In Md., Multiple Views of Multiculturalism
By Darragh Johnson and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 14, 2004; Page B01
Coming up with an absolute definition of multiculturalism is akin to describing an abstract painting.
For Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who roiled Maryland's political waters when he dubbed the concept "bunk" and "crap," multiculturalism means isolation, separation, a failure to embrace American culture.
"The goal here is assimilation, the goal here is to strengthen the melting pot that is American, not to separate ourselves out," Ehrlich (R) said in an impromptu call to WTOP Radio yesterday morning.
But leaders from African American, Latino and American Indian groups -- pointing out that the term was developed by black college professors to celebrate all cultures -- say the word has come to mean, simply, respect.
Multiculturalism, said Ron Lessard, executive director of the Baltimore American Indian Center, is making sure to "honor and treat people with dignity, regardless of their differences."
Multiculturalism, said Kevin Slayton, a civil rights advocate at the Public Justice Center, is figuring out the answer to: "How do we accept differences? How do we accept different people?"
Multiculturalism, said Kim Propeack, a lawyer for the Latino advocacy group CASA of Maryland, "means a commitment to integration and a recognition of all diverse communities that make up our community, Maryland."
She said Ehrlich's words, coming as they did after recent General Assembly battles over immigration legislation and a scuffle between Republican lawmakers and Latino advocates, were "part of a timeline in public figures attacking this community."
Ehrlich's initial comments came last week in defense of state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), who had announced he would no longer eat at McDonald's because of an encounter with a Spanish-speaking cashier. On a WBAL-AM radio show, Ehrlich said: "I reject the idea of multiculturalism. Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, you run into a problem. With respect to this culture, English is the language."
A week into the controversy, Ehrlich said he "didn't mean to offend anyone" and blamed criticism on "the politically correct crowd."
"I really believe the incredible support my statement has received all around the state reflects the view of the state," he added.
The governor drew a distinction between multiculturalism and celebrating a family's ethnic heritage.
"I've been German of the year, I go to the annual German festival, I go to the annual German dinner, I'm proud of my German heritage," Ehrlich said on WTOP. "But for my common cultural values, obviously I look to America."
When Ehrlich's ancestors first came to Baltimore, the city couldn't break them of their ties to Deutschland, said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor.
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