Understanding Our Multiculti Mess

REVIEW: ‘American Multiculturalism and the Anti-Discrimination Regime: The Challenge to Liberal Pluralism’

(Wikimedia Commons)
October 15, 2023

Recent controversies over the introduction of "critical race theory" into the high school curriculum, and of instruction aimed at "enlightening" even elementary school kids about the supposedly fluid nature of "gender identity," have brought into the limelight something normally hidden from the public: the radically transformative ideological project being carried out by educational "theorists" throughout American ed schools.

In American Multiculturalism and the Anti-Discrimination Regime, political scientist Thomas Powers identifies two such movements: the "anti-discrimination" project, whose founding and most prolific exponent has been University of Washington professor James A. Banks, and the more radical (but overlapping) "postmodern" movement, which for the ostensible goal of inculcating tolerance entails teaching that there is no such thing as truth, especially regarding morality or justice, and therefore (illogically) concluding that teachers must enlist pupils in advancing partisan leftist projects of political transformation.

Banks’s educational project, Powers emphasizes, grew out of the civil-rights revolution of the 1950s and ’60s. Hence its focus was on promoting "racial justice" and equity not only by combating various forms of prejudice (racial, ethnic, sexual) but on overcoming the effects of previous, racially or otherwise biased, policies on the members of designated "minorities." (Probably Banks’s best-known student is Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility and a highly compensated "diversity consultant.")

In Part I, Powers traces the political and legal development of the "anti-discrimination regime" from its origins in the Supreme Court’s 1955 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing school segregation, through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and, of greatest relevance, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Enforced by the Education Department through the threat of cutoffs of federal funding, those amendments effectively compelled colleges and universities to create "anti-discrimination offices" that would be responsive to the extralegal diktats of Education Department lawyers regarding everything from sexual harassment to disparities in admissions and academic success among racial groups.

It is here that multicultural education enters the picture. As Powers explains, the 1966 Coleman Report, which failed to find evidence of the "large inequalities in educational facilities" in schools attended by majority-white and -black districts that investigators had expected to discover, combined with the 1965 Moynihan Report titled "The Negro Family" (which stressed the correlation between student achievement and family background), compelled those seeking to improve black-student success to find some other means than added resource funding to achieve that goal. Yet many minority advocates resisted terms like "culturally deprived" (referring to students who’d grown up in single-parent families or in households that didn’t encourage reading, or in gang-ridden neighborhoods) as "blaming the victim" and wrongly implying the superiority of some "cultures" to others.

According to Banks, the reason "minority youths often do not achieve well at school" is "not that they have a deprived culture, but because their cultures are different" from that of the school. Hence if minority members (meaning, presumably, blacks and Latinos—not, say, Asian Americans) were to do better academically, it was not their familial or social background that needed to be overcome; rather, the school’s "educational environment" must be altered to make it more consistent with the minority students’ own "cultures."

In expounding what Banks called his "Multicultural Ideology," Powers emphasizes its "political" character, citing Banks’s description of multicultural education as "an ideological war" against its "conservative" or "traditionalist" opponents that would sometimes become "ugly and pernicious." It entailed bringing out the contradictions among the "ideals" of "the American creed," including "liberty, justice, and equality." Schools needed to recognize, for instance, that reciting the phrase "liberty and justice for all" generates "ambivalent feelings" among "people of color" resulting from America’s "institutionalized racism." (That the United States was the first country to be founded on an acknowledgment of the equal rights of all individuals, even if it would take centuries to fully secure those rights, was not a fact Banks emphasized, aside from citing the Declaration as an inspiration for the civil rights movement.)

Even though Powers portrays Banks’s project, set forth in voluminous books and articles, as moderate by comparison with that of the postmodernists, he also describes its aim as "radicalizing" groups that have suffered discrimination, teaching students "how they have been victimized by institutionalized racism." Banks denounces "traditional civic education," which represents the American constitutional system as aimed at the good of all, for fostering "massive political apathy."

While Powers describes Banks’s encouragement of students’ thinking of themselves in terms of their (racial, ethnic, or gender) "identity," rather than simply as Americans or as human beings, as exemplary of his approach’s "utility," its value, from the standpoint of either fostering civic unity or the freedom of individual thought, is not apparent. In fact, Banks explicitly rejects the liberal vision of a "color-blind constitution" that originally underlay the civil rights movement, on the ground that it perpetuated "institutionalized discrimination within the school." Consequently, teachers must be taught to "unlearn" this notion in favor of the creation of "new, legitimate life styles and values."

