Multiculturalism at the Crossroads

This post was authored by Dr. Paul Stoller. A professor of anthropology at West Chester University, Dr. Stoller lectures frequently in the United States and Europe, and has appeared on various NPR programs as well as on the National Geographic Television Network.

There is an unmistakable assault on multiculturalism in America. Millions of Americans have come to believe that life was better in the past when multiculturalism was barely known and little practiced. Critics of multiculturalism suggest that it is a potential poison that could lead to social and cultural decline. Walter E. Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University and a prominent critic of multiculturalism, provides a typical argument against it. “Multiculturalists argue,” he wrote in a recent widely circulated op-ed, “that different cultural values are morally equivalent. That’s nonsense. Western culture and values are superior.”

These ideas have a long history. In the 19th Century the “west is the best” rhetoric became the ideological foundation for imperial colonial expansion as well as the development of scientific racism. Belief in Western superiority also gave shape to the eugenics movement, the proponents of which suggested that race determined intelligence, and that some “races” were consequently superior to others. These beliefs not only precipitated generations of racial hatred and discrimination, but also set the course for the 20th Century ideologies of Fascism and Nazism.

Anthropologists have a long history of critiquing beliefs in cultural superiority. In a climate of profound racism and ethnic bias, Franz Boas, the founding father of American Anthropology once wrote: “The existence of any pure race with special endowments is a myth, as is the belief that there are races all of whose members are foredoomed to eternal inferiority.” Indeed, subsequent anthropologists have built an ethnographic record that demonstrates that “others” have much to teach us about living in the world.

Professor Williams’s essay on the “failure of multiculturalism” is one voice in a loud contemporary chorus that argues for the cultural superiority of so-called Western values. In this critique, people from other social and cultural backgrounds are asked to assimilate into what was once called the “melting pot”—be more like us.

These days the ideology of Western cultural superiority seems to be sweeping across Europe and the United States. It has provoked political conflict over immigration—Brexit in the UK, Marine Le Pen in France, and Donald Trump in America. In word and in deed there is much contemporary-immigrant sentiment.

“Send them away.”

“Keep them out.”

It has long been demonstrated that eliminating social and cultural diversity tends to weaken community ties—especially in rapidly diversifying societies. By the same token, anthropologists have produced ethnographies that demonstrate the power of social diversity to create robust communities that blend social and cultural differences to create powerfully vibrant communities.

In his award-winning book, The Future of Us All, Roger Sanjek describes how the people of perhaps the most ethnically and religiously diverse community in the United States, Elmhurst-Corona in Queens, New York, blended their diverse social and cultural traditions to forge a more perfect community union. “All my life, everyplace, is the same thing—try to get people to see that we’re all in the same damn thing together,” his friend points out. “I’ve been standing on street corners and hollering for 50 years, and it doesn’t amount to nothing. [But] let one [other] person [say], ‘Yeah, we’re in the same boat together,’ then everyone says, ‘Hot damn, we’re in this same boat together. Let’s get together and paddle this boat.”

In the debate on multiculturalism the stakes are high, for our biological, social and political future depends on our ability to incorporate difference. Ecosystems that fail to adapt to changes and incorporate difference to create resilience become weaker and weaker copies of themselves and eventually disappear. Likewise, social systems that fail to incorporate differences suffer the same fate: they slowly fade into obscurity.

Can we go back to the future, re-connect to a set of superior cultural values and restore a “lost” greatness? Or should we embrace a realistic and forward-looking future knowing that our ever-expanding diversity is likely to ensure a more perfect union?

It is powerfully clear that no set of “alternative facts” will alter ever-increasing demographic diversity in America, which in coming generations will become more and more profound. The ethnographic record points us toward a fruitful and positive future. We should know that if you try to move forward with your eyes closed, as wise West African elders are fond of saying, you’ll soon walk off a cliff.

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