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Racial Conflict and Cultural Politics in the United States 

Author(s): Richard M. Merelman 

Source: The Journal of Politics, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Feb., 1994), pp. 1-20 

Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Southern Political Science 

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Racial Conflict and Cultural Politics 
in the United States 

Richard M. Merelman 

The University of Wisconsin, Madison 

This article argues that recent instances of cultural conflict in the United States are part of a 
single, historically distinctive trend likely to intensify in the future. Recent cultural conflict springs in 
part from growing competition for cultural capital between dominant and subordinate racial groups in 
the United States. This article analyzes this conflict, treating its chief symbolic expression—‘“multi- 
culturalism”—as a form of subordinate resistance to dominant group power. This article concludes 
that the uncertain outcome of cultural conflict in the United States reveals the absence currently of 
white ideological hegemony in American society. 


A glance at any week’s worth of recent periodicals reveals a plethora of poli- 
tically significant contests over culture in the contemporary United States. For 
the purpose of this article, “culture” may be defined as the “values, beliefs, norms, 
rationalizations, symbols, ideologies, i.e., mental products” (Thompson, Ellis, and 
Wildavsky 1990, 1) of the American people. This definition, though perhaps 
somewhat broad and overly intellectualistic as a characterization of the entirety of 
culture, nevertheless captures the particular cultural debates which have drawn 
media attention. These include, inter alia, struggles over the content of college, 
secondary, and primary school curricula (e.g., the debate over “Afrocentrism”; the 
shaping of a core university curriculum); symbols (e.g., treatment of the American 
flag); language (English as an official American language); the meaning of pornog- 
raphy and obscenity (the debate over the Mapplethorpe exhibit; the prosecution 
of the rap group 2-Live Crew); methods of education (e.g., bilingual education); 
“family values” on television programs (e.g., former Vice President Quayle’s at- 
tack on “Murphy Brown”); and even names for various racial groups (e.g., “black” 
versus “African-American”). 

Two questions immediately emerge about this flurry of journalistic attention. 
First, does it refer to unrelated instances of cultural conflict, or are these instances 

I would like to thank Michael Olneck, Crawford Young, Donald Culverson, and Clarence Stone for 
comments on earlier drafts of this article. 

THE JOURNAL OF POLITICS, Vol. 56, No. 1, February 1994, Pp. 1-20 
© 1994 by the University of Texas Press, P.O. Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713-7819 

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2 Richard M. Merelman 

connected to each other? Second, is contemporary cultural struggle any different 
from previous cultural contests between religious, ethnic, and racial groups in 
American history? After all, major cultural conflict over religion erupted in the 
United States as early as the seventeenth century; major cultural conflict over 
ethnicity began with the arrival of a large Irish immigration in the middle of the 
nineteenth century (e.g., the Know-Nothing party); and major cultural conflict 
surrounding race began at least as early as black nationalist movements in the early 
twentieth century. As recently as the 1960 election, the Catholic-Protestant divide 
remained a source of potent cultural conflict in the United States; in the early 
1970s Michael Novak proclaimed a revival of white ethnic consciousness (Novak 
1971); and in the 1960s the Black Muslim movement reinvigorated black national- 
ism in the United States. What, if anything, is new or distinctive about the cur- 
rent round of cultural struggle? 

This article maintains that recent instances of cultural conflict do constitute in- 
terrelated manifestations of a single, broad novel cultural tendency. In this article, 
I attempt to identify and explicate the distinctive conditions which have produced 
this tendency, and I also discuss “multiculturalism,” a concept which sponsors 
and structures the tendency ideologically. 

In attempting to understand recent political struggles over culture in the United 
States, I focus upon the relationship between blacks and whites as the main test 
case. Race divides groups of sharply unequal economic status and degrees of au- 
thority in social and political institutions. Also, race is the most fateful group de- 
marcation historically—and contemporaneously—among Americans (for relevant 
data, see Carmines and Stimson 1989; Black and Black 1987; Hochschild 1984; 
Wilson 1987; Orfield and Ashkinaze 1991). In addition, many of the instances of 
contemporary cultural struggle mentioned earlier spring from racial conflict. First, 
I draw eclectically from major traditions in political sociology to construct my ex- 
planation of contemporary cultural conflict between the races. Then I analyze the 
concept of “multiculturalism,” which is a major ideological vehicle for black cul- 
tural assertion. I close by speculating briefly about the future of multiculturalism 
as a focus of the cultural struggle between blacks and whites. 


