We’re All the Same Except that We’re Not: A Primer on Multiculturalism


“We are extremely skeptical about ‘multicultural’ education in settings with few or no blacks,” Charles Moskos and John Butler wrote in 1996. “Indeed, without a substantial black presence, such education can detract from blacks’ opportunity by becoming a vehicle for other ‘oppressed’ groups – women, Hispanics, Asian Americans, gays and lesbians, and so on.”[1]  For the two sociologists, blacks endured the longest and most pernicious forms of discrimination, both de jure and de facto, which immigrant groups largely avoided. Moskos and Butler even blamed the rise of multiculturalism for undermining affirmative action programs for African Americans, arguing that once multicultural rhetoric proliferated what had been designed to create “equal opportunity” for a community that could point to a long history of discrimination became a vehicle for “diversity.”  Fewer and fewer African Americans benefited despite being, according to the authors, the most deeply affected by racism.  “The decline of Afro-Americans in affirmative action priorities corresponded directly with replacement of equal opportunity with the rhetoric of multiculturalism and diversity,” they argue.[2] Of course, though one might debate some of their assertions, the group that historically benefited the most from affirmative actions programs has not been African Americans but white women.

Moskos and Butler’s work focused largely on military integration policies, but as much as any other part of American society the military needed to address the issue of multiculturalism.  Since the 1973 shift to an all-volunteer force, African Americans have disproportionately, when compared to their percentage of the national population, served in the armed forces, especially the army.  Partly for this reason and those stated above, the two authors privilege black service personnel.  Of course, in recent years Latino and Asian American enlistment rates have increased, as have those of immigrants.   Many in this last group signed up for service in hopes of gaining citizenship or having the process expedited.  These changing demographics suggest that Moskos and Butler’s argument may carry some flaws, but their larger points—that black American history differs greatly from that of other minority groups and that multiculturalism becomes a vehicle that mouths equality but fails to help those groups most affected by institutional racism—stand at the heart of wider debates on the subject.  Published in 1996, All that We Can Be proved the tip of the iceberg in multicultural debates.  In the wake of Obama’s coalition victory, revisiting the critiques of multiculturalism seems more necessary than ever.

One year after Moskos and Butler released their work, Lisa Lowe published her influential 1997 Immigrant Acts, in which the Tufts University scholar looked at Asian American culture as a site for challenging dominant national tropes that celebrated pluralistic democratic inclusion while obscuring long standing institutional discrimination that ensured economic, social, and political inequality.  “Multiculturalism levels the important differences and contradictions within and among racial and ethnic minority groups according to the discourse of pluralism,” Lowe wrote in 1987, “which attests that American culture is a democratic terrain to which every variety of constituency has equal access and in which all are represented, while simultaneously masking the existence of exclusions by recuperating dissent, conflict, and otherness through the promise of inclusion.”  The very presence of Koreans, Vietnamese, and Filipinos disavowed anti imperial U.S history narratives that painted America’s role in military interventions in Asia from the late 1800s to today as benevolent excursions executed for the benefit of benighted yellow and brown peoples. After all, their immigration to the U.S. hinged on American adventures in the Pacific and Far East: U.S. occupation of the Philippines in the late 1800s/early 1900s, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars of mid century.[3]

Not exactly benevolent America

For Lowe, multiculturalism glosses over historical events that contradict the typical narrative of a put-upon America that felt compelled to embark on colonizing projects in the name of bringing democracy. When one considers the prejudice inflicted upon Asian Americans from the Chinese Exclusion Act, various Alien Land Laws, and discriminatory citizenship regulations that barred Asian immigrants from any legal claim to national membership altogether –even while big business and others encouraged their migration – not to mention the “driving out” campaigns that flourished along the West Coast in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Lowe raises a good point, even if in moments things get a bit abstract. When she points out that in reality history is not linear—rather, we tend to naturalize history in this manner, in part by creating narratives that fit our conceptions of events around us—Lowe is certainly correct but as with most theoreticians and cultural historians/critics the language could be simpler.  With that said, her larger point rings true.  The collective memories of Asian American culture demonstrate the fragmented nature of history and experience, as it is a past “always broken by war, occupation and displacement,” notes Lowe, before embarking on one of the book’s most “meta” lines: “Asian American culture ‘re-members’ the past in and through the fragmentation, loss, and dispersal that constitutes the past.”[4]

