Race, Ethnicity, and the Civic Culture

By Lawrence H. Fuchs

Wesleyan/University Press of New England

618 pp. $45

AT A TIME when the media feature stories about black boycotts of Korean grocers in New York, racial gerrymandering in Los Angeles, white backlash in Cuban-dominated Miami, and "official English" referenda all over, American society seems less like a melting pot than a beaker brimming over with explosive, incompatible chemicals.

Lawrence Fuchs, a distinguished scholar of ethnicity and immigration, argues in The American Kaleidoscope that the truth is both more complicated and more reassuring. The melting pot image, he says, ignores the remarkable persistence of group identity in America. Mosaic and salad images are too static to capture the flux of ethnic change. A symphony image suggests harmony where conflict has been the rule. Fuchs prefers a kaleidoscope metaphor; its parts relate to each other in constantly changing ways, producing fresh shapes and new patterns. In fact, today's pattern is more diverse, tolerant and humane than ever.

The United States has turned ethnic diversity to greater advantage than any other nation in history. In a world of xenophobic, tribalistic, severely fragmented societies, America has managed to forge a rich, durable civic culture out of a plethora of clashing group identities. The public philosphy that sustains it, however, did not spring full-blown from the Founders' collective brow. Washington, Franklin and Jefferson had little use for immigrants who spoke foreign tongues and were inured to monarchs and despots. Pennsylvania's ideal of equal rights for all comers had to compete with Massachusetts's "charter member" ideal of cultural-religious uniformity and with Virginia's rigid caste ideal. But the ultimate triumph of diversity was foreseen by the French visitor Crevecoeur as early as the 1770s. It would take the form of a "voluntary pluralism," a political culture that leaves to each individual the choice of whether and how to express ethnic attachments.

Voluntary pluralism, however, was sharply contested by three "coercive pluralisms": the "tribal" pluralism of Native Americans victimized by conquest and confinement; the "caste" pluralism of slavery; and the "sojourner" pluralism of Asians, Mexicans and others brought here as temporary workers. Our history, Fuchs suggests, has been the slow working through of these pluralistic logics. In the beginning, violence, injustice and neglect embedded group poverty and disadvantage in the social structure. With time and dogged effort, many victims of these coercive pluralisms succeeded in achieving some distance, often tenuous, from the suffering of those left behind. Recently federal policy has erased the remaining legal disadvantages, yet the legacy of discrimination survives in the wretched Indian reservations, black ghettoes and barrios of America.

To encompass the changing patterns of ethnic relations over almost four centuries is an immense task. The first 350 years consume less than a third of the book, while the postwar period is covered in considerable detail. The discussion ranges widely, but certain broad themes stand out. First, our system has worked extraordinarily well in integrating ethnic groups into the civic culture. Without exception, every group has advanced far beyond its point of origin in terms of economic performance, social mobility and status, political influence and participation in most aspects of American life. Fuchs scatters clues about some of the determinants of this remarkable progress; community solidarity, skills, religious and cultural values and political activity were all important. Unfortunately, however, he proposes no general theories about the relative weight and interactions of these variables.

A second, more troubling theme is that the rate of progress has been very uneven within and across racial and ethnic groups. Fuchs maintains that the barriers to advancement by blacks have been much higher than those that were confronted by Native Americans and non-WASP immigrant groups. This claim is not particularly novel and there is certainly evidence to support it. For example, the levels of black-white intermarriage and residential integration, important measures of isolation and discrimination, are low compared with those of Asians and Hispanics. Fuchs argues that blacks, unlike other groups, had to forge their ethnic identity almost entirely out of their experience in America. Jim Crow segregation he says, was more rigid and complete as to blacks than as to Asians and Mexicans, and even organized crime excluded blacks. He concludes that "regardless of the status of the migrants and their children, and no matter how difficult their circumstances, they were positioned above blacks."

Comparing the sufferings of different groups is extremely difficult, of course, and in a different political context might even be beside the point. But such comparisons are unavoidable in a political system in which group experiences increasingly generate claims to group rights. While blacks cite the unique degradation of slavery, Asians and Hispanics cite the obstacles posed by their alien languages and customs, and Jews cite two millennia of virulent anti-Semitism. What principle of comparative justice can possibly explain the fact that the federal government now pays reparations to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II and to Native Americans whose tribal rights were taken from them long ago, yet blacks whose ancestors' enslavement was protected by its Constitution for 80 years receive nothing?

The very definition of disadvantaged groups is arbitrary, more a matter of political and bureaucratic convenience than of equity. Fuchs points out that more than 75 percent of immigrants fit into one or more of the affirmative action categories, noting that a middle-class Peruvian who emigrated here from Italy would benefit while a poor Italian who came here directly could not. Blacks are treated as a monolithic group for these purposes, although immigrant blacks have enjoyed far more economic success than native-born ones. Cuban professionals are lumped together with Mexican peasants simply because they happen to speak the same language. Asians continue to benefit from these programs despite astonishingly high levels of educational achievement.

Affirmative action's well-known anomalies highlight the importance of Fuchs's third theme. The real barriers to equal opportunity, he stresses, are rooted less in race and ethnicity than in class. The triumph of our kaleidoscopic civic culture has not prevented the continuing isolation of chronically poor native-born blacks, Indians, Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans, whom he collectively calls the "ethno-underclass." Affirmative action has produced few benefits for these individuals, and may even have increased their isolation by drawing the most talented and energetic members out of their communities and out of their class. Indeed, one study cited by Fuchs suggests that it has not even helped blacks as a group.

He predicts that remedies that involve counting by race will "fade" over time due to their success, public opposition and high levels of immigration. This seems more like Fuchs's wishful thinking than solid political analysis. After all, a decade of Republican control of the White House has not seriously weakened these programs, and there are recent signs that they will endure: David Souter's acceptance of some racial set-asides, Bush's overtures to the civil rights lobby as a prelude to the 1992 elections, and the Justice Department's endorsement of race-specific districting and its challenge to primary run-offs under the Voting Rights Act. More generally, it is not clear why groups viewing such programs as both beneficial and morally justified would agree to give them up, or why other groups would run the political risk of opposing them.

Fuchs's discussion is admirably evenhanded. The flip side of this scrupulous balance, however, is that he says almost nothing about how we should address class-based social problems. An informative chapter reviewing the English language issue, for example, finds him agnostic on the policy choice among bilingual education, English as a second language, complete immersion, or other methods of teaching limited-English immigrants. (He does say that the most successful high school program eschews bilingual methods altogether). He concludes that the greatest challenge facing equal rights advocates is to increase opportunity for children born into the underclass, assuring us that some effective programs do exist but without naming them.

The ambition of this fine book, however, is perspective, not policy. Its sweeping catalogue of American ethnic experience retrieves for us both the miraculous integrative triumphs of American democracy, and the persistent failures of our kaleidoscopic culture. By reminding us of where we came from and how far we have journeyed, it can help us to understand where we must still go.

Peter H. Schuck is Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law at Yale Law School.