnic solidarity in the historic world of American ethnic parochialism. At odds with this logic, the other Negro present was horrified by the narrowness of the world being demanded for her and very much afraid of a society which permitted her membership on the basis of her skin alone. It is to this fear and to this horror that I am trying to address myself. It may well be the stuff of Utopian dreams is somewhat out of place within the present structures of American minority groups, but it is nevertheless the too often ignored cry of the individual to be heard.

Without a doubt and with no less persuasion of its relevance at this time, I have myself been energetic in arguing that to get out of his time-honored rut, the Negro must conspire and be encouraged to rise within the framework of American pluralism. That, in fact, "integration" as a social policy really indulges the wistful mythography of American social processes. However, after careful thought, I find myself having been a typical victim of the polarities which have characterised most positions regarding Negroes in this country. In chastising the young militant, Negro and white, for his oblivious sacrifice of vast numbers of Negroes in the cause of his own dislike of American values and systems, in being caught up in denying the challenge of the racist (much as the Negro has himself) we have forgotten the role of the extremist in the process of change. To an unfortunate degree, our ambition for the disadvantaged groups in this society have reacted so strongly and yet so feebly to the chasm of their deprivation that we have been able to see no further than a comfortable status quo. It should be remembered that in asking for the moon, it has sometimes been possible to establish the framework for the granting of half a loaf.


To be sure, the nation's poor, not exclusively Negro, must be given access to the middle-class affluence for so long denied them—no higher principles can be allowed to stand in the way of those excluded from national prosperity to be included. On the other hand we might well heed Howard Zinn's remonstrance and remember that this was once a "revolutionary country." While our vision remains no greater than the achievement of middle-class status for all, we simply conform to the wider application of the symbol of conglomerate identity described by Ralph Ellison as "invisibility." Let me make it quite clear that I am not suggesting that our efforts to addend the Negro to the national rubric of "Protestant, Catholic, Jew" are vain or that they should be discarded. The promise of middle-class America has been fulfilled for large numbers and must speedily, by one means or another, include increasing numbers of the excluded. But this is not accurately defined as the "race problem" nor will its solution answer the problem of racial and ethnic antipathy in America. Mere change is not overhaul, no matter how important and tardy the change.

Just as critics of industrial and post-industrial society have bemoaned the brutalization and massification of man which they see accompanying technological expansion, so we must bemoan the reality which supports the criticism even if we chose to doubt the relationship they proffer. An apparently very human facility for categorization and labelling has enabled us to turn deaf ears on the cry of the individual. Our attempts to rewrite the wrongs in an ongoing structure are fine but we have yet to recognize that part of the battle will have to be fought in changing the structure itself. I do not mean a change in government and in electoral systems but changes in our very understanding and expectation of the scheme of things.


The efforts of American educators are particularly pertinent to this discussion. Not among the most revolutionary of institutions, public education has carried within itself the paradox of its philosophic ideals and its practical arm, with educational philosophers with their Erasmian hope and pragmatic (school men) passing on skills as required. The hope and the job have rarely met. Now faced with the task of fitting the needs of a considerable number who fail without the sanction of the wider society, public education has begun to confuse its role just as it did during the period of heavy European immigration. Never an effective arm of either melting pot conformity or cultural diversity, it has believed itself the mighty instrument in both successively. Meanwhile economic need or absence of it worked its weal on foreign and native newcomers to the city. It was the city, and certainly there was less organized public education outside the city, which became the active agent of emerging American culture. Now in respect to lower class city populations and additions to this class from declining ruralism, we are being confounded in the belief that the educational and economic dislocation which frustrates the technological society is primarily a non-white problem. The issue of desegregated education is of obvious import in underlining the nation's commitment to undoing longstanding social and legal inequities while it confounds the irrelevance of our educational apparatus in a highly skilled, "achieving society."

We have still to address education to the needs of those who remain cut off from meaningful participation in the society. For the Negro, historically-shaped social and legal discriminations have been compounded by the rate of change in the nature of society itself and their inability to mount the uniquely vital "swiftly moving educational escalator," as Daniel Bell dubs it. Bell has asked whether this society is willing to make the necessary investment to revamp itself and its education systems to a new responsibility and whether "given the revolution of rising resentments" it has time. Summer rioting unites the question of the non-achieving and the question of race in the United States.

The "Negro" label is a symptom here. If we imagine for one moment that our pupil reading problems are reduced to the level of their incidence in the middle-class suburb (a rate we have taken little account of in our generalities) or that by some other means we provided meaningful accommodation in the society for the less fortunate and the less bright, we would not have moved significantly forward in combatting racial hatred. If we accept that the Negro has endured, to an exquisitely greater degree, the host of difficulties confronted by most immigrant groups, we would have to satisfy our own logic and conclude that racism in America might well remain a degree less satisfactorily solved than is, for example, the question of anti-Semitism. While public education and the most well meaning national ambition rest on the established framework of ethnic diversity, the hobgoblins of historic prejudices will continue to play a major role in the perceptions of one group toward another. The Negro will continue to carry with him, in his skin color, all the poignance and paradox of his existence in America.


