Ethnics and Pluralists
To the Editor:
Harold R. Isaacs’s article on my book, Overcoming Middle-Class Rage [“The New Pluralists,” March], can be welcomed, in the main, as contributing to what I hope will be a continuing debate on the resurgence of ethnicity in our society and its implications for social policy.
No one, of course, can speak for so diverse a group of social scientists and community activists as Nathan Glazer, Daniel P. Moynihan, Andrew M. Greeley, Geno Baroni, Irving Levine, or myself—for though we share basic assumptions, we differ on a wide range of issues, like the question of government aid to parochial schools, for example. Moreover, a close reading of the work and a knowledge of the activities of the New Pluralists indicate that we are asking many of the same questions Mr. Isaacs is asking and issuing some of the same warnings. We are aware that the idea of ethnic identity carried to an extreme can turn into ethnocentrism and reduce communities to warring turfs. After discussing the values of cultural traditions, Father Greeley writes, “On the other hand, they reinforce exclusiveness, suspicion, and distrust, and . . . serve as ideal foci for conflict.” In my own concluding essay, “Overcoming Middle-Class Rage,” I describe with clear lack of relish the situation at City College several years ago when an attempt was made to impose racial quotas. Without exception, I believe, the New Pluralists are Strongly opposed to substituting group rights for individual rights with the consequent lowering of standards and the destruction of the merit system.
What, therefore, are Mr. Isaacs’s differences with the New Pluralists? The fundamental problem is that Mr. Isaacs, who is something of a pluralist himself, takes counsel of his fears while the New Pluralists tend to point to the hopeful possibilities of the movement. Such criticism might be a helpful corrective were it not marred by a certain amount of ambivalence. Resurgent ethnicity is good because “it has forced all Americans to redefine who and what they are,” but it is not so good since it involves “a certain lunging back into the tribal caves.” It is also good because “every person needs to have or recover or acquire a self-respecting acceptance of his own origins,” but when some of us press for ethnic studies in the schools to help gain such pride it becomes a “me-too knee-jerk response to the black-studies phenomenon.” Incidentally, why is it that when blacks quite legitimately sought, and still seek, racial pride and identity, their action is not questioned (though, of course, the techniques they use have been widely criticized), but when other religious and ethnic groups ask for the same treatment, they are suspect?
Mr. Isaacs’s fears about resurgent ethnicity cause him to fall into outright error, In discussing the initiative and support given by the New Pluralists to the Schweiker-Pucinski Ethnic Heritage Studies legislation, he has us and the legislation setting up separate ethnic-studies programs under the control of the separate ethnic communities. But the Schweiker bill clearly states that “Applicants must be non-profit public or private educational agencies, institutions, or organizations” and they must consult with a local advisory council made up of representatives of ethnic groups and cultural and educational resources.
Mr. Isaacs does not understand the late David Danzig’s criticism of Gunnar Myrdal’s concept of the “moral dilemma” in the country’s treatment of the Negro. And he distorts my own attempt, jumping off from Danzig’s insight, to re-frame issues involved in racial conflict in terms of the inevitable, and often quite legitimate, collision of group needs, values, and styles in a pluralistic society. Recognizing that this situation exists is not, as Mr. Isaacs claims, an acceptance of a “dog-eat-dog” or “anything goes” philosophy, nor is it a denial of the moral issues involved. Understanding the deep interests of the groups involved in the struggle and working out the necessary compromises and accommodations to achieve both peace and progress have been the underlying methods by which we have made a multi-group society work.
I can better illustrate this by referring to the Forest Hills dispute. It can be viewed as a struggle between “good-guy” integrationists and “bad-guy” segregationists. But there is another way of looking at Forest Hills: we can recognize that two “rights” are involved—the unquestionable right of poor blacks to find a place where they can live and raise their children decently and the desire of a middle-class, largely Jewish, neighborhood to preserve the character of the neighborhood and its institutions, including nearby synagogues, kosher food stores, etc. The first approach requires us to label the residents as bigots and lecture them on honoring the American Creed. But the second forces us to seek out arrangements from which both sides could benefit, or at least not be unduly hurt. Perhaps the three high-rise apartment complexes might be cut down in size and spread into several other neighborhoods. Obviously, there is going to be trouble either way, but the second approach offers us a possibility of defusing the white backlash while still moving forward; nor does this approach deny the existence of racism among some people in the area.
