I Was Wrong

Reading between the lines.
May 15 1997 3:30 AM

I Was Wrong

Nathan Glazer comes to terms with multiculturalism.

We Are All Multiculturalists Now
By Nathan Glazer
Harvard University Press; 179 pages; $19.95

Nathan Glazer, the Harvard social scientist and core member of the group known as the New York Intellectuals, appears to be haunted by second thoughts. This may be a sign of irresolution. In a review of Glazer's latest book, We Are All Multiculturalists Now, in the Weekly Standard, Dinesh D'Souza accuses the author of "cowardice," of mollycoddling the multicultural left in order to make life in Cambridge tolerable. It's true that Glazer is not the combative soul that, say, Norman Podhoretz or Irving Kristol is. Glazer is a gentleman, always ready to concede, at least rhetorically, the sincerity of his opponent's feelings. (He wrote a nice review of my book, City on a Hill, in the New Republic.) But Glazer is also too honest to disguise his own misgivings, and his new book, painful and awkward and sometimes confused, is the record of a reality--the reality of race and racial identity--that has resisted the categories he has tried to impose on it throughout his career.

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Like the rest of the crowd that gathered around the fabled Alcove 1 in the City College cafeteria in the '30s, Glazer started out as a Trotskyist. His radicalism, however, did not last long. In the afterglow of the war and the recovery from the Depression, Glazer and most of the other New York Intellectuals came to see America as a great success story. At the heart of their optimistic liberalism was the recognition that the country had opened itself to impoverished Jewish immigrants like themselves, and that the immigrants had in turn embraced the democratic values, the secular rituals, and the faith in individual achievement that made them Americans. "The complete identification of the overwhelming majority of persons in each group of Americans in spite of discrimination is assured," Glazer wrote in a 1954 article in Commentary, one of the favorite journalistic forums of the ex-radicals.

Glazer expanded on this theme in his best-known work, Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City, published in 1963 and co-authored by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The book's central point was that, contrary to both the fears and the faith of the '50s, mass culture was not eradicating ancient distinctions of religion and ethnicity. Its unspoken premise was that every ethnic group until then had found its own distinctive path to success. Blacks had, in effect, recently arrived at the head of the line; they had problems, but so had the Irish and the Italians. "New York will very likely in the end be an integrated area," Glazer wrote.

Then the world turned upside down. There were riots, and the brutal reception of Moynihan's report on the black family, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers' wars, and open admissions at City College. In the foreword to the 1970 edition of the book, the authors admitted they had assumed that blacks would behave as, and see themselves as, one ethnic group among many. They hadn't imagined that blacks would want to be treated as something wholly new, a "racial" group. The authors wrote that they were "saddened and frightened" by the implications of this choice, and they blamed the white intelligentsia for legitimizing it.

It was race, along with revolt on campus, that pushed Glazer and his crowd to the right. In 1975, Glazer published Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy, a book in which he attacked affirmative action and decisively broke with contemporary liberalism. Affirmative action, with its promise of government intervention to overcome the effects of discrimination, represented a willful refusal by blacks to accept "the main pattern of American history," the pattern of ever-expanding inclusiveness. But when the book was reissued in 1987, Glazer wrote an introduction full of rueful reflections. It was becoming clear, he wrote, that blacks weren't being assimilated as others had been. Perhaps affirmative action wasn't so very willful after all. "The underlying force that keeps the system of numerical quotas and goals strong is the actual condition of blacks," he wrote. Glazer didn't think affirmative action was the answer, but he cautioned against an "all-out assault" on the policy.

We Are All Multiculturalists Now should be read as a book-length postscript, an agonized reconsideration. Glazer is the last person one would expect to applaud the kind of ethnic chauvinism and myth-mongering that often go under the name of multiculturalism, and he doesn't. "I feel warmly attached to the old America that was acclaimed in school textbooks," he writes. But Glazer concludes that his side has lost--hence the title. He cites the ubiquity of the multicultural curriculum in the schools and the blithe acceptance of it even by teachers and administrators with no ethnic or ideological ax to grind. Multiculturalism, he finds, though with only the most anecdotal evidence, has been institutionalized. Glazer appears to be conceding that the postwar liberal faith was misguided, and that the pluralistic community he envisioned in Beyond the Melting Pot has not--and perhaps will not--come to pass.

But that's not quite so. Glazer observes that while the multicultural curriculum is being propagated in the name of the new wave of immigrants, the immigrants themselves want to succeed on more or less the same terms as the European newcomers of 75 years ago. We Are All Multiculturalists Now has a hidden subject; it almost seems hidden from Glazer himself. Toward the end of this short book, Glazer observes that it is blacks, not immigrants, who have pushed hardest for the multicultural curriculum. And when Glazer asks why this is so, he finds not the obscurantism of black academics like Leonard Jeffries or Asa Hilliard, but the hard fact of black experience, and "the fundamental refusal of other Americans to accept blacks, despite their eagerness, as suitable candidates for assimilation."

This is, for Glazer, an almost subversive conclusion. Conservatives, including Glazer himself, have routinely called on blacks to behave like immigrants. Now he is saying that blacks want to follow the ethnic pattern, but can't--and that multiculturalism is the result of that frustration. It is this recognition that accounts for the strange air of passivity and gloom that dominates the book. Glazer has reached a cul-de-sac. He's no more comfortable condemning multiculturalism than he is condemning affirmative action, though he believes in neither. He is forced to say, instead, that multiculturalism isn't the end of the world. That's certainly true, and it's a useful corrective to all the apocalyptic literature on the subject. But it puts Glazer in the bizarre position of accepting the teaching of self-esteem-enhancing myths, such as the claim that the Iroquois federation significantly influenced the framers of the Constitution. Glazer is right to think that even a steady diet of ethnic special pleading won't lead to Balkanization and intergroup warfare; but he's also right to wonder if he takes "too extreme an outcome ... as a test against which to estimate" the likely effects of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is guilty of plenty of midsize wrongs, including bilingual instruction, which often keeps Spanish-speaking students locked in their own form of isolation, and the reduction of history to therapy, as Arthur Schlesinger put it.

But Glazer's underlying point is that abolishing the multicultural curriculum, even were it possible, wouldn't do much to diminish racial isolation; the dynamic works the other way around. This is not, for Glazer, a "problem" with a "solution." It is a tragedy. Glazer is still the neoconservative who wrote The Limits of Social Policy. He doesn't believe that any large-scale policy can increase residential or educational integration, or raise the low level of racial intermarriage. He doesn't believe that racism is the cause of black isolation, so he doesn't suggest that enlightenment is the answer. It's not easy to argue with either of these propositions. But Glazer's own logic leaves him with nothing to offer--except the admittedly specious comforts of multiculturalism. We Are All Multiculturalists Now is thus the opposite of Beyond the Melting Pot--a putatively neutral book with a profoundly discouraging subtext. And in the arc that connects the two one can read the downfall of what was once a sustaining faith.

James Traub is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College.