As I complete the revisions to my manuscript on emergent literatures for NYU Press, I’ve been rereading Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s critique of multiculturalism, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, originally published in 1992 and now in a second, revised edition (1998). Schlesinger criticizes what he refers to as the “cult of ethnicity,” the idea that “America is not a nation of individuals at all but a nation of groups, that ethnicity is the defining experience for Americans, that ethnic ties are permanent and indelible, and that division into ethnic communities establishes the basic structure of American society and the basic meaning of American history” (20-21)
There’s a lot to like in Schlesinger’s book — and a lot to critique as well — and I’ll be including a brief discussion of it in my emergent literatures book. One of the things that feels dated about the book is its preoccupation with Afrocentrism, a movement that has receded in importance in the ten years since the last edition of Schlesinger’s book. His remark that twelve percent of American are black, and the felt pressure to correct injustices of past scholarship comes mostly on their behalf” becomes the subject of Nathan Glazer’s We Are All Multiculturalists Now (1998), which argues that multiculturalism as an educational movement owes its power to the interest that African American intellectuals and educators have taken in it as a way of addressing the social and educational problems that blacks in America still face.
Schlesinger is no apologist for white resentment: although he believes firmly in the importance of “America” as an ideal, he also believes that the diversity of the United States is one of its chief characteristics and greatest strengths. He just doesn’t want diversity to become fetishized in a way that prevents Americans from thinking of themselves as Americans first and representatives of some other group — racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, or whatever — second.
One remark in particular caught my eye: Schlesinger described the election of an “Irish Catholic” — John F. Kennedy — to the presidency of the United States in 1960 as “a signal of ultimate acceptance that relieved Irish-Americans of the need for ethnic cheerleading” (62).
Unfortunately, Schlesinger passed away in February of last year: he didn’t live to see Barack Obama become the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency. I wonder what he would have thought about the meaning of Barack’s candidacy. Is it possible that the election of Barack would have a similar effect on the self-esteem of Africans Americans that the election of Kennedy had on Catholics? Or is the matter of race too important and divisive to make the cases similar? The “Catholics” that Schlesinger seems to have on his mind in the book are white Catholics.
Only time will tell, but it’s worth pondering.