Several factors acting in concert have fomented the recent outburst of cultural 
conflict in the United States. The most important of these factors will intensify 
their effects over time. Therefore, in contrast to the past, cultural conflict involv- 
ing race is no longer transient or episodic but is likely to become pervasive, enduring, 
and increasingly severe. It is in these latter three respects that the true novelty of 
contemporary cultural conflict in America inheres. 

An oft-cited precondition for the eruption of racially implicated cultural con- 
flict in the United States is substantial change in the racial and ethnic composition 
of the American population. In particular, the proportion of blacks and Hispanics 

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Racial Conflict and Cultural Politics 3 

in the population has been growing steadily, though at quite different rates. Addi- 
tionally, the Asian population has grown dramatically since 1980. Meanwhile, the 
proportion of whites has been declining. Thus, it has been estimated that by the 
year 2000 one of every three Americans will be nonwhite (Wilson and Justiz 
1987-1988, 9). 

Yet this important demographic change need not trigger major cultural con- 
flicts. After all, nonwhites are by no means a single, united group demographically 
or politically. Moreover, the black segment of this nonwhite group has not grown 
as rapidly as other segments; yet cultural controversy involving black cultural ex- 
pression is central to contemporary cultural conflict in the United States. 

We come closer to an explanation when we note that the groups that have been 
growing in relative size have been uniquely subordinated politically, socially, and 
economically to the group in population decline—whites. This is true most 
poignantly, of course, for blacks (for corroboration, see Pinderhughes 1987; Omi 
and Winant 1986; Fuchs 1990; Stone 1989; Browning, Marshall, and Tabb 1984; 
Hochschild 1984). It follows that the demographic shift in the American public 
may offer new opportunities for blacks—among other groups—to resist white 
domination and even seize power which whites currently control. 

The key question, however, is why a demographically supported power struggle 
between a dominant white and subordinate racial groups, especially blacks, should 
take on a cultural dimension, in addition to the usual forms of economic struggle 
(over, say, the distribution of income), or political struggle (over, say, the distribu- 
tion of elected leaders). Neither demographic shifts nor the existence of racial dom- 
ination by themselves explain the eruption of cultural conflict involving race. Nor, 
for that matter, does the long tradition of black cultural nationalism. After all, the 
cultural conflicts I have cited are contemporary, while black cultural nationalism is 
long-standing (Omi and Winant 1986). Where then should we turn for answers? 

Several specifically contemporary conditions favor the transformation of demo- 
graphically fluid dominant—subordinate racial group confrontation into cultural 
forms. Chief among these conditions is the growing importance of cultural capital 
as an influence upon economic power and political authority. An advanced indus- 
trial society depends heavily upon the production of formally educated, techni- 
cally competent workers. For this reason, educational certification—a major 
component of cultural capital—now enjoys a virtual monopoly over entry into the 
labor market, especially in its higher reaches (Collins 1979). Thus, ideas and skills 
have become crucial resources in the struggle for economic and political power 
(Martin and Szelenyi 1987, 16—50; Furaker 1987, 78—95; Bourdieu 1984). 

But we should not limit cultural capital to the familiar “human capital” of the 
economists. Cultural capital consists not only of technical skills, but also of the 
“symbolic mastery” (Martin and Szelenyi 1987, 18) those skills convey. This mastery 
appears in the creative discourse required to use technical skills effectively and 
imaginatively. In addition, cultural capital includes forms of cultural expression 
which, though not cultivated through formal education, nevertheless command 

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4 Richard M. Merelman 

deference and earn income in the expanded consumer market of advanced capital- 
ism. An example of such an ability is popular music performance, which, though 
often untutored, conveys prestige and celebrity to its purveyors and is purchased 
by many listeners. In summary, cultural capital consists of credentialed intellec- 
tual ability, broad symbolic mastery, and marketable cultural talents. 

It is possible to estimate quantitatively the growing importance of cultural capi- 
tal. As to technical competence and advanced education, between 1970 and 1980 the 
percentage of Americans enrolled in graduate education rose approximately 33%, as 
compared with only 10% growth of the population as a whole (Statistical Abstract of 
the United States: 1991, 159). A chief reason for this disproportionate increase is the 
high rate of growth in occupations demanding advanced degrees for entrance. 