Powers provides no evidence that Banks devoted thought to educational reforms that promise to improve minority performance on traditional educational curricula: standards-based testing, charter schools, and school choice. (Note, for instance, the remarkable record of New York’s Success Academy charter schools in this regard, as documented in Thomas Sowell’s study Charter Schools and Their Enemies.) Instead, minority-student underperformance must be attributed to Eurocentric curricular bias. (For a recent critique, see Adam Coleman’s Black Victim to Black Victor. Both Sowell and Coleman, be it noted, are black.) To remedy discrimination, Banks proposed a bifurcated curriculum, one for oppressed groups that would promote their cohesion as a means of gaining power, the other for "dominant groups" that would increase their appreciation of minority members and willingness to share power with them.

While one may well doubt that Banks’s curriculum would mitigate racial prejudice, rather than heighten resentment on the part of both groups, it is less extreme than the practically unintelligible proposals of postmodernists like Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren. The former espouses "a politics which is simultaneously utopian but always distrustful of itself," addressing "the universal values of freedom or justice without such values becoming totalizing"; the latter’s book, Revolutionary Multiculturalism, expresses despair at "the false promises of neoliberalism and the false hopes of liberal democracy" and appeals to West African spirits for salvation—recalling Martin Heidegger’s "maybe some god will save us." The much-honored Giroux was identified as one of the top 50 educational thinkers of the modern period, while his fellow Canadian-American McLaren is Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies at Chapman University’s education school and co-directs the school’s Paulo Freire Democratic Project, named for a Brazilian Marxist whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed remains after more than a half-century one of the most widely used ed school textbooks.

Powers’s own attitude toward these two groups is ambivalent. He stresses that the legal anti-discrimination movement initiated by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1972 Education Amendments constituted a break with the traditional liberal tradition, in that rather than merely prohibiting governmental actions that violated private rights, they transcended the public-private distinction by banning discriminatory acts by private individuals. In this, he is undoubtedly right, and at least the 1964 act must be regarded as justified by the need to overcome the legacy of slavery. But noting how the anti-discrimination movement subsequently expanded to prohibiting prejudicial private actions or attitudes toward women, gays, and assorted ethnic groups, he not only treats this movement’s continued extension (say, in the Supreme Court’s assertion of a constitutional right to gay marriage, and the Bostock decision interpreting the term "sex" in the Civil Rights Act to include the transgendered) as if inevitable, but even suggests that its "moral" intent serves to "ennoble our public life in ways that liberalism cannot." He cites one educator’s claim that multiculturalism embodies "a new vision of the good life … based on equality and community rather than upon vulgar, simplistic, materialist comforts."

Nobody who has observed the manner in which race hustlers like Jesse Jackson, Ibram X. Kendi (How to Be an Antiracist), and Robin DiAngelo have enriched themselves through waving the multicultural banner can seriously maintain that their motivations are higher than those of conventional, "bourgeois" citizens—to say nothing of the many Americans who give of themselves in various ways (in education, philanthropy, law, the ministry, politics, the military) to uphold our constitutional-liberal tradition and the common good (the latter a term denied meaning by postmodernists).

In his last chapter, Powers himself expresses reservations about the impact of multiculturalism on America’s constitutional-liberal core. He acknowledges that the real tension in our political life may lie not in any opposition of liberalism to nondiscrimination, but rather in the former’s resistance to such illiberal, multiculti-based policies as speech codes, group (rather than individual) representation, and racial or gender quotas (to say nothing of "disparate impact" rules, which attribute any differences in academic performance, professional achievement, or crime rates to racism). Against that acknowledgment, he can cite only the straw man of a conservative outlook that denies there was anything deficient in America’s laws and institutions that could not be fixed within the liberal tradition. Thoughtful neoconservatives, most notably, have long emphasized, in the spirit of Tocqueville, that our tradition was never simply "liberal" in the Lockean sense, but depended partly for its success on the persistence of classical and Judaeo-Christian elements that the multiculturalists (really, cultural relativists) and postmodernists seek to destroy.

Americans who are concerned about their country’s future, and especially about its children’s education, are indebted to Powers for expending considerable labor (indicated by his 46-page bibliography) to laying bare the nature and extent of the multicultural and postmodernist threat to our regime. The preservation of our liberal institutions may well depend, as Powers suggests, on the restoration of an "old-fashioned political science" that takes its bearings by the nature of our political regime (Aristotle’s politeia) rather than an apolitical "pluralism" that regards threats to liberal toleration as automatically self-correcting thanks to (peaceful) group competition and unexamined democratic ideology.

American Multiculturalism and the Anti-Discrimination Regime: The Challenge to Liberal Pluralism
by Thomas F. Powers
St. Augustine Press, 475 pp., $40

David Lewis Schaefer is professor emeritus of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.