Visiting Scholar Hu-DeHart
Rethinking America: The Multicultural Imperative

Hu-DeHart discusses Multiculturalism as
"A Project to rethink America." (photo BA)
The academic community faces demographic, moral, and intellectual imperatives to provide multicultural perspectives and to rethink the traditional narrative of American history. Evelyn Hu-DeHart, professor of history and director of the Center for Studies of Ethnicity and Race in America at the University of Colorado, explored these imperatives in "Redefining America: The Practice of Politics and Multiculturalism," the culminating talk of her three-day stay in Chico as part of the Presidential Visiting Scholars Program.

Over the last thirty years, "student and community grass roots challenges to the prevailing academic power structure and Eurocentric curriculum among colleges" led to ethnic studies programs, said Hu-DeHart. During this same period, America experienced a demographic shift as immigration laws change and the United States' social, political, and military interventions led to increases in non-European immigrants. Over 80 percent of new immigrants in the last three decades were non-European. This demographic imperative means we must educate "young Americans of color if America is to remain politically healthy and economically competitive."

However, education for the workforce is only part of the issue. The equally important moral imperative of multicultural education means educating people for "citizenship and leadership," emphasized Hu-DeHart.

Omissions in and distortions of American history led to the intellectual imperative for multicultural education. Opposition to multiculturalism comes from those Hu-DeHart calls "triumphalists." The triumphalists are those academics and others "who champion a view of American history char- acterized as an unbroken string of successes, who willingly ignore inconvenient inconsistencies, and regularly rationalize the failures," she explained. They see American history as a march to the triumph of freedom and democracy for all, a triumph built on European culture, leading to a definition of American national identity as European derived. The triumphalist view spans much of the political spectrum, including conservatives, neo-conservatives, and liberals among its defenders, and has long been the basis for American history education.

Hu-DeHart quoted Donald Kagen, a Yale historian: "Except for the slaves brought from Africa, most immigrants came voluntarily as families and individuals, usually eager to satisfy desires that could not be met in their former homeland. They swiftly became citizens and, within a generation or so, Americans."

Hu-DeHart argued that while this view of American immigration history probably rings true for Americans of European descent, it does not fit the experience of non-European immigrants, many of whom were never voluntary immigrants. African Americans continue to face "an institutionalized legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow, of legal apartheid," leaving them "largely excluded and alienated from national life. You cannot just blithely brush this aside," argued Hu-DeHart.

Native Americans, despite a three-century history of treaties with the United States, continually have had their sovereignty ignored, and have been subjected to physical and cultural genocide. The federal government extended citizenship to Native Americans in 1924 only after being shamed by the number of Native American soldiers who served and died for the United States in World War I.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago of 1848 incorporated about half of Mexico's land and many of its people into the United States. "In this treaty, those people living on this land were granted citizenship and the right to retain their languages and their cultures," said Hu-DeHart. "It is precisely in the territory of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago that we have had movements like English only, or English first, and now the eradication of bilingual education in California."

While Asian Americans come closer to the image of voluntary immigrants, the United States did not regard Asian Americans as potential citizens. The U.S. Naturalization Law, in effect from 1790 to 1952, "specifically barred non-white immigrants from citizenship," said Hu-DeHart. The Asians who built the railroads, worked the mines, and cleared land for agriculture were "denied whole political participation and social integration into the society." The Chinese were defined as an "undesirable race." Children of non-white immigrants born on American soil were American citizens. During World War II, the United States put over 100,000 Americans of Japanese heritage in concentration camps.

Hu-DeHart concluded, "It is the adamant intolerance of racial diversity that we in multicultural studies have come to recognize and are dealing with and challenging... If triumphalists insist that there is only one viewpoint, or at least only one true or best viewpoint, multiculturalists acknowledge multiple perspectives." These perspectives derive from people's relation to society, perspectives often "conditioned by one's race, class, gender, and other factors." Hu-DeHart believes that the best way to change perspectives is through a lively debate about our national future. "That's what multi-culturalism is," said DuHart, a project to rethink America."


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