A Response

by Constance M. McGovern, Professor of History

[The ad hoc form of the notes is maintained here on purpose]

In principle, I can only agree with Professor Bramann In this modern world of ours with all its global connectedness, with all its Enlightenment guidelines, and with its privilege of nearly universal education our original cultural/ethnic roots often seem so distant as to be non-existent (or, at least, insignificant)

BUT, first, I cannot help think that for those of us who are: white of European descent educated and, thus, privileged (ways we really never think about) It is all too easy to say we have reached the Enlightenment ideal and let's get on with it!!
AND, second, even if I grant your premise that "identity is non-identity" in an Enlightened world (and, I do) I would argue that the society you describe is the society that should be.
As it stands however, your argument, seems to eschew the testimony of history and, indeed, of present-day reality. It is precisely because the Enlightenment thinkers did not fulfill their own goals And because our society-this American society which has become the very embodiment of those ideas about a shared humanity- Has failed to fulfill its promise to all its people that we must continue to proclaim various separate identities in the face of a still unjust society.

You speak of 2 kinds of multiculturalism: The second stream of multiculturalism you connect with the "politics of identity" and characterize such "politics of identity" as:
reactionary
historically-backward
politically dangerous

I would suggest, rather that this second stream (and I think there are many more possibilities than just these two) is not reactionary, but instead is marked by the politics of reality. Is not historically-backward, but operates with historical precedent. Is not politically dangerous, but acts out of political necessity in an unjust world.

We need only think globally of Steven Biko's Black Consciousness movement of the 1970s among a people who had been brutalized, menialized, and exploited by both the British and Afrikaner governments for years. We need only think of French colonialism in Indochina in the 1950swhen the French refused to pull out at the end of the Second World War (although every other European nation had given up its colonial possessions) and the French arrogance at the battle of Bien Pien Phu in 1954 . . . . .fell to the power of Ho Chi Minh's rallying of the Vietnamese people as a people against all foreign occupiers We need only think of Mohandas Gandhi's rallying of the Indian people, as an Indian people, against the British regime of racism, exploitation, and, ultimately, open brutality.

And, more recently, we need only read of the way in which the Bahujan Samaj Party of India, the party founded by and for the dalits (the untouchables), is creating pride and purpose among these people who for so long have been the outcasts of Indian society and politically powerless, even as India had become the largest democracy in the world. We need only think of Julius Nyerere (who died just last week) who encouraged the people of the new republic of Tanzania in the 1960s to overcome the debilitating effects of British colonialism by taking on one of the hallmarks of the "politics of identity"-the common language (Kiswahili) . . . . . [or of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana who urged his people to identify as Africans and to be proud of their Africanism.]


And, certainly, we need only think of the course of American history regarding Native Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and, of course, African Americans To understand that this government---formed on the principles of the Enlightenment---has not fulfilled its promise And that peoples, when seeking recourse, have used the politics of identity, again and again, to remind this government of its promise.


INDEED, THE POLITICS OF INDENTITY HAVE A LONG, PROUD HISTORY IN THIS COUNTRY. We sometimes forget that those men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 to write the Declaration of Independence were practicing the "politics of identity" when they coalesced as a particular group of British colonists oppressed by their own British government. Or that the 55 men who gathered, in Philadelphia once again, in 1787 to write the Constitution of the United States, identified themselves as a particular type of American-Americans who were strong nationalists and who sought a strengthened national government---a prime example, and a much revered one, of the practice of the "politics of identity" Now these early folks (our revered Founding Fathers deeply influenced by the Enlightenment) stumbled some-----as would the entire nation for the next several centuries

The history of African Americans in this Enlightened nation is a case in point: 1) Africans were doomed from the moment they set foot on American soil in 1619 (within the 1st generation) Brits defined "civilized" as white, free, educated, Pian defined "white" as good and "black" as undesirable And, needing a cheap, available, exploitable labor force Short step to wiping out the identity of Africans In one fell swoop, changed the very nature of an ancient tradition of slavery-as a result of war captivity-to one based on race. 2) A chance to change all this failed: Declaration of Independence "politics of expediency" leave it until ---independence first! 3) Well, later was in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention: Four separate affirmations of slavery in the Constitution 4) A Constitution that created a Congress that continued to sanction the spread of slavery 5) And when a slave (Dred Scott, 1857) sued for his own freedom, he was confronted with a Supreme Court that would declare him not a person 6) And even when (part of a) nation fought a civil war to eradicate slavery, that same Enlightened nation would stand by as the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were violated decade after decade (Jim Crow)-and segregation upheld, again, by the Supreme Court (Plessey vs. Ferguson, 1896 7) Change came precisely because of the "politics of identity" (over a very long period of time) Denmark Vesey Frederick Douglass Sojourner Truth Harriet Tubman Marcus Garvey Zora Neale Hurston Langston Hughes Booker T. Washington (financing segregation cases) Long decades of work by NAACP through the courts (WEB DuBois, founder (and, incidentally, DuBois's emphasis on "race pride"; Thurgood Marshall) Brown vs. Bd. of Educ., 1954 8)

And, you know the rest of the story: "politics of identity" of Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) CORE, SNCC, Black power movements Civil rights legislation poured (wrenched?) out of Congress (1950s, 1960s, 1970s) Until as William Raspberry was able to say in last week's column in the Washington Post: "The civil rights phase of our struggle for justice is over, successfully so" I REMIND US ALL THAT THIS CHANGE HAPPENED Despite the weight of the resistance of much of American society Despite the racism institutionalized in our state and federal governments Because some saw the power in the politics of identity-----

The idea that African Americans have an identity that is theirs, an identity that unites them at some very real levels, that inspires them to work for recognition of that identity- And the rights that go with being an African American It has been the power of that identity that has brought political change

BUT, as William Raspberry also eloquently asks in that recent column,: is the US now a just society??? (Actually, his title is "Phase 2 of Equality") Civil rights have been won But, we know often such rights are breached in practice- the continuing activities of the KKK, redlining, resources to compete for black faculty (this is really a form of institutional racism; resources are always available; it all depends on priorities and how resources are allocated; need real commitment from the top!!) avoidance of implementing even today still the Brown decision in both the South and the North (2 recemt books, one of which discusses the political strategies taken by the politicians in Columbus, Ohio, to guarantee that the white suburbs of the city would keep their white schools) college admissions and affirmative action attacks, but what are we doing to provide a superior education for all our children quality of health care: when white doctors cannot communicate effectively with black patients (Tuskegee experiments); lung cancer surgery article in New York Times a week ago (that describes the study showing that black patients get less surgery than white patients from white doctors largely based on less than adequate communication between white doctor and black patient and probably revolving around the idea of how much one values the person across the desk) images and role models: network programming and Kweisi Mfume and NAACP the insensitive (and sometimes outright prejudiced) behavior-("Any Day Now")
[Even the role of Thomas Sowell (and other black conservatives), alert us that we have not reached equality! Sowell does not believe in intervention but that the forces of the free market must work, but he does not disagree with other, more liberal black leaders, that there exists---bottom line---racial inequality]

Perhaps, there is another meaning to "I am proud to be X." Being proud to be X does not necessarily imply "some sort of superiority" to Y. BUT, rather it may simply mean: As X, grant me the equality of Y; grant me the promise of the Enlightenment! It is not yet mine and, until it is, the "politics of identity" are essential, good, and necessary.

Back to "Multiculturalism"

Go to Jean-Marie Makang's Response