Has Culture Supplanted
Race in the American Social Landscape?
by Jeffrey Hicks
Over the years, much has been
written about the American racial question and its impact on
life in the United States. Conspicuously absent from the debate
has been a recognition of how racism may now be but a convenient
proxy for cultural marginalization. When racial minorities experience
discrimination today, the cause is most likely rooted in differences
of culture rather than differences in inherited physical characteristics.
Perhaps the time has finally come to attribute American intergroup
tensions to "culturism" as opposed to racism. The difference
is far more than semantic and it could suggest that America has
unknowingly turned the corner in regard to relations between
It is well settled that race
has historically been the predominant factor negatively affecting
the lives of racial minorities. However, upon close examination
of the current condition of let's say, blacks, it becomes increasingly
clear that we are most likely to be discriminated against if
and when we function outside of what is considered the cultural
mainstream. If this is indeed true, the implications would be
profoundly positive. Race is an immutable characteristic that
one cannot change; culture, however, is very changeable through
familiarity and conditioning.
When whites discriminate against
blacks today, it is likely that they do so because of negative
perceptions of differing attitudes, behaviors and communication
styles, whether real or imagined. It is rare today for whites
to discriminate against blacks due solely to the physical traits
associated with being black.
For example, there exists a
sizable and growing class of affluent and successful blacks who
have sufficiently adopted the practices and mores of mainstream
society. Their adoptions of corporate language, etiquette, and
values have equipped them to persevere in America's competitive
environment despite their racial differences. In contrast, the
most underachieving strata of blacks tend to function farthest
from the cultural mainstream core. Does it follow that a possible
solution to the discrimination that blacks and others experience
is mainstream acculturization?
Sadly, vehement and defiant
resistance to mainstream acculturization remain the rule in many
black communities. Years of continual exclusion from American
mainstream life has given rise to a vibrant black sub-culture
that, among other things, prides itself in rejecting vestiges
of the cultural mainstream. That this rejection stifles upward
mobility is seldom considered in some black communities. Therein
dwells the new American dilemma. To expect these blacks to abandon
their familiar culture in favor of a historically hostile mainstream
would be truly ambitious. This difficulty notwithstanding, this
should be increasingly acknowledged as a critical cultural goal
to be pursued.
Some critics might consider
this mainstream acculturization to be a form of denial of ethnic
heritage. This need not be the case. Obtaining the ability to
function in a different cultural milieu does not necessarily
displace one's original cultural disposition. For example, when
foreign businessmen come to the United States, they quickly realize
that they must adopt American corporate modes of dress, speech,
behavior if they expect to make positive impressions in the business
world. Are these foreign businessmen thereby rejecting the heritage
from which they came? Surely, they are not.
Further, notable figures like
Denzel Washington, Colin Powell and Michael Jordan are respected
and admired by Americans across the demographic spectrum. Are
they any less black by heritage and culture as a result? Again,
this is not the case.
It would be disingenuous to
suggest that racism no longer exists in American life. In some
environments, it continues to be an everyday phenomenon. More
often than not however, American racism now consists of slights
and indignities rather than systemic measures used to subjugate
people as in years past. This fact alone demonstrates just how
far American society has come in lessening the relevance of race,
per se, as a barrier to equal participation in the American dream.
And despite the protestations racial pessimists would have us
believe, we are obviously well along the right path.
Jeffrey Brian Hicks, a member
of the black leadership network Project 21, is a freelance writer
in Northern Virginia who focuses on social and public policy
issues. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research.
Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries
reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those
of Project 21.
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