Multiculturalism as Common Ground

By Ronald Takaki

America seems to be not fraying but rather splitting apart. Our divisions are at the center rather than the edges of our society. Assimilationist pundits urge us to embrace the "melting pot" by emphasizing individuality rather than group membership. On the other hand, ethnic separatists promote an exclusive ethnicity that sometimes degrades other groups.

Both the assimilationists and the separatists are clamoring for a curriculum that narrowly views history from one side or the other, and the clash between the two perspectives has come to be called the "culture wars." In the face of this dilemma educators must ask: Is there a third way, one that invites all of us to reach toward an understanding of ourselves as e pluribus unum?

In l989, the faculty at the University of California addressed this question and approved a multicul-tural graduation requirement designed to deepen and broaden understanding of American society in terms of our ethnic and racial diversity. This is not an additional requirement; rather it simply stipulates that one of the four breadth courses in the social sciences and humanities required for graduation must have a multicultural content. In order to qualify for the list of courses satisfying this requirement, the course must study comparatively the histories and cultures of at least three of five groups: African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and European immigrants. Currently, Berkeley offers some 80 courses from over fifteen departments that fulfill this requirement. The main objective of the Berkeley faculty in establishing this curriculum innovation is to provide a more accurate understanding of the complexity of American society.

One of the courses that meets the American Cultures Requirement is my course on racial inequality in America, a comparative historical perspective. Lectures and readings analyze the experiences of all five of the groups. The primary textbook is my study, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Students are also introduced to other perspectives­for example, Nathan Glazer, William Julius Wilson, Richard Rodriguez, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Paula Gunn Allen, Derrick Bell, and Thomas Sowell. All of us in the classroom engage in dialogue, even debate; all I ask is that the discussions be conducted with civility.

The problem with many of the readings is that they tend to be group specific, focusing, say, only on Blacks, or Chicanos. Thus it becomes a challenge for the students and myself to explore the idea that our diverse voices are not disparate but part of a larger narrative. In pursuing this idea, we study the ways the economy historically has connected a diverse assemblage of Americans. Nineteenth-century Irish immigrants worked in New England factories manufacturing textiles from cotton cultivated by enslaved Blacks on lands taken from Indians and Mexicans. In Northern cities, Blacks and Irish competed for jobs as dock workers and domestic servants. Like Blacks, the Irish were stereotyped as "savages," ruled by passions rather than the "civilized" virtues of hard work and self-conrol.

Different ethnic groups were frequently pitted against one another. In 1870, Chinese immigrants were transported from California to Massachusetts to break an Irish immigrant strike. That same year, Mississippi planters recruited Chinese immigrants to discipline newly-freed Blacks.

But there were also instances of inter-ethnic labor solidarity and empathy. In 1903, Mexican and Japanese farm workers struck together in California. Their union officers had names like Lizarras and Yamaguchi, and strike meetings were conducted in Spanish and Japanese. Speaking in impassioned Yiddish during the 1909 garment workers_ strike in New York, Clara Lemlich compared the abuse of Jewish laborers to the experience of Blacks: "[The bosses] yell at the girls and 'call them down' even worse than I imagine the Negro slaves were in the South".

But, we ask ourselves, is there something more than the economy that makes all of us one people? America's very history as a nation has been multicultural. Blacks fought beside whites in the War for Independence. During the Civil War, 186,000 Blacks served in the Union Army. During World War II, the defenders of our nation included Navajos from the reservations, Chicanos from the barrios, African Americans from the ghettos, and even Japanese Americans from U.S. internment camps. These groups struggled for a "double victory"­against fascism abroad and racism at home.

By participating in our nation's struggles, America_s different ethnic groups have advanced a more inclusive understanding of what Abraham Lincoln described as a nation dedicated to the "proposition" of equality. But what was defended during the Civil War continues to be "unfinished work." Now we face the challenge of defining "equality." Do we mean equality of opportunity or of condition? Is equality political, or is it also economic and cultural? How do we achieve equality? Is the situation in the U. S. different from the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia and the bloody Muslim-Hindu clashes in India, or do ethnic conflicts elsewhere represent our prologue? Is there a deep need for group identity rooted in hatred for the other? Will equality for America remain just a "proposition?"

These tough questions have stirred intense debate and division among us as Americans. But, as we grapple with them, we should not allow ourselves to be distracted and divided by shouting matches between ardent assimilationists and shrill separatists. For indeed, there is a third way, offering us a more accurate history as well as a more complete comprehension of who we are as Americans.


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