Projected rates of employment growth are faster for occupations requiring higher levels of edu- 
cation or training than for those requiring less . . . Three out of the 4 fastest growing occupa- 
tional groups will be executive, administrative, and managerial; professional specialty; and 
technicians and related occupations. These occupations generally require the highest levels of 
education and skill, and will make up an increasing proportion of new jobs. (U.S. Department of 
Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics 1991, 9) 

A sizable component of this advance in cultural capital is devoted to symbolic 
mastery in the forms of creativity and innovation. For example, the amount of 
expenditure on research and development projects rose sevenfold between 1970 
and 1990, while the proportion of Americans employed in the research-and- 
development sector rose by 80% in the same period (Statistical Abstract 1991, 
589, 594). Significantly, patents for new inventions, which obviously require the 
creative manipulation of ideas and symbols, rose approximately 80% in the pe- 
riod from 1980-1989 alone (Statistical Abstract 1991, 541). 

Occupations specializing in the creative manipulation of symbols also grew at a 
disproportionately rapid rate. Between 1983 and 1989 the number of Americans 
employed as writers, artists, entertainers, marketers, advertisers, and public rela- 
tions managers rose approximately 20% faster than did job growth in all occupa- 
tions (Statistical Abstract 1991, 395). 

A particularly revealing illustration of increasing emphasis upon symbolic mas- 
tery may be found in the recent creation of many novel art forms. These forms 
often deliberately mix artistic genres long kept separate. Such new forms require 
their practitioners to have mastered the symbolic systems of traditional genres and 
to combine these systems in innovative fashion. Examples of such new forms in- 
clude performance art, computer graphics, “sampling” in rap music, voguing, and 
the making of music videos. One might also mention the elevation of older crafts, 
such as photography, to the status of art form. Finally, historians themselves have 
increasingly blurred the traditionally separate genres of history and fiction (e.g., 
Schama 1991). All of these examples have in common the demonstration of sym- 
bolic mastery in new forms. 

As this discussion makes clear, the terrain now covered by cultural capital has 
become broad and diverse. Certainly space scientists, university administrators, 

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Racial Conflict and Cultural Politics 5 

advertising executives, and the creators of music videos comprise a diverse group. 
Yet all these groups derive their livelihood from symbols which increase cultural 
capital. Therefore, even when they are at odds with each other about politics and 
economics, their mutual affinity for symbolism inclines them toward a debate 
about culture. For this reason they are unlikely to reject out of hand arguments 
about culture put forth by subordinate racial groups. An analogy may be helpful: 
just as workers and owners once relied upon economic discourse to frame their 
conflicts over the distribution of capital, so now do subordinate and dominant 
racial groups increasingly rely upon cu/tural discourse for the same purpose. 

As a subordinate racial group, blacks find themselves at a significant disadvan- 
tage vis @ vis whites in the pursuit of cultural capital, especially in its credentialed 
form. In the United States, isolation between the races has been more complete 
than isolation along gender, class, or white ethnic lines. Federal law did not even 
require blacks and whites to have access to the same public schools until 1954; by 
contrast, men and women, rich and poor, Poles and WASPs were never legally 
segregated in public schools. Nor were these groups ever as segregated in practice 
throughout the range of life as white and blacks still are today. For example, 39 
years past Brown v. Board of Education, most whites and blacks still attend differ- 
ent schools, and, when in the same schools, usually occupy different educational 
tracks (Meier, Stewart, and England 1989, 96—99; Jaynes and Williams 1989, 77). 
This severe isolation has enabled whites to control the definition and flow of cul- 
tural capital in most universities, in the media, and in primary and secondary 

In areas of cultural capital where credentials matter littlek—popular music, fash- 
ion, or film, for example—blacks are less disadvantaged. Yet these areas are by 
their nature insecure for practitioners, and, in any case, make up a relatively small 
part of cultural capital as a whole. 

But to interpret the overall black disadvantage regarding cultural capital as defi- 
ciency, absence, or deprivation would be inaccurate. Such a view ignores the fact 
that the distinctive historical isolation of blacks has created some hostility to and 
suspicion of white-defined cultural capital. As a “castelike” minority (Ogbu 1978), 
American blacks have been forced to survive not by assimilating into the dominant 
white group—as did many white ethnics—but rather by shielding themselves 
behind a defensive, protective culture designed to ward off, to resist, and actively 
to reject domination by whites (Levine 1977; Henry 1990; Scott 1990). Indeed, 
Henry (1990) even claims that black culture may be “an instrument for liberation” 
with a “transforming potential not found in mainstream American politics” (107). 
This distinctive culture influences many blacks to be ambivalent about the cul- 
tural capital whites largely control, seeing in the acquisition of such capital not 
necessarily an opportunity for black ascent, but perhaps a device for reproducing 
oppression, division, and stigmatization. 

