Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1744
The collapse of Communism in the Eastern Bloc and the break-up of the Soviet Union, the emergence of the European Community, the growing economic dominance of Japan—these and other developments have prompted considerable speculation about the prospects for a “new world order.” Yet such analyses, whether optimistic or pessimistic, have for the most part consigned to the periphery or ignored altogether a factor that will become increasingly significant in the near future: worldwide migration of people on an unprecedented scale.
All over the world, nations which in the past have had relatively homogeneous populations are experiencing an influx of immigrants. Many of these immigrants are sojourners; they are seeking employment to support their families back home, not permanent residence. Such, for example, were the nearly twenty thousand Vietnamese workers in Kuwait who were displaced by the Gulf War. Others, however, do end up staying in their adopted country. In France and Germany, the growing number of immigrants—who are bearing children at a much higher rate than the national average—has resulted in severe racial tensions and intense political controversy. In Italy and Spain, immigrants from Africa have provoked similar reactions. Scenarios such as these are being played out around the world—in Scandinavia, where long-established social policies are being put to a new test by immigrants and migrant workers; in ethnically homogeneous Japan, where the number of foreign workers is steadily increasing.
Sporadic press coverage of these stories has focused almost exclusively on the moral issues involved, with the presumption that any opposition to immigration is evidence of racism and xenophobia. Indeed, in France and Germany, anti-immigrant groups have employed rhetoric that echoes Nazi slogans. What is absent from most of these articles is acknowledgment that concern over the consequences of immigration might have a legitimate basis. In contrast, a special report on international migration in the Los Angeles Times (October 1, 1991) noted that, “By century’s end, migration will not only color political decisions but may also seriously jeopardize national stability of both sending and receiving nations.”
This global situation provides a context for current issues of racial, ethnic, and civic identity in the United States. Immigration to the United States in the 1980’s was at its highest point since the great wave of immigration in the first decades of the twentieth century, and legislation passed by Congress in 1990 will permit an even greater increase. As a result, the United States, always known as a nation of immigrants, has become even more diverse. In Los Angeles, almost 40 percent of the population is foreign-born; in Miami, more than 50 percent. Ethnic enclaves are to be found throughout the country: Colombians in New York City’s Jackson Heights, Hmong refugees in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Vietnamese fishermen in Louisiana.
Coinciding with this “new immigration”—triggered by a major shift in U.S. immigration policy in 1965—there has been a marked increase in racial and ethnic consciousness among African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. Calls for recognition of America’s multicultural diversity have raised questions about how Americans define themselves: as participants in a shared civic culture, or first and foremost as members of a particular racial or ethnic group?
These questions have been debated in almost every forum in the land, but much of the debate has been unproductive. In The American Kaleidoscope: Race, Ethnicity, and the Civic Culture, Lawrence H. Fuchs has written a book which could contribute to substantive discussion of multiculturalism. The story he tells is familiar enough in its broad outlines: It is a celebration of America’s uniquely inclusive political culture, tempered by an uncompromising account of the ongoing struggle of racial and ethnic minorities to overcome disenfranchisement and discrimination. (Fuchs particularly emphasizes the African-American experience.)
Yet if the story is familiar, much in the telling is fresh and compelling. Fuchs has mastered an enormous quantity of material, which he integrates seamlessly into his narrative. Rarely does one encounter a work of history in which evidence (ranging from statistics to personal anecdotes) is linked so persuasively with interpretation. No other book so clearly illuminates the fascinating and troubling “contemporary American ethnic landscape” in the light of “historical patterns of ethnicity.”
While he acknowledges that “no metaphor can capture completely the complexity of ethnic dynamics in the U.S.,” Fuchs’s title rejects the old metaphor of America as a melting pot. Fuchs concedes that “the concepts associated with the melting pot”—notions of assimilation and absorption into the mainstream—represent a fundamental truth about the immigrant experience, yet he insists that this metaphor is not and never has been adequate “to describe the dynamics of ethnic diversity and acculturation, certainly not for Indians or blacks, not even for immigrants and their children.” As an alternative, Fuchs proposes the metaphor of a kaleidoscope (for which he credits John Higham’s book Send These to Me: Immigrants in Urban America, 1974). From the beginning, Fuchs argues, American ethnicity has been kaleidoscopic, characterized by complexity and rapidly changing patterns.
True enough—and Fuchs could have made his point even more effectively if he had stated explicitly what is implicit in his narrative: that the retrospective attribution of monolithic solidarity to “whites” or “Anglos” or “Euro-Americans”—a staple of current polemics—distorts history beyond recognition. For in part 1, “The Civic Culture and Voluntary Pluralism,” Fuchs shows how immigrant groups as diverse as Irish Catholics, Slovenians, Italians, and Jews, despite resistance by nativists, were able to describe themselves as Americans: “free to maintain affection for and loyalty to their ancestral regions and cultures while at the same time proclaiming an American identity by embracing the founding myths and participating in the political life of the republic.”
