Multiculturalism requires open, honest discussions

By Jane R. Elgass

While many people believe there has been a great deal of progress in enhancing the status of underrepresented minorities since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, this is not the case, according to Harold R. Johnson, special counsel to the president.

In fact, Johnson says, he has a “passionate concern about the drift in America toward exclusiveness,” and feels that events similar to those in Bosnia can happen here.

He also feels that it is imperative for individuals to share in open and honest discussions their perceptions and feelings about multiculturalism if the University hopes to prepare its students for a society in which Caucasians are no longer the majority.

Johnson spoke about intolerance and multiculturalism in his address April 8 on “Mathematics of Multiculturalism: Challenges and Opportunities,” one of the Presidential Lectures on Academic Values marking the 175th anniversary of the University.

Johnson, an African Canadian, has “felt the pain of racial discrimination on many occasions, ranging from benign neglect to Rodney King-like beatings. As a result of my experiences, I long ago concluded that the melting pot theory worked well for some folks, but certainly not for people of color.”

Johnson advocates multiculturalism because “it is a logical path to the survival and enrichment of our domestic and global societies.

“This presentation is not an academic exercise for me,” he stated. “It reflects my passionate concern about the drift of American society toward greater exclusiveness, and the domestic and international consequences of this drift. Before we can hope to avoid or minimize these consequences, we must engage in open and more honest discussions, as difficult as they may be, about our respective attitudes and feelings about multiculturalism and its implications for individuals, groups, institutions and society at large,” Johnson stated.”

Johnson defines multiculturalism as “dynamic combinations and permutations of races of people and cultures interacting to bring about a more perfect and distinctive national culture,” adding that multiculturalism “provides an opportunity to identify, recognize, respect and celebrate the differences and contributions of all groups, while enjoying an enriched and distinctive national culture that transcends individual cultures.”

He called on members of the University community to be “intellectually eclectic in our construction of a perspective if we wish to optimize our effectiveness as academics. We cannot afford to believe that any one point of view, discipline, or profession will lead us to an understanding of complex issues.”

Noting that violence against minorities “has escalated to such heights in recent years that the U.S. Civil Rights Commission has issued a special alert on the subject,” and that Kerner Commission findings indicate “a severe worsening of conditions for African Americans,” Johnson said that “persistent and pervasive acts of discrimination have psychological consequences that further alienate minorities from the majority and divide our society into hostile camps.

“The University is a microcosm of American society,” Johnson said. “And it is a fact that most students, staff and faculty come to the University imprinted with the prejudices of their respective families, peer groups and communities. Many members of this and other university communities arrive with few if any intergroup or intercultural experiences. Thus, the University becomes the crucible in which these people try to work out their attitudes and behaviors regarding people of other cultures, races, religions, ethnicity—or people with different values, ideologies and lifestyles.”

Johnson noted that, with the leadership of President James J. Duderstadt and the evolution of the Michigan Mandate from a personal statement into a set of initiatives with broad community support, substantial progress has been made in seeking to build a modern multicultural institution of higher education.

“However, much remains to be done, and progress is becoming more difficult as we move to operationalize principles that affect the circumstances and behaviors of individuals throughout the University. The situation reminds me of a diet—the first few pounds you lose with relative ease, but the final 10 or 15 pounds take much greater discipline and commitment.”

Among the issues that “continue to encumber us:”

—How to improve the quality of the educational experience for all students—majority and minority—through formal and informal educational initiatives.

—How to persuade and help faculty think about their teaching and research from a multicultural perspective without sacrificing their traditional academic values.

—How to substitute the urge to outlaw hate with a desire to debate the pros and cons of hate.

Johnson said that the University “must permit and encourage open and free debate on this campus. But,” he added, “this must be accomplished within the cultural values of the institution. We can expect the traditional tension between personal freedom and community values and the common good to persist and perhaps become more intense.

“Thus it seems to me we must all redouble our efforts to learn about the history, contributions and viewpoints of other individuals and groups—we must respect their rights to celebrate their differences and to disagree with others. Simultaneously, we must find ways to make all people accountable and responsible for their behavior without freezing ideas and limiting debate,” he added.


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