Thus, if Ogbu and Henry are correct, in the competition for cultural capi- 
tal many blacks confront a dilemma. Blacks are asked to absorb some types of 

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6 Richard M. Merelman 

knowledge and certain specific values which many in their own group suspect and 
which—being unfamiliar—are difficult to acquire. To acquiesce in this demand 
therefore causes controversy among blacks, weakening the solidarity of the group 
itself, and diminishing the worth of the culture blacks have built in opposition to 
oppression (e.g., Peshkin 1991, 188-89). Yet to reject dominant group culture 
wholly is tantamount to renouncing opportunities for individuals to become up- 
wardly mobile. We can see that even if they possessed the strongest of commit- 
_ ments to adopting “white” culture, blacks—especially those in majority white 
educational institutions—would find themselves at a competitive disadvantage; 
and, if Ogbu and Henry are correct, even the commitment itself is problematic. 

Small wonder that within many race-heterogeneous universities some blacks 
actively assert their own cultural values as distinct from those of their white class- 
mates. As Weis’s (1985) study of “Urban College” reveals, black students devel- 
oped a culture of opposition to the university norms defined by whites. Blacks 
expressed opposition through indifferent attendance, late class arrival, limited ef- 
fort, and even extensive drug use, all of which, Weis argues, served “to maintain 
the collectivity . . . and also to distance students from the process that is educa- 
tion” (Weis 1985, 48). 

These observations are especially pertinent to our argument because the com- 
petition for cultural capital has recently directed increasing proportions of black 
students to predominantly white institutions of higher learning. Trent (1991) re- 
ports, for example, that in 1969 the “proportion of entering black freshmen in 
white colleges was about 50% of black enrollment. Today that figure is about 
70%” (108). A disproportionate share of this shift has occurred in the South, 
where black students have increasingly entered predominantly white institutions 
instead of attending the region’s historically black colleges and universities (Trent 
1991, 116). The result of this shift is unprecedented cultural contact between 
black and white students in American universities. 

These processes of increased cultural contact are consequential not only for 
blacks and whites separately, but also for the cultural relationship between the two 
groups. Where unequal racial group competition for cultural capital exists within 
universities, and where a subordinate racial group brings its own distinctive cul- 
ture to campus, a heightened awareness of culture as such may well develop. 
Under these conditions, conflict over culture is likely to emerge more easily be- 
tween whites and blacks. 

The increasing salience of cultural capital also has distinctive effects on whites. 
Whites must now market their own skills and products to an increasingly diverse 
racial population; members of subordinate groups, including blacks, may well be 
helpful intermediaries in this transaction. Therefore, many whites have become 
increasingly dependent for their continued well-being on the development of 
black talent. And much of this talent is expressed in the form of culture. 

Dominants therefore have a growing, if grudging, interest in developing cul- 
tural capital among subordinates (Business-Higher Education Forum 1990, 

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Racial Conflict and Cultural Politics 7 

7-10), even as they struggle to retain their own control over culture. This new- 
found interest helps explain the creation of affirmative action programs in hiring 
and promotion, the recent interest of business in reforming American schools, the 
movement toward national educational standards, and the increased efforts of uni- 
versities to recruit and retain talented minority students and faculty. It also helps 
to explain the Bush administration’s “America 2000” program for expanding 
choice in public education. While heterogeneous, these issues all bespeak a trend 
among white dominants to help develop cultural capital among blacks. Thus, at 
least to some degree, the interests of subordinate and dominant groups converge 
on cultural capital issues, a convergence which provides subordinates with ex- 
panded opportunities both to imbibe existing cultural capital and possibly to in- 
troduce a distinctive black cultural presence within the culture creation process 

Of course, opportunities need to be seized to be meaningful. We should not 
prejudge—nor can we predict—the ultimate outcomes for racial group relations 
of these new opportunities, and the struggle to which they give rise. After all, 
defining the actual shape and distribution of cultural capital continues to divide 
whites and blacks, even as the two groups converge on the necessity for a growing 
black presence in the culture creation process itself. 