America is a society comprising a series of sub-societies based on ethnic identity. Each immigrant group identified with the land of its nativity, partly because they were strangers and partly because participation in such a sub-culture was a vital part of being American. For some Baltic peoples, national identity and language were expressed for the first time upon arrival in the new world. Within each group is a world of self-respect and self-hatred in the face of a wider world, respecting this generalized characteristic and abhorring that one. Experience in the new country played a great part in determining what cultural adaptation, emphasis and denial might be concentrated into the emerging sub-culture. After equality in the selection of jobs and houses was more enhanced, so the quest for status deepened and this, as John Appel points out, depended on being granted by others—other groups, less recent newcomers to industrial America and the quest for status. Amid all this, the Negro continued to characterize all that was least valued and most guilt-ridden in the society. Denied a "soul" in slavery, the long tradition of exclusion, discrimination and expulsion in social and economic life continued the material evidence of his lack of worth. Scholarship supported the image of the Negro as a "contrast conception" from Bible analysis through brain weights and psychometric measurement, and the legitimacy of employing visible biological phenomena as a scientific variable. In the city, in North and South, the Negro's identity was compounded in its despair by material poverty, proletarian jealousies and political pragmatism.

"Racism," Theodosius Dobzhanky states, "is a form of typological misjudgement which assumes that an individual is a manifestation of a racial type." Similar generalities have been used in abundance, though more benignly on the whole. The individual is lost in a plethora of "ideal-types" which obscure both his momentous achievement and his abject failure. Neither for the immigrant nor for the Negro do we have precise criteria of adjustment and performance modes applicable to specific and small populations under given, controlled conditions. If there ever was such a time, the time for some degree of fairness in such measurement lies in the early days of urban growth. During those days at the beginning of the century the experience of Negro Americans varied only very little from his marginal role as developed in slavery. Without a soul as a plantation slave, he moved northward to find himself closed off from the industrial society. The consolidation of his inferiority was effected by intermeshing social, legal, political and economic intractables so that integration became a symbol of aspiration for some future freedom. Integration captured both the hope and the plight of Negroes. Among the leadership, Negro and white, of civil rights campaigning "integration" seemed to argue the rebalancing of an historic inferiority but in fact denied the very essence of developing cultural pluralism. The battle for Negro rights has proceeded since that time while other ethnic groups were busy establishing a more meaningful balance in the "nation of nations."

When Malcolm X exclaimed that, "I don't even consider myself an American," he broke straight through the traditional lenses of "integrated Americanism." He believed that because the Negro had been taught to hate himself in America, he now had the freedom to despise, rather than embrace a society "that had grown alien to humanity." Contrastingly, the demands of Black Power, frighteningly militant though they might be seen to be, are in the pattern of American ethnic group structure—seeking the viability which will give the Negro dignity and relevance to the society. In both, the Negro has been preparing to give up the melting pot. Integration as an aim for black and white only, asks too much from the Negro. It asks that he come naked into his citizenship.


The brutalizing "invisibility" of ethnic labels presently cherished in America is as fertile a soil for group hatred and violence as it has been of social strength. Inevitably, Negroes have come to demand a more positive ethnic identity for themselves and history has bestowed them a treacherously barren soil to work in. While we can fully appreciate the benefits of ethnic strength in this society, we must also appreciate the paradox which has imprisoned the Negro. Today the upwardly mobile Negro seeking adult success suffers serious costs in attempting to make it. Remember how Guy Smith (President of his class in an integrated school) told Time reporters how his hands would sweat when alone with white people. Adam Clayton Powell won the support of many who on a personal level would have been much less supportive. "Spitting at Whitey," Meredith tells, is a unifying Negro emotion. Ethnic strength must be more positive than this and may be destructive in its frustration.

We must recognize the danger in our becoming subservient to the strength of our labelling. We must at least look beyond what we have and envision a society which fosters the integration of all American secondary cultures into what Professor Price calls the "culture of humanity"; it was once revolutionary to conceive of America as a "nation of nations"! If schools were once expected to provide an opportunity for groups to participate in middle-class society, let the search to re-establish this relation be accompanied by an overhaul of the entire apparatus of our ambition and its hallowed educational instrument. What I have in mind is not a retreat into the Anglo-conformity of melting pot ideology nor the Americanism of cultural pluralism, but an America which is sensitive to the individual inside the categories. If this is indeed the stuff of Utopian dreams, I would caution respect for our dreams and concerted effort in dressing the bare bones.

The young people on that television program I mentioned at the outset were dangerously caught in what George Lamming has called "The Castle Of My Skin." They typified the conflict of self-respect and respect for others which was determined by their respective ethnic origins and allegiance to them. On another, more extreme front, one finds the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC—black leftwing "revolutionary" organization) and the National States Rights Party (NSRP-a white racist, neo-Nazi organization) have both permitted themselves the use of the same anti-Jewish, declaratory propaganda. In his preface to the Steppenwolf manuscript, Hermann Hesse captures the paradox as only the artist can. "Self-hate," he writes, "is really the same thing as sheer egoism, and in the long run breeds the same cruel isolation and despair." It must be understood that to challenge racism is to challenge the efficacy of the lenses through which we magnify our pimples.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 70 Number 4, 1969, p. 341-346
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1859, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 11:38:26 AM

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