Equality, but not in reality;Books

23rd May 1997 at 01:00

WE ARE ALL MULTICULTURALISTS NOW. Nathan Glazer. Harvard University Press, pound;13.50

Beulah Ainley describes the problems facing multicultural education

How precisely does colour remain so powerfully determinative of everything from status to the manner of death in a world that is, officially, "colour blind"? This disturbing question is the basis of Patricia Williams' Seeing a Colour-Blind Future taken from her controversial l997 Reith Lectures.

Williams challenges the myth that British and American societies are colour-blind, and sees this so-called colour-blindness as a denial of the race problems of these countries. However, as she explains, "I embrace colour-blindness as a legitimate hope for the future." Yet, until this becomes a reality the term simply robs black people of their own experience because whites say "I don't think about colours therefore your problems don't exist."

Western societies are, however, well aware of colour because they see "whiteness as normative", a view developed during the years of slavery and colonisation .

The book provides evidence of the unequal status of black people, emphasising the under-achievement of black children in schools and the fact that the Commission for Racial Equality receives more than l,700 complaints every month. In America, when black people complain about racism they are seen as "leftist agitators" and, even when 60 per cent of young black men are unemployed, it is their fault. Their poverty and isolation remain an "oversight".

There is no colour-blindness in Williams's portrayal of black people who "ricochet between hypervisibility and oblivion." She sees the O J Simpson case as a good example. It whetted the appetite for "spicy brews of race, sex and crime" but provided no insight into what ordinary black defendants experience in the American criminal justice system.

My only criticism of this book is that the author did not balance her argument with some of the achievements of the Civil Rights movement. Since the 1960s, America has had "Affirmative Action" policies and "Contract and Compliance" laws which give a number of black people opportunities for education and jobs they were once denied. Although in the 1980s Reagan and then Bush attacked these policies, they are still working, if not for everyone.

Nathan Glazer's We Are All Multiculturalists Now, while just as critical of American society, is more hopeful. The book examines multicultural education, what is at stake, and how America is dealing with the failure of assimilation. Glazer argues that America has generally accepted multicultural education in state schools, even in places such as Florida which are "rooted in the orientation of the old America".

Multiculturalism came about as a result of non-European Americans rejecting what they saw as the "imposition" of the dominant culture and instead arguing for diversity in education. Although the multiculturalists have won the battle they have not won the war. Critics say they are worried about the effects of multiculturalism on race relations if it becomes a normal part of education, fearing that white students might reject it. Even the author, while accepting that a multicultural curriculum is the way forward, feels that it might undermine the old concept of the melting pot.

What lies at the heart of the argument is the difficulty some critics have of accepting that non-European cultures are equal. Glazer points out that Asian-Americans are not affected very much by multicultural education: the main recipients are African-Americans and Hispanics. Although multicultural education in Britain during the 1970s and 80s was reduced in many schools to "steel-bands and samosas", in America it is different. It teaches the history of slavery and discrimination and the annexation of "half of Mexico and Puerto Rico". Critics believe this will lead to dissatisfaction and a threat to national unity.

There is controversy on what is true and what is false in the teaching of black history. African-Americans are keen to establish the truth about the contribution of black people to history, which they say has been ignored or hidden. The author calls for a "balanced treatment of the history of these groups" but does not condemn multiculturalism because he accepts that getting rid of the diversity in education will not change race-divided America.

The book asks "How can we be brought together?" Although the author is hopeful, he is cautious and realistic about the obstacles involved.

This is because he, like many other social scientists, believed in the l960s and 70s that the Civil Rights Act in 1964 would fundamentally change "the future of blacks and black white relationships" but while some black people have benefited, most are still living in poverty and white America is refusing them equality.

This failure has led many to ask for government action but the author believes that it will have to be done "one by one, family by family, individual by individual". He believes that although this is a slow process "there is no alternative".

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