Equally important in restructuring the cultural relationship between dominants 
and subordinates is the question of job performance and economic productivity. 
In an economy with an increasingly diverse work force including a “new black 
middle class” (Landry 1987), growing numbers of blacks work side by side with 
whites. Cultural conflicts between these racial groups impede economic efficiency. 
Whites who vocally condemn as “inferior” the values of blacks disrupt the work 
place. Blacks torn between their need to cooperate with white coworkers and their 
need to be loyal to their own racial group become economic liabilities. One solu- 
tion to this problem is for whites to refrain from expressing a sense of cultural su- 
periority over blacks, thus freeing blacks to assert the value of “black culture” 
within the work context. This solution reduces the pressure for blacks to choose 
between group loyalty and individual well-being. Meanwhile, to increase eco- 
nomic efficiency, whites abandon their pretensions to cultural superiority. 

The growing centrality of cultural capital in the relations between dominant 
and subordinate racial groups conveys to intellectuals and academics great impor- 
tance. The intelligentsia authoritatively defines the corpus of cultural capital and 
allocates this capital to contesting groups (Eyerman, Svensson, and Soderqvist 
1987; Gagnon 1987; Gouldner 1979). Although it is true, as Jacoby (1987) argues, 
that intellectual “generalists” are ever less in evidence than are “high-tech,” spe- 
cialized intellectuals, this phenomenon has not obliterated the historical function 
of intellectuals as social critics and reformers. For one thing, a relatively large pro- 
portion of academics are members of groups, such as Jews, who have been the tar- 
gets of discrimination in the past, and who continue to sympathize (though 
sometimes ambivalently) with the problems of contemporary subordinate groups 

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8 Richard M. Merelman 

(Lipset and Ladd 1975). Some contemporary intellectuals are veterans of opposi- 
tional movements in the 1960s and have retained, in varying degrees, their com- 
mitment to subordinate group betterment (for an extreme statement, see Kimball 
1990). Therefore, many intellectuals are sympathetic to the cultural positions put 
forth by subordinates. 

Yet these sympathies count for little as long as the intelligentsia subscribes to 
dominant, customary standards of worthwhile, valid knowledge. It is therefore 
significant that academics and intellectuals have recently become divided over pre- 
cisely what standards of knowledge they should propound. In many disciplines 
these debates pit received positivist models of knowledge against “interpretive” 
alternatives stemming from structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction 
(e.g., Major-Peetzl 1983). In anthropology the interpretive approach imaginatively 
and sympathetically reconstructs the cultures of stigmatized subordinate groups 
(Marcus & Fisher 1986). Elsewhere the “new history” of subordinated social 
groups (Scott 1987, 34-53) has challenged, as intellectually partisan and politi- 
cally repressive, the historical knowledge embraced by dominants. 

This philosophical debate within the intelligentsia has generally worked to the 
advantage of subordinate groups. More intellectuals now give weight to the inter- 
pretations of reality—and the oppositional cultures—which subordinates have 
generated. Therefore, many subordinates in universities are no longer penalized 
for advancing their own group perspectives within a setting still largely controlled 
by dominants. They can instead promote their own culture on newly legitimate 
philosophical grounds, remain loyal group members, and yet gain the valuable 
cultural capital universities dispense. 

Of course, my argument is not that dominant groups have wholly given way. 
Whites uninvolved in these debates still make up an overwhelming majority on 
college faculties. Nor has the challenge to white cultural domination significantly 
undercut political and economic control by whites. And, of course, a significant 
reaction against these tendencies has emerged among an influential segment of 
neoconservative academics and intellectuals. I contend only that new cultural divi- 
sions among dominants have emerged at a major site where much cultural capital 
is created and transmitted to dominants and subordinates alike—the university. 
These divisions have compromised white cultural domination, and have assisted 
subordinates in universities to diffuse and develop their own culture in a new 
setting (cf, Hamilton 1974). The outcome of this challenge, however, is by no 
means clear. 

