Integration and Diversity -- Mutually Exclusive Concepts?

When I attended college in the sixties, the mantra was integration.  MLK and the liberals told us to judge people by the "content of their character, not the color of their skin."  Good advice.  They got it right.

Unfortunately, integration hasn't been a prevalent word lately, possibly because we've come a long way towards achieving it, but also because it has been usurped by "diversity" and "multiculturalism."  This, too, is pushed by liberals.  This time, though, they got it wrong.

Or maybe not.  Everyone has an opinion on multiculturalism and integration, yet very little real discussion takes place about the relationship between the two.  Regardless of one's feelings about these concepts, however, it's hard to escape the fact that they are, practically speaking and by definition, incompatible.

This is a problem for most liberals I've talked with.  These people push both ideologies and say that both goals should be achieved and are mutually compatible, although it is clear when I bring up the idea of incompatibility that they haven't really given the issue any thought.  To deny that multiculturalism and integration are compatible concepts would require choosing one and denouncing the other.  That, of course, would be politically incorrect.

When fighting institutional racism against blacks in the '60s and '70s, the argument was made that until blacks were fully integrated into society, their opportunities, and therefore their freedoms and successes, were limited.  If the CEO likes to play golf and discovers that some on his management team like to play golf as well, he is likely to hang out with them a little more.  Other things being equal, whom is he going to promote?  No-brainer here -- we tend to like, trust, and want to associate with others who share our beliefs, customs, likes, and dislikes.  This is true across racial lines, cultural lines, and in all walks of life.

And it is apparent in American culture.  Since the '60s and the enactment of civil rights legislation, blacks have made great inroads into all aspects of white America.  Or maybe more accurately, the two quasi-separate societies have grown together.  There are, of course, statistical differences in such things as music preferences, career interests, etc.  But, even then, those differences are slipping away, and in many respects, the cultural lines are blurred enough that there is virtually no difference.

Today, however, "diversity" is the new charge.  "Celebrate diversity" is a common phrase.  And, in truth, it has its appeal.  Cities with diverse communities and cultural centers are exciting and interesting.  But how cohesive is a society that is divided into many different groups with different interests and priorities?  Is the CEO going to want a close association with people he does not understand?  Hardly.  While this may not seem reasonable or fair, it is most definitely true.  And isn't practicing diversity just a politically correct way of permitting separate-but-equal racism?

We often hear the U.S. referred to as a "melting pot" of different races and cultures.  When the Italians and Irish came here, they aspired to be Americans.  Parents insisted that their children learn English and learn the customs of their new country.  But back then, these people all came to America because they wanted to be Americans.  They were proud to become Americans.  They melted in.

Blacks, too, are Americans.  Of course, their path to North America was considerably different from the path taken by European immigrants.  And they came here not by choice, but because they were forced here through slavery.  Nevertheless, they speak English and (for the most part) adopted Christianity, and they are a big part of the American culture.  Despite what may appear to be significant differences, whites and blacks in America have much in common.

As America grew and as more divergent groups came here and adapted to American culture, it was inevitable that these groups would influence American life as well.  Ethnic restaurants, clothing, and music all have become incorporated into everything we do.  But the American culture -- essentially Anglo-Saxon -- was the base, softly modified by the newcomers.  This is likely our greatest strength: a homogeneous society with the best of influences from groups all over the world. 

Lately, however, the great American melting pot has been changing.  Different groups are coming in large enough numbers to form their own separate communities, and they don't have an apparent need or desire to become Americans, or even learn the language.  We are morphing into a country of segmented groups with different values and beliefs -- quite different from a society made up of individuals with different beliefs.  When people work together, speak the same language, eat lunch at the same table, and like the same baseball team or music, it seems trivial if they don't like the same food or movies, are of a different religion, or are politically opposite.  And we learn a great deal from and about each other in the process of fraternization.  But when there are few common threads, people of other religions or lifestyles become distant -- people to distrust and fear.  My experience is that groups will trust an individual from another culture far more easily than trusting the whole other group, or unknown people within that group.

So here it is: supporters of multiculturalism would have us believe that we can all live separately in our own little groups and communities, and then come together during the day functioning in harmonious fashion in public, the workplace, and in politics.  This sounds like "separate but equal" racism, and whether we can move forward as a collection of dissimilar groups speaking different languages, celebrating different holidays, and adhering to different laws isn't clear.  I have my doubts.  France, Germany, and other countries in Europe are finding it difficult, and they are accordingly beginning to change course.  The task is daunting; if it is even remotely possible, it will require an incredibly educated and, in my mind, an impossibly enlightened citizenry.

It is my belief that as the great experiment of America continues, we will have to come to grips with some realities -- namely that we need to have common bonds and a feeling of belonging that multiculturalism will not allow.  Diversity as a descriptor of a cohesive American society is a plus.  Diversity as the goal is not.  I prefer the old model of integration, where we melt into our own American "race": a community with individual differences, yet a commonality overall.  I think this model has a better chance of succeeding. 

Now my wife and I are trying to decide whether we want Thai, Mexican, or Indian food for dinner tonight -- undoubtedly one of the great benefits of living in America.