Historian Warns Against Resegregation

African Americans struggled for nearly a century to end legal segregation in our society. That battle was won over a quarter of a century ago, yet today, many children of those who struggled to end racial segregation want to resegregate America. It seems that many African American leaders are rejecting the gains made toward integrating our society for short-term political rewards. These leaders are seeking and winning Court-ordered redistricting of political districts along racial boundaries. These so called “minority congressional districts” are perhaps the most worrisome aspect of resegregation in the 1990s. They add a color of legitimacy from the highest level of government to the legal doctrine of “Separate but Equal.” This doctrine established by the Plessy decision in 1898, allowed states to enact laws that separated every aspect of American society by race. These so called “Jim Crow” laws, enacted throughout the South, existed until 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Plessy with the Brown decision.

If you are like me, you are confused about the direction our society is headed with respect to race. Today, I am not sure if we are building the country that George Washington envisioned of “one people,” or if our destiny with the melting pot will give way to the “Tower of Babel.” Will America come together as a nation under Jessie Jackson’s “Big Tent” or will we march on the cities with Pat Buchanan’s Army to “take back our culture?” I found an intellectual antidote for these confusing times . . . a new book . . . The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

In his book, Schlesinger warns readers of the dangers of what he calls the “ethnicity rage in general and Afrocentricity in particular.” But at the same, time he implies that America’s greatness flows from the diversity within our society. The ethnic rage he writes, “not only diverts attention room the real needs but exacerbates the problem . . . The cult of ethnicity exaggerates differences, intensifies resentments and antagonisms, [and] drives ever deeper the awful wedges between races and nationalities.”

The book is an argument for a single national ethnic identity for all Americans. Drawing upon the wealth of his scholarship and experiences, Schlesinger charts a course for our country that avoids the ethnic and racial conflicts that are tearing apart so many nations around the world. He makes the point that even nations that have long been considered stable and civilized like Britain, France, Belgium, Spain and Czechoslovakia face growing racial and ethnic troubles.

Even Canada appears to be coming apart. To this possibility, Schlesinger ask readers, if one of the top five richest nations on earth [Canada] can’t keep from tearing apart, how has the United States kept from tearing itself apart? The reason he proposes is that the United States is unlike other countries. Individuals and families from many different ethnic groups who identify first and foremost with being American peopled the United States. The viability of our nationhood provides an ethnically diverse people compelling reasons to see himself or herself as part of the same nation.. . We may have roots in different parts of the world, but the United States is our country now.

The author discusses other divisions in our society. He notes “the separatist impulse is by no means confined to the black community.” For example, he informs readers that bilingualism has not worked as planned. He says that research indicates”… that bilingual education retards rather than expedites the movement of Hispanic children into the English-speaking world and promotes segregation more than integration.”

Schlesinger takes a courageous position, critical of the many institutions and scholars that teach and write history in order to build group self-esteem. He warns that . . . “Even if history is sanitized in order to make people feel good, there is no evidence that feel-good history promotes self-esteem and equips students to grapple with their lives.” On the subject of history, Schlesinger reserves his harshest criticism for a colleague, City College of New York professor, Dr. Leonard Jeffries. He describes Jeffries’ “Ice People” (Europeans) – “Sun People” (Africans) theories as a feel-good approach to teaching history. Referring to a report in which Jeffries made a substantial contribution, Schlesinger writes, “Its interest in history is not as an intellectual discipline, but rather as social and psychological therapy whose primary purpose is to raise the self-esteem of children from minority groups.

Our Nation’s history, Schlesinger reminds readers, is essentially British. To deny the Anglocentric origins of American culture is to falsify history. He compares a nation’s history to an individual’s memory, noting that either a nation or a person with a false memory is confused. Neither confused individuals nor nations know where they have been or their destination. Readers, who misread this wise man’s book to mean, we should not take pride in our different contributions to American culture, can join “Buchanan’s Brigade.” Meanwhile, look for me under Jesse’s “big tent” trying to climb into the “melting pot” with Schlesinger and the rest of George Washington’s nation of “one people.”

The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Norton Books. 160 Pages.

Originally Published: November 1992, Union Springs Facts

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