In contrast to this voluntary pluralism the four chapters that make up part 2 center on what Fuchs terms “coercive pluralisms.” Native Americans were the victims of “predatory pluralism,” a term that keeps Fuchs’s schema intact at the cost of precision. It means simply that whites coveted the Indians’ land and stopped at nothing to take possession of it. African Americans were the victims of “caste pluralism,” a system designed to furnish a permanent subservient class whose members would be excluded from participation in the civic culture. Noting that, on a rational economic basis, poor whites in the post-Civil War South might have made common cause with blacks, Fuchs draws attention to the widespread acceptance of the “sacredness” of the caste system. Finally, Fuchs shows how Asians and Mexicans were exploited by “sojourner pluralism,” a system “intended to meet the labor needs of an expanding American economy without having to admit nonwhite immigrant laborers to the civic culture.”
Part 3, “The Outsiders Move In: The Triumph of the Civic Culture,” tells how these excluded groups began to gain equal treatment under the law and access to the political process. World War II was a turning point, as those who had been victims of the coercive pluralisms nevertheless participated fully and often heroically in the war effort. Even more significant was the black Civil Rights movement, which aroused the conscience of the nation and inspired other groups to assert their rights and take a new pride in their racial or ethnic identity.
Part 4, “The American Kaleidoscope: The Ethnic Landscape, 1970-1989,” is the most original section of the book, offering one of the best available profiles of a changing America in the period of the new immigration. With a wealth of pertinent statistics and illustrative examples, Fuchs vividly conveys the “quickening pace of ethnic interaction.” Enormous diversity is not limited to New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; by 1980, for example, “Nashville, Tennessee, while only .8 percent Hispanic and .5 percent Asian, had become home for sixty-three ethnic groups, including Kurds and Laotians.”
Finally, in part 5, “Pluralism, Public Policy, and the Civic Culture, 1970-1989,” Fuchs discusses the ways in which public policy, subject to sharp debate, sought to ensure equal opportunity for all. Here he treats affirmative action, bilingual education, and other controversial public policy issues. He gives special attention to the long-term consequences of racism, tracing the grim realities of today’s black urban underclass to “generations of segregation and isolation from mainstream American institutions, breeding a deep sense of psychological isolation from well-to-do whites and African- Americans, whose values, attitudes, and life-styles sometimes seemed almost foreign to many in the underclass.” And he concludes his fundamentally optimistic survey with the observation that, “By 1990, the biggest domestic challenge to those who believed in equal rights lay in enhancing opportunity for children born into the underclass.”
Many universities are now requiring first-year students to take a course relating to issues of race and ethnicity. Serious questions have been raised about the validity of such courses and the manner in which they are conducted. Setting aside these questions for the moment, it would be hard to find a better book for such a course than The American Kaleidoscope.
To a degree that is unfortunately unusual in current debates, Fuchs combines a strong appreciation of the founding vision of America with a realistic acknowledgment of failures to live up to that vision. His sympathy for the oppressed sometimes leads him into wishful thinking, as in his discussion of the Black Panthers. Students who note Fuchs’s regret that Martin Luther King, Jr., “did not live to see the transformation of the Black Panthers”—their transformation, that is, into benign organizers of free breakfast programs and free medical clinics—should be referred to David Horowitz and Peter Collier’s Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties(1989), where the sordid career of Huey Newton and the gangsterism of the Panthers are documented in chilling detail. Moreover, Fuchs’s commitments place him among those for whom diversity is an absolute good. While he briefly considers outbreaks of hostility against recent immigrants under the heading “Xenophobia, Racism, and Bigotry: Conflict in the Kaleidoscope,” he never begins to consider reasoned, principled objections to current immigration policies. Between the liberal consensus represented by Fuchs and the nativist slurs given currency by Pat Buchanan there should be a middle ground where debate can be carried on without immediate recourse to name- calling.
Sources for Further Study
America. CLXIV, March 2, 1991, p. 245.
Booklist. LXXXVII, January 15, 1991, p. 985.
Choice. XXVIII, June, 1991, p. 1698.
The Christian Century. CVIII, May 29, 1991, p. 602.
Library Journal. CXV, October 1, 1990, p. 106.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 10, 1991, p. 11.
The New Republic. CCIII, December 31, 1990, p. 27.
The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, November 22, 1990, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, December 7, 1990, p. 63.
The Washington Post Book World. XXI, January 13, 1991, p. 3.
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