THE Los Angeles riots a year ago showed starkly that the United States has a long way to go in achieving racial and ethnic harmony. The incidence of "hate crimes" in a country that was supposed to become a melting pot is increasingly troubling.
With words instead of sticks and stones, the debate over cultural diversity similarly rages. Allan Bloom and E. D. Hirsch have argued for a common and mainly Europe-derived culture. But former University of Wisconsin chancellor Donna Shalala (now secretary of health and human services) said, "Every student needs to know much more about the origins and history of the particular cultures which, as Americans, we will encounter during our lives."
Ronald Takaki's "A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America" is an excellent place to start in understanding how this uniquely diverse country came to be and where it is headed.
The author is professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where he led the effort to establish that school's controversial required course examining race and ethnic issues in America.
But his book is not a polemic, nor is it a "revisionist" history of this country. Instead, it both distinguishes and weaves together the origins of those Americans often still identified by race or ethnicity: blacks, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, European Jews, Hispanics, plus people native to North America.
Dr. Takaki, a historian, draws on some 30 years of research in the field, and he makes good use of diaries, letters, and interviews to fill his text with real people telling their own stories. His writing is full of facts and heavily footnoted, but also is highly readable - which is what the best history should be. Takaki's own background as a third-generation Japanese-American whose grandfather came to Hawaii more than 100 years ago to work on a sugar plantation helps, as well.
The forming of America over the past 200 years, as depicted by Takaki, is markedly different from the way it was typically portrayed a generation ago in schools and the media. It is far more interesting, for one thing. It is also more complete. Minority groups are not idealized here. Politically, economically, and socially, they were dominated and in many ways mistreated by the majority. But they could be racist as well.
Much of the recent political debate focuses on immigration (legal and illegal). But from the beginning, ethnic and racial minorities were an important part of the nation's formation and development. And as Takaki[ writes, "this reality is increasingly becoming visible and ubiquitous." One-third of the people in the US trace their origins to somewhere other than Europe, Takaki notes. Minorities already predominate in many American cities, and they are soon to become the majority in California, the country 's most populous state.
"This emerging demographic diversity has raised fundamental questions about America's identity and culture," Takaki observes. "This dramatic change in our nation's ethnic composition is altering the way we think about ourselves."
These assertions need to be examined fully in order to avoid the racial and ethnic clashes seen recently. "A Different Mirror" helps greatly in this examination.