August 29, 2016

Our hidden asset: multiculturalism

Sam Smith

One of the troublesome things about the talk about race these days, is how little attention is paid to how you get ethnic relations to be based on the positive advantages of cultures healthily involved with one another rather than just avoiding an offensive collection of acts, symbols and language. It increasingly seems like legal or procedural matters have taken a massive lead over human and natural ones and hardly anyone seems to speak of how being in a culturally varied society can make us all feel better.

One reason this bothers me is that I am a child of the 1950s – the Silent Generation - that no one notices anymore and which is one of two adult generations not to have produced a president. It was while I was in college that the civil rights movement got going, and that my university had its first tenured woman professor. By the time I had reached thirty, the presumptions taught to, and presumed by, young white males had been thoroughly overturned by blacks, women, gays and latinos.

And, although we get little credit for it, the Silent Generation adapted to this change with significant passivity. It would, in fact, be hard to find a young generation that lost so much promised power so quickly, and yet so peacefully.

For those of us who welcomed the change, if we did anything different, it was to separate ourselves from the values of our parents’ generation rather than to do much about them.

Our cultural leaders included the Beats and while we were, in a sense, the warmup band for the 1960s, our perceived role was reaction rather than action.

This unintentionally made some of us far more friendly to other cultures not out of moral purpose but because we were looking for a better way to live. For example, one of the reasons I liked my ninth grade anthropology class – then one of two such high school courses in the country – was that it showed how my culture wasn’t the only way, an important discovery for a ninth grader uneasy with his own society. And my musical tastes had already gone strongly jazz – a vastly underrated pal of multi-culturism - with my favorites including Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Ella Fitzgerald.

In college, the most daring thing I did was to wear a beret and sunglasses and play black driven styles of jazz in a band and on the college radio station. Watching MIles Davis play with his back to the audience in a large auditorium seemed to to symbolize the time – one in which you could declare your relationship with society but without really changing it.

I also argued that women should be allowed to join the radio station and had my first place in a sailing race taken away from me by the New England intercollegiate Sailing Association for using a Radcliffe friend as my crew. I just couldn’t understand the male-obsessed prep school culture I found at Harvard. But my reaction was not really a moral one, just my thinking it was sort of stupid. Didn’t these guys know better how to deal with girls?

This wasn’t much, but even such modest acts constituted rebellion in the 1950s. And as I majored in anthropology my search for other ways of living continued.

It wasn’t until five years after graduation that I got directly involved in civil rights but the reason was in part because I had already become personally comfortable with black culture and couldn’t figure out why others were not.

I became a journalist and an activist but one of the few times I can recall being seriously dismissed or denigrated for my ethnicity was when Stokely Carmichael told us in a SNCC meeting that whites were no longer welcomed in the movement. Still, within a few years, I was back helping to form a bi-ethnic third party in the city. At one point there were two blacks for every white in DC. I was, I came to think, like a Jew in New York City. Part of minority to be sure, but still treated well and I tried to do the same to others.

Washington’s ethnic make-up was not a problem but an asset, especially to a white guy routinely breaking the thought code of the formal city. In color we were different, but blacks helped show me how to handle the establishment types.  

I tell this story not to prove a point – everyone’s tale is different – but to illustrate how important the non-regulatory aspect of decency is. Experiencing mix-culturalism as a jazz musician, a basketball player, or a soldier can create a comfort that laws and social dictates never can. Yet we hardly ever even talk about it.

The idea that multiculturalism is a gift and not a problem gets rarely mentioned by the media or even by its advocates. We have become obsessed with the problems of getting there and the cruelty of those who stand in the way.

This doesn’t mean you don’t confront evil. It means that one of the ways you do so is by creating visible alternatives that makes the wrong seem not only wrong but absurd. As St Francis of Assisi said, "Always preach the gospel. Use words if necessary."

It means building what it is you’re fighting for. And living a better future even as you’re fighting for it.

One of the things I learned over the years was that progress is often a product of stories and experiences rather than regulation, vague principles, theories and abstractions. Washington moved ahead as a bi-ethnic city because real people did and said real things – like our Mayor Walter Washington refusing  Edgar Hoover’s demand that he kill rioters in 1968. We have to live what it is we want, even before we achieve it.

All over America this is happening. But we’re not talking about or celebrating it. If we want a thriving multicultural society we need to enjoy its results as well as deal with the problems before these results are achieved.

And we need to include everyone, remembering, for example, that there are three times as many unemployed white males as there are black males. Yet too many liberals speak glibly of all whites as “privileged.” Multi-culturalism can be in your backyard, too.

One of those who helped me understand multiculturalism was the noted black journalist Chuck Stone who took me under his wing when I was in my twenties and he was a top aide to Rep. Adam Clayton Powell. . Stone believed in building what he calls "the reciprocity of civility." His advice for getting along with other Americans: treat them like a member of your family.

We are all part of multicultural America. Some handle it far better than others, but for the latter to succeed fully we must help others appreciate not just its problems but to enjoy its many assets.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One explanation for the unique phenomenon of Charles Sumner was that he grew up in a black part of Boston. His father was a Harvard trained lawyer but quite poor. Sumner never felt rich enough to marry until late in life. A transcendentalist and best friend of Longfellow, he led the abolitionist Congress, guided Reconstruction and was the author of the 1875 civil rights act. Before he entered politics he toured England and was so well versed in all things British that he became a trusted member of the governing circle while simply on vacation. This later helped during the civil war to keep the US out of a world war against England. Sumner's career is so improbable that it is simply ignored as being impossible, the leading political philosopher of the US Revolution, the prophet of political radicalism. There is a conversion phenomenon among his readers, whose lives are forever altered by his possibilities of world peace and a new paradigm for human progress.