Social Education 57(2), 1993, pp. 59-59
1993 National Council for the Social Studies
The guidelines further specify that "the definition does not include cultural or regional groups of United States origin such as those from the Appalachian region" (276). In other words, no "new" ethnic groups formed in the United States (or elsewhere) are to be regarded as ethnic groups. In the case of African Americans, however, there seems to be an exception. The authors do not hesitate to identify African Americans as an ethnic group. Yet, the conception of an ethnic African American has its foundation in the United States. As Thomas C. Holt (1980, 7) notes:
About half [of the black slaves] appear to have been taken from areas presently occupied by Angola and southern Nigeria, about one-eighth each from Ghana, Senegal and Gambia, Sierra Leone, and smaller proportions from the Benin area and Mozambique.
To suggest that these peoples shared "an ancestral tradition and...a sense of peoplehood and an interdependence of fate" while in Africa or prior to arriving in North America is fantasy. This is akin to saying that the Poles, Spaniards, Swedes, Italians, and Germans all share a common ethnicity because they are located in Europe.
Regarding African Americans' ancestors who were enslaved in the United States, Holt indicates that "it took years before these different groups identified themselves as 'African' or 'black' rather than as Ibo, Malinké, or Yoruba" (8). Even today, that many African Americans would have much in common with the peoples of Africa in these geographic areas (with the exception of cultural traits of Western origin) is dubious.
Another contradiction to the criteria is apparent in the discussion that refers to Robert D. Alba's notion of "European Americans." The guidelines state that
many individuals of white ethnic origin are no longer identified ethnically with their original or primordial ethnic group. Although a large number of these individuals have intermarried and much cultural exchange among white ethnic groups has taken place, a new collective ethnic identity has emerged among white Americans that most of them share. Alba calls this new ethnic identity group European Americans. (278)
In their own words, the task force refers to a new ethnic group that originated in the United States. The acceptance of European Americans does not account for the thousands or even millions of U.S. citizens who have heritages that cross continents. Furthermore, the concept of "European American" seems to be racially based. Although many "white Americans" may physically resemble Europeans, that in no way should intimate that they have anything more in common with Europeans than with people of other geographic regions or of other non-European heritages.
Although the vast majority of citizens in the United States are ethnically American, the definition of ethnic group rules out the concept of the American ethnos. To recognize an American ethnos might smack of assimilation and melting pot-concepts loathsome among some multiculturalists. Yet, most African Americans, Japanese, Jews, and others in the United States are ethnically American (of one or more original heritages) or a subethnic group of the American ethnos. There can be little doubt that, culturally or ethnically speaking, most U.S. citizens regardless of heritage share to a greater extent a common culture with each other than they do with peoples of their ancestral past living elsewhere. On a general level, the American ethnos cuts across racial, religious, and geographic factors.
As for race, this bugaboo of intergroup relations would have been disregarded if it had not been for the vicious racism that it has spawned over the years. It is unfortunate that the guidelines give credence to race as a determinate of ethnicity, as in the case of African Americans and Japanese-"distinguished primarily on the basis of race" (276). The Japanese may be regarded as a national group, ethnic group, or cultural group. We do not say, "so-and-so is of the Japanese race," any more than Japanese would refer to Americans as "of the American race." They are certainly not a racial group. It would have been better if the authors of the guidelines had taken a stand against racism and pointed out that culture and race are not legitimate partners. On the other hand, an ethnic group can form over time as a function of segregation and discrimination. In this case, it is not race but racism and its manifestations of scapegoating and discrimination that may contribute to the creation of an outcast group and eventually an ethnic group. Confusing race and culture has a history of playing into the hands of racist thought.
Similarly, the guidelines refer to Jewish Americans as an ethnic group; however, less than 10 percent of Jews in the United States are ethnically Jewish. One's religion alone does not necessarily make an ethnic group. Finally, it should be noted that even the guidelines state that "factors such as region, race, gender, social class, and religion are variables that cut across ethnic groups" (276). Again we are faced with somewhat contradictory conditions that indicate how murky these guidelines are.
In addition to an ill-considered definition of "ethnic group" and the contradictions related to it, the task force delineates what it regards as significant versus trivial aspects that distinguish one culture from another. They note that "it is their values, perspectives, and ways of viewing reality that distinguish cultural groups from one another in the United States, not their clothing, foods, or other tangible aspects of group life" (279). Although values and perceptions of reality are important aspects in distinguishing one culture from another, we should not omit the importance of "tangible aspects of group life." As a matter of fact, the tangible manifestations of a culture (ethnic group) are important in identifying and distinguishing among ethnic groups. Consider, for instance, the following tangible manifestations selected from George P. Murdock's classical "The Common Denominator of Culture" (1945, 124):
age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, community organization, cooperative labor, courtship, division of labor, education, ethnobotany, etiquette, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift giving, government, greetings, hair styles, hospitality, housing, incest taboos, inheritance rules, kin-groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, marriage, mourning, music, mythology, penal sanctions, property rights, religious ritual, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, trade, visiting, and others.
Such tangibles of a culture within the context of a culture's weltanschauung are exceedingly important in attempting to understand that culture. In most instances, however, the outside world finds it virtually impossible to adopt an ethnic group's weltanschauung. The task force would have done well to address the problems and limitations of understanding alien cultures and to provide guidelines addressing these problems.
There are a number of other items and questions in the guidelines that are troublesome. Take, for example, the purported postulate that "ethnic and cultural diversity provides a basis for societal enrichment, cohesiveness, and survivaquot; (277). Although such rhetoric may sound good, what about the more realistic issue that ethnic diversity provides a basis for ethnic and cultural conflict? Or what about the fact that ethnic groups tend to maintain themselves by a certain degree of ethnocentrism? How are teachers to explain these while developing positive attitudes among students toward diverse ethnic groups?
The guidelines state that "the pluralist dilemma related to the curriculum canon debate can only be resolved when all groups involved-the Western traditionalists, the Afrocentrists, and the multiculturalists-share power and engage in a genuine dialogue and discussion" (279). Unfortunately, the authors prepared a set of guidelines that fails to seek rational compromise. There is no evidence that they consulted seriously with those having views that differ from their own. For example, they contend that "the debt Western civilization owes to Africa, Asia, and indigenous America should also be described in the curriculum" (279). One will be hard-pressed to find the complement-the debt that the latter owes to Western civilization. Of course, it might be more useful and honest to abandon notions of indebtedness altogether.
Their treatment of what is and what is not an ethnic group and their willingness to contradict their own criteria remind one of the logic, or lack of logic, expressed in George Orwell's Animal Farm (1954). The careless use of race and failure to examine critically both the positive and negative results of living in a multiethnic society leave much to be desired. These guidelines fail to provide a clear and concise plan designed to ameliorate intergroup relations and create a positive climate for intergroup social living. This cannot be done with weighty checklists and tendentious propositions. It is deplorable that such an influential body as NCSS cannot demonstrate a more thoughtful perspective.
Holt, Thomas C. "Afro-Americans." In Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, edited by Stephen Thernstrom, Ann Orlov, and Oscar Handlin, 5-23. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.Murdock, George Peter. "Common Denominator of Cultures." In The Science of Man in the World Crisis, edited by Ralph Linton, 123-25. New York: Columbia University Press, 1945.NCSS Task Force on Ethnic Studies Curriculum Guidelines. "Curriculum Guidelines for Multicultural Education." Social Education 56 (September 1992): 274-94.Orwell, George. Animal Farm. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1954.Milton Kleg is Professor of Social Studies Education and director of the Center for the Study of Racism and Ethnic Violence at the University of Colorado at Denver.