This brings me to the fundamental reason why some of us are hopeful about the possibilities opened up by the New Pluralism. Apart from the more accurate picture it presents of the group as well as the common nature of our society, it offers an opportunity, if recognized and acted upon, to recreate the older coalition of ethnics and working-class whites with blacks and liberals. We have tended to be moralistic and preachy—admittedly in a good cause—while failing to recognize the legitimate grievances, needs, values, and styles of white ethnics. Moreover, in the pursuit of more universal goals, we have ignored the tenacity of group and neighborhood ties. As a result, we have helped to consign the white ethnics to the eager arms of reactionaries who are only too willing to play on their fears. In short, I believe that understanding and acting upon the New Pluralism offers liberals a chance to regain credibility with large segments of the American public who have turned away from us.
Since there is a great deal all of us still have to learn about how a multigroup society works, it is unfortunate that Mr. Isaacs finds it necessary to question our motives. At one point he suggests, for example, switching the nature of my argument from ethnic groups to organizations, that I would somehow justify the actions of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party. At another point, he labels some of us “emotionally unemployed civil-rights fighters.” These are simply cheap shots in what should be a careful examination of complex ideas in a still-developing discussion.
To the Editor:
Harold R. Isaacs is one of the most distinguished students of cultural and political diversity in the world. All of us who work in the field are deeply indebted to his wisdom. Thus, I suppose we will have to forgive his snide, smug, and astonishingly supercilious discussion of Overcoming Middle-Class Rage.
But I must say that his description of my article on ethnic politics as a “love letter to Mayor Daley” is a cheap, dishonest crack of which he ought to be thoroughly ashamed. Indeed, he ought to be ashamed of the whole piece.
Andrew M. Greeley
Director, Center for the Study of American Pluralism
University of Chicago
To the Editor:
Harold R. Isaacs’s article raises some important questions about the revival of interest in ethnicity, but we are afraid that he defeats his own purpose by incorrectly assigning ideological positions.
We do not argue, in “The New Pluralism,” the chapter we contributed to Overcoming Middle-Class Rage, or anywhere else, that the ethnic group should have legal recognition. Quoting Vine Deloria’s recommendation for such recognition does not imply endorsement, for in fact we have made clear in much of our work that we are opposed to the concept of legal group rights.
Mr. Isaacs concedes that we are sensitive to the prospect of fragmentation, but nevertheless feels that we are denying the primacy of individual legal rights. How much he misreads us is clear from his misunderstanding of our analysis of the Glazer-Moynihan “Northern model” of intergroup relations (where groups function as intermediate social structures but where individual choice is preserved). We are, in fact, in agreement with the Glazer-Moynihan formulation, and our use of the word “visionary,” which Mr. Isaacs interprets negatively, was meant to convey the difficulty of achieving “some model for which to strive” (the actual words we used).
Our main theme is the need for clarity, for new definition, and for strategies which facilitate intergroup cooperation and social progress rather than destructive fragmentation and the perpetuation of the status quo. In raising questions, and in trying to go beyond standard ideological formulations, we may not have included enough caveats for Mr. Isaacs, but even so he misunderstands (or misinterprets) our position.
Mr. Isaacs again raises questions about “the new ethnicity” when he refers to the debate over ethnic studies. Are we to be exposed to each group’s claim (either legitimate or inflated) to recognition for its contributions to America? Our own essay, rather than promoting fragmentation as Mr. Isaacs intimates, actually suggests an answer:
What is needed in ethnic studies—and needed to mitigate the problem of ethnocentrism generally—is a more realistic view of the total panoply of “group life” in America. Each ethnic group, privately, will probably continue to teach its own past in its own terms, but the public task is to provide a framework for seeing oneself as a part of a group without the attribution of second-class citizenship which that too often implies.
Mr. Isaacs, in citing the dangers of the Ethnic Heritage Studies Act, is insufficiently informed as to the nature of the present legislation. When it was originally proposed, the Act sought to establish study centers dealing with single ethnic groups. We and many of the “new ethnic-niks” are the very people who have been credited with turning the legislation around to mandate intergroup cooperation and change the single-center idea to multigroup programs.
We cite these passages and correct these misinterpretations not merely to defend our own position. Mr. Isaacs himself points to the many unknowns in this field, to the trends whose impact is yet uncertain, to the research issues still untouched by scholars. If the debate degenerates into polemics and accusations, then the original problems of white working-class ethnic groups which stimulated our own and others’ work will remain unsolved. Their antagonisms will continue to be directed against inappropriate targets, and their loyalties will be captured by negative forces less concerned than Mr. Isaacs (and ourselves) with individual freedom and social progress.
Irving M. Levine
National Project on Ethnic America
American Jewish Committee
New York City
Harold R. Isaacs writes:
I gather from these letters that what I did mainly in reacting to Murray Friedman’s Overcoming Middle-Class Rage was to misunderstand, misinterpret, distort, question other people’s motives, take cheap shots, and in general, as Father Greeley suggests, act in a shameful manner—a distressing business. It would have been better, obviously, if I had agreed with them more. Better too, certainly, if I had avoided raising questions which, they say in these letters, they too have been raising all along. It might also have helped a little if some of the things they say more clearly in these letters had been said less unclearly in the book. Perhaps I should have had the letters before I had the book. But if it took my comments to produce some of these rebalancing statements about individuals and groups in our society, perhaps they were not entirely useless.