Most important, the growing influence of cultural capital on economic and po- 
litical well-being pushes cultural struggles between dominant and subordinate 
groups to many cultural sites other than the university, such as the public school, 
the church, the movie theater, the advertising agency, the charitable foundation, 
the recording studio, the publishing house, the art gallery, the stage, and the tele- 
vision network. As a result, whites and blacks in a wide range of social settings, 
not just those in universities or professions, find themselves immersed in cultural 

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Racial Conflict and Cultural Politics 9 

conflict. Indeed, even cultural sites frequented largely by ordinary people—not 
intellectuals—such as popular films (e.g., “Do the Right Thing,” “Juice,” “New 
Jack City”), rock music performances (e.g., 2-Live Crew), and churches (e.g., the 
formation of independent black Catholic congregations)—are as often settings of 
cultural debate as cultural sites—such as the stage (e.g., Miss Saigon) or universi- 
ties—frequented by the intelligentsia. As a result, to varying degrees large num- 
bers of ordinary whites and blacks are now participants in cultural conflicts which 
they may not themselves have initiated as producers of culture, but which, as con- 
sumers of culture, they cannot easily escape. 

Evidence presented elsewhere supports the argument that in the United States 
the cultural relationship of blacks to whites has become newly fluid (Merelman 
1992, 315-42). No longer do whites exercise unquestioned hegemony in all sectors 
of cultural capital creation. Instead, in certain areas—particularly market-driven 
sectors such as film, television, music, and advertising—African-Americans have 
achieved cultural projection; that is, they have substantially and perhaps decisively 
increased their share of cultural imagery. Meanwhile, in other arenas—such as pri- 
vate nonprofit and government institutions concerned with culture (e.g., scholarly 
foundations, museums)—African-Americans have yet to penetrate white cultural 
domination fully, though even here they have made important gains (Merelman 
1992, 315-42). Taken as a whole, however, African-American cultural projection 
has managed to weaken white control over the entirety of cultural capital. 

These impulses to cultural struggle, however, would come to little in the ab- 
sence of a supportive political context. The political system must at least tolerate 
cultural conflict, despite the continued presence of political and economic domi- 
nation. How can this seemingly counterintuitive phenomenon develop? Why 
should economic and political dominants allow subordinates to challenge the cul- 
ture which legitimizes economic and political domination itself? 

Scott (1985, chap. 8) claims that even in agrarian societies, where traditional 
economic and political hierarchies are more deeply entrenched than in the United 
States, conflict over culture is an endemic phenomenon. He argues that: 

... the very process of attempting to legitimate a social order by idealizing it always [his empha- 
sis] provides its subjects with the means, symbolic tools, the very ideas for a critique that oper- 
ates entirely within the hegemony. (Scott 1985, 338) 

Scott (1985) points out that every dominant group propounds sets of ideals that 
will allegedly benefit even the most disadvantaged members of society. However, 
the mundane practices of domination clash with these ideals, confining the alloca- 
tion of practical benefits to the powerful. For this reason, every dominant group is 
vulnerable to the charge that it has violated the ideals it proclaims (Merelman 
1986, 276-301). Put differently, a dominant group’s ideology may be seen as a 
kind of cultural promissory note it issues to subordinates. Subordinates may call 
this note in when favorable economic, political, and cultural conditions warrant, 
and then proceed to challenge dominants. 

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10 Richard M. Merelman 

Scott’s (1985) argument bears interesting implications for the United States. As 
opposed to the agrarian societies which are the subjects of Scott’s study, in the 
U.S. dominant group ideals privilege the free exchange of ideas (e.g., the First 
Amendment to the Constitution), extensive political debate (e.g., the electoral 
process), dissent (a free press), and rational economic choice by individuals (a free 
market). Although the progenitors of these ideals may not have envisaged as wide 
a range of cultural debate as we now confront, nevertheless as understood by many 
today these ideals not only permit people to challenge dominant group cultural 
power, but also commend those who do so as participants in democratic dialogue. 
Therefore, the dominant group cannot legitimately suppress cultural challenge. 
Instead, many dominants feel constrained to portray cultural debate as a sign that 
the system works and is realizing its full potential. 

Of course, admission of cultural debate into the public arena does not guarantee 
change in the cultural balance of power between dominant and subordinate racial 
groups. After all, dominants greatly influence the agenda of cultural discussion, 
and naturally try to frame cultural issues so as not to disturb the status quo. 

