Unamerican Tail: Of Segregation and Multicultural Education

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION: THE TAIL

She was buxom and bare to the waist. He was completely naked and he could not take his eyes off her, but his fascination would prove fatal. He was in a metal frame with a high pulley wheel and a low one. Around his neck was a noose. The other end of the rope went over the high pulley wheel, down behind his back, under the low pulley wheel, between his legs, and was knotted around his maleness. The system was ingenious. As his excitement rose, he would slowly strangle himself to death. She was blonde, and he was unmistakably black, but I cannot remember if he had a tail.

I saw this large mural in 1974 on the wall of a restaurant in downtown Amsterdam, Holland. I would be surprised to find such an image prominently displayed in a restaurant in the center of a major American city. Yet, I believe that this mural, in gross and exaggerated form, reflects the attitudes of many Americans. The mural reflects the belief that blacks are different and inferior. It says that they are less intelligent and enterprising than whites, that they are unable to control their emotions and their sexuality, that they lust after white women. After all, to escape his fate, all the prisoner had to do was close his eyes. It also says that there is something exotic, almost unnatural, about interracial sex. Finally, this mural reflects another more sinister notion, namely that blacks as a group pose a threat to society, and must be controlled. These attitudes form the basis of racial prejudice in America today.

This essay is my response to an important book written by Nathan Glazer called We Are All Multiculturalists Now.(1) In his book, Glazer makes it clear that he deplores America's extreme levels of racial segregation, and that he is a strong advocate for assimilation.(2) He also identifies residential segregation as the most important social indicator of America's current racial divide.(3) While he is critical of multicultural education, he regards it as the result of residential segregation,(4) as an attempt by black Americans to be included rather than separated.

While I agree with much of the book, I also have substantial criticisms. Although he condemns segregation, Glazer believes that it is caused, not by racial prejudice, but by the social dysfunction of poor black communities.(5) Further, while he recognizes multicultural education as an understandable response to segregation, he claims that it is divisive.(6) He prefers the ethnocentric curriculum he experienced as a boy because he believes it did a better job of teaching tolerance.(7) Contrary to Glazer, I show that segregation is the product of widespread racial prejudice, and that the social dysfunction of the black poor is a product of segregation rather than a cause.(8) I also show that the ethnocentric curriculum he remembers carried the message of racial inferiority.(9) Finally, I argue that, because Glazer does not recognize the continuing pervasiveness of racial prejudice, he is unable to understand the real significance of multicultural education, which is that it will help to reduce prejudice, and thus ultimately help to end segregation.(10)

In Part 1, I show that extreme segregation is responsible for the severe social disadvantage suffered by many urban black communities.(11) In Part 2, I explain the nature of racial prejudice, and I show that it has fundamentally shaped American society throughout American history, and continues to do so.(12) In Part 3, I explain how racial prejudice causes segregation.(13) In Part 4, I explain that Glazer's ethnocentric curriculum was the product of a very prejudiced society, and reflected the belief that blacks were different and inferior.(14) Therefore, it taught intolerance. Part 5 identifies widely accepted notions that reflect the message of racial inferiority conveyed by the ethnocentric curriculum.(15) Finally, in Part 6, I explain the purpose, theory and practice of multicultural education. …