It helps to have tangible examples to explore Lowe’s argument: Orange County, CA serves as a good case study.  In pop culture and the collective consciousness, most Americans identify Orange County as a bastion of conservatism and to a lesser extent whiteness.  Shows like The OC, Newport Harbor, and Laguna Beach undoubtedly reinforce such perceptions.  Yet, its demographics today reveal a much different story. Immigrants make up half of the county’s population, with Latinos more than one-third and Asians one-fifth.   How did the OC, a region that Lisa McGirr correctly identified as a key influence on modern conservatism, come to reflect diversity that some right wingers seem to fear?  In three words: The Vietnam War.

Little Saigon in the OC

After America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, in the face of national polls that opposed refugee resettlement, Republican President Gerald Ford pushed through the1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act.  Southern California’s Camp Pendleton served as one of four refugee centers. Followed by the Refugee Act of 1980, 531,000 Vietnamese refugees or asylum seekers sought a new life in one of the nation’s most conservative corners.  The same region that supported aggressive cold War Hawk and New Right visionary Barry Goldwater and popularized the John Birch Society soon could claim the largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the nation.  Even now, 40% of all Vietnamese Americans reside in the OC.

The history of Vietnamese immigration to the United States is not one of the plucky upstart trying to better his or her family’s life, but rather of war and asylum. Consider as well that recent Gallup polls suggest that views regarding the Vietnam War have been changing.  In 2000, 69% of Americans viewed the conflict as a mistake, in 2012 that number declined sharply to 57%.  Considering the poll came on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, a conflict the majority of the public now sees as an error, opinion regarding the Vietnam War seems surprising.  Though if one remembers the vitriolic rhetoric that came with the 2004 Swift Boat controversy, Americans have never truly sorted out their feelings about Vietnam.  Then again, perhaps, as the war recedes further (this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 ceasefire), many people simply know less and less about it, except that the U.S. lost. In either case, these examples support Lowe’s assertions regarding Asian American culture as a form of resistance to historical revisionism that might paint the Vietnam war as a heroic failure rather than a failed or morally questionable foreign policy or that it cost Americans 50,000 lives and the Vietnamese millions.   The personal histories of Vietnamese Americans serve as reminder of these facts and call into question the war’s moral basis, even if popular memory of the war, or at least its most negative aspects, seems to be fading.

So what’s the answer? Well, like many things in life: it’s complicated.  Lowe points to Stuart Hall’s “politics of difference,” which advocates engaging “heterogeneities of gender, race, and class” rather than squashing them for an all-leveling commonality.  Instead, through difference new forms of unity can form, and thereby a common struggle can then be perpetuated: a “politics whose vision is not the origin but the destination.”[5] In this context identity politics encourage explorations of difference rather than hinder unity beyond an all encompassing, and often reductive, identity.  Undoubtedly, for better and worse, identity politics have proven a force in America.  One need only think of the Civil Rights, Chicano, Feminist, and Black Power movements, which forced America to reform some of its most retrograde attitudes regarding race, gender, and sexuality.  Yes, each suffered from its own flaws – generational divide, homophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, depending on the movement being discussed – but they also forced conversations and remain inspirational for a large segment of the nation.  Granted, splinter groups muddied the waters; the Weathermen did the New Left no favors.  With this said, as noted by Rick Perlstein, conservative forces perpetuated far more violence in this period.  Violence in the form of the state authorities via local police or errant National Guard Forces may have legitimized it for some observers, but violence is violence. This fails to account for the numerous other examples in which the state chose not to intervene, the Birmingham school bombings serve as just one example.  Finally, while some argue minorities and the New Left perpetuated the problematic politics of identity, it’s worth remembering that the image of the middle class white homeowner/taxpayer proliferated during desegregation.  Suburban white homeowners, as evidenced by Matthew Lassiter, Kevin Kruse, David Freund, Daniel HoSang, and others, couched their own identities in racialized notions of property rights and allegedly free housing markets. Today, the Tea Party is nothing if not a very attenuated form of identity politics.