Yet dominants often fail in this effort, and, given appropriate circumstances, 
significant cultural change does take place. In the present case, the growing strug- 
gle over cultural capital provides favorable circumstances for significant cultural 
changes of three kinds. First, subordinate groups may become newly legitimized 
under cultural terms set forth by the dominant group, thereby gaining the oppor- 
tunity ultimately to redefine these very terms. For example, African-Americans 
now enjoy the right to have “their” music, (e.g., rap) reviewed in prestigious pub- 
lications, such as the New York Times (for another example, see Nash 1990). Sec- 
ond, syncretic cultural change sometimes occurs when certain cultural practices 
of subordinate groups add new terms and practices to dominant group cultures. 
An example is the incremental addition of “Juneteenth”—a uniquely black cele- 
bration—to other widely accepted symbols of black emancipation from slavery 
in the United States. Third, subordinates may actually attack dominant group 
culture directly, attempting to supplant it with their own vision. Consider, for ex- 
ample, scattered recent attempts to replace “Eurocentric” education with “Afro- 
centric” education. 

In sum, because of the increasing centrality of cultural capital, cultural conflict 
and subsequent cultural change have become the risks dominant groups in the 
United States which must run in an effort to retain their political authority and 
economic well-being. The danger for dominants, of course, is that such conflicts 
will not only weaken their cultural power, but might also, in certain cases, under- 
mine the economic and political foundations of domination itself. 


The particular cultural conflicts mentioned at the outset of this article contain a 
common thread—the concept of multiculturalism. The emergence of this novel 

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Racial Conflict and Cultural Politics 11 

concept provides important support for our argument that, indeed, there is a 
unique quality to the cultural conflicts we have been analyzing. Inventing a unify- 
ing symbol is, after all, a crucial step forward for subordinate racial groups at- 
tempting to mount cultural resistance against dominants. Therefore, I focus on 
multiculturalism not only to understand the concept itself, but also to place it 
within the entire process of resistance to which it makes so vital a contribution. 

Though a frequently employed term, multiculturalism is by no means a fully 
articulated political ideology or program. Even in education, where it has been 
most often discussed, the term denotes different tendencies. Multiculturalism is 
sometimes used to describe educational programs which aim to integrate racial 
minorities into “the public culture of the dominant group” (Sleeter and Grant 
1987, 423). But multiculturalism also describes educational programs which in- 
tend to promote “social action against structural inequality” (Sleeter and Grant 
1987, 435). These two emphases are obviously at odds with each other. Fre- 
quently, also, multiculturalism is confused with Afrocentrism, a rather different 
concept (Asante 1988). Finally, multicultural educational curricula vary consider- 
ably in goals and analytic frameworks. Of course, outside education, where one 
encounters the concept of multiculturalism less frequently, the term’s meaning is 
even less clearly defined. 

Yet even fully articulated social ideologies often receive multiple, conflicting 
readings, a fact which in no way impedes—but sometimes actually increases— 
their reconstructionist effects. As an ideology, Communism meant very different 
things to Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1917. “Abolitionism” conveyed highly 
various meanings to its proponents in 1850 (Sewell 1976; Fogel 1989). And, of 
course, the term “heresy” testifies vividly to the fact that both during and after its 
rise to power Christianity contained conflicting ideological currents. 

Therefore, despite its contradictory qualities, I agree with Sleeter (n.d.) that on 
the whole multiculturalism disputes dominant group cultural power. Although I can 
produce no definitive quantitative evidence on the diffusion of multiculturalism, it 
is significant that the concept is now common in education, the site of greatest cul- 
tural capital creation (Sleeter and Grant 1987, 421—39; Olneck 1990, 147-74). 
Indeed, recent evidence indicates the development of multicultural curricular re- 
quirements at more than 20% of American four-year universities (Merelman 
1992, 339). Moreover, the state of California recently adopted a new multicultural 
social studies curriculum, complete with new textbooks. Significantly, proposals 
for national educational standards supported by the Bush administration accepted 
the idea of multicultural curricula and examinations (Madison Capital Times, 24 
Jan. 1992). In short, the concept of multiculturalism has penetrated some cultural 
sites normally controlled by white dominants. 

There is also evidence that multicultural curricula can have significant impacts 
on students. In his comprehensive review of recent research on the subject, 
Banks (1991) concludes, “curriculum interventions can help students to develop 
more positive racial attitudes” (464). Unfortunately, similarly useful studies of 

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12 Richard M. Merelman 

multiculturalism’s impact beyond the school are too few to permit definitive 

In order to appreciate the innovative thrust of multiculturalism, the term 
should be contrasted to the idea of the “melting pot.” Where the melting pot pro- 
jected an image of diverse ethnic and racial groups assimilating to a common pub- 
lic culture, multiculturalism not only asserts the viability, merit, and durability of 
multiple cultures, but also calls for public support of these cultures within a de- 
mocratic framework. Consider