I do not know that I must really go into the specific charges of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or distortion—such words assume an ignorance or a malice on my part that I do not believe these writers wish to impute to me and a dishonest defensiveness on their part which I am reluctant to ascribe to them. We are all trying to wrestle with our respective confusions over some extremely important matters. The least we can do with words—recalcitrant and tricky as they are—is to try to make them say what we mean.
The late David Danzig’s sentences about the Myrdal moral-dilemma phrase were fully quoted in my article and say exactly what I said they said.
Murray Friedman did write: “It is important in all this to recognize that no special virtue or culpability accrues to the position of any group in this pluralistic system.” If he did not mean what this sentence said, he should have qualified it accordingly or written another sentence. If it did not mean dog-eat-dog, which is what I said it meant, he should have explained how it would not. I did not question his motives about anything. I did not say he would justify Klansmen or Nazis, but that his prescription had to include them. And incidentally, if there is some “virtue” or non-culpability which all would have to share to belong to his system, what would it be, defined, defended, maintained by whom? By those arrogant Wasps who wanted to homogenize us all with—among other things—their rule of law and bills of rights?
Father Greeley’s good opinion of me makes me blush and I am sorry if it was not Richard Daley whose portrait I found in his description of the old-style political boss. If it was someone else, the resemblance was extraordinary.
It is not clear to me what troubles Irving Levine and Judith Herman about my treatment of their article in the book. They showed a much greater awareness than Mr. Friedman of the problems of fragmentation and destruction of individual rights implicit in any more institutionalized ethnic plural system, and I said so, gratefully. I did not say that they argued for legal recognition of ethnic groups, only that they presented, as one end of a spectrum, Deloria’s formula for “group sovereignty” and did so quite neutrally (“not disapprovingly”) and at the other end, the Moynihan-Glazer “Northern model”—i.e., free choice—as “visionary,” ending up with an appeal for some new formulas. I have reexamined the passages indicated and this is exactly what they did.
I cited the Schweiker-Pucinski ethnic-studies bills before Congress as an example of the threat of institutionalization. These proposals would provide federal support in our schools for something akin to current black-studies programs relating to all ethnic groups, the content of the programs to be decided in cooperation with the “communities” involved. This would place our schools and our children at the mercy of whichever group-within-any-group manages to make its writ run furthest and force acceptance from everyone else. Irving Levine does not change this by what he adds in his letter. It will hold whether it is one group at a time or a mess of groups in some joint broth of a heritage-studies commission. My question still stands: Who speaks for whom in such a situation, and what happens to all those that no one there speaks for? A free and open educational system can take monitoring from no group, but must keep on struggling to make its built-in biases submit to scholarly rigor and honesty. Let anyone do what he can to instill whatever version of ethnic pride he wants to instill in his fellows; but let him do it on his own time and his own money. In the public domain, we have to live uncontrolled by any single view and open to all views—the idea that ethnic groups as we know them are monolithic is one of the more absurd ideas implied by some of our current ethnic enthusiasms. There is no ambivalence in my holding this position and saying at the same time that good mental and emotional health requires a decent acceptance of oneself and one’s origins, whatever they may be. Good public health requires leaving the manner of this to each person and to each group vital and viable enough to create and maintain an existence for itself, subject only to respect for the rights of all others in the society.
There is, of course, a real difference of view involved in this small confrontation. Mr. Friedman says it is because I consult my “fears” while he and his New Pluralists “point to the hopeful possibilities of the movement,” i.e., toward a resurgent ethnicity and a new formal position of some kind for ethnic groups in the American social and political system. Well, I do think my fears are better grounded than his hopes. The real difference reflected here is between those whose primary commitment is to their membership in their particular group, and those who see their group identity as a threshold from which to look for broader human identification and outcomes. To be sure, the ethnic-niks have history on their side, more and more strongly every day: the basic or ethnic-group identity has proved its power of survival and persistence beyond any other identity, producing much that has been lofty and more that has been bloody and inhumane in the human experience. It still dominates most local and national politics and has to be ranked high among the “natural” causes of death in our time on every continent and under every current social and political system. The only “oneness” around—aside from the Maoist variety—is that of the new technology that is much more likely to lead to universal destruction than to some new universal man. On the other hand, we have the choice of strangling ourselves in our tribal separatenesses. This is what makes New Pluralists of us all as we search for some more tolerable choice.