Identity Politics Redux

Then again, new scholarship demonstrates how difference, though valuable, can also be difficult to bridge when institutional factors come into play.  As Mark Brilliant argues in his recent work, The Color of America has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941 – 1978, discrimination comes to ethnic and racial communities in different guises, requiring different solutions for each community.  Treating all groups as striving for the same exact set of civil rights ignores the way institutional structures affect each differently.  Immigrants, most often Latinos and Asians, faced discrimination based on nationality/ancestry more so than race. Put simply, African, Asian, and Latino Americans encountered “different axes of discrimination… [that] necessitated different avenues of redress.”[6] For example, during school desegregation efforts in the 1970s, California’s African and Chinese American activists conflicted as the bilingual programs that the state’s Chinese community valued would have been heavily disrupted by bussing and desegregation efforts. Mexican American communities harbored similar fears as their Chinese American counterparts.  When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of bilingual education in Lau v. Nichols (1974), it undercut desegregation efforts.  Though some viewed efforts by Chinese American activists and  amicus briefs by Mexican American organizations like MALDEF as reactionary, Brilliant notes that these communities were simply trying to secure their own educational civil rights. Similar conflicts arose in late twentieth and early twenty first century Compton, CA, where the city’s rapidly growing Mexican American community and its longstanding Black residents fought over school policies and local political representation. In an America that increasingly looks like California, these are important lessons to remember.


Yet, identity politics can lead to political unity and advocacy as well, even as it levels important differences. The 1982 Highland Park, MI murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin united an oft-divided Asian American community.  Chin’s white murders, two Detroit auto-workers who believed the young man to be of Japanese descent, resented Chin’s shared enjoyment of their local gentlemen’s club and in retaliation for American job losses beat Chin to death. When they received extremely light sentences for Chin’s murder, no jail time, three years probation and a $3,000 fine, Asian Americans realized most of their fellow non-Asian citizens failed to differentiate between nationalities and valued their lives less than whites. In spite of whatever internal differences existed, they needed to find a collective political expression.   The Asian American moniker became increasingly important in unifying this diverse group, but it also papered over real cultural and historical differences between ethnicities and defined an identity that technically includes South Asians, but is often perceived as encompassing only East and Southeast Asians.

Latinos know all too well about this.  Numerous scholars have documented interethnic frictions.  Mexican, Columbian, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican Americans, to name only a few, have very different interests, politics, and histories.  For example, though citizenship issues might be at the heart of Mexican American political concerns, obviously for Puerto Ricans this issue carries less importance. When Republicans recently put Florida Senator Marco Rubio forward as the party’s standard-bearer for diversity and as a bridge to the larger American Latino community, many observers noted that, as a Cuban American from Florida, Latinos might not embrace him so quickly.  Florida’s Cuban community has long been a favorite within U.S. immigration policy; Cubans who reach American nearly always get citizenship due to America’s long standing beef with the island nation. Other Latinos do not enjoy such favoritism.   Moreover, though changing, Florida’s Cuban Americans’ traditionally conservative politics place them well to the right of other groups, particularly the largest ethnic group under the Latino moniker: Mexican Americans. Again, however, the designation remains important since, as with Asian Americans, one doubts how often many Americans differentiate between various Latino nationalities.

In many ways this brings us full circle. Lowe’s now sixteen year old work still provides a valuable road map to discussions of immigration, inclusion, and citizenship.  Yet, her answer depends not only a shift in how Americans view ethnicity, race, and difference, but more importantly how much the nation’s institutions can also enact change.  After all, the above examples demonstrate not a lack of concern about civil rights but rather a series of struggles over how the system adjudicates those rights or denies those rights to different groups.  Clearly, as we move forward, notably toward a majority minority reality, balancing difference and commonality while trying to maintain a intelligible place in the public sphere will continue to be a high wire act for everyone.


[1] Charles Moskos, All that We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way, (New York, Basic Books, 1996), pg. 121.

[2] Ibid, pg. 140.

[3] Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), pg 86.

[4] Ibid, pg. 29.

[5] Ibid, pg. 153.

[6] Mark Brilliant, The Color of America has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941 – 1978, (Cambridge: Oxford UP, 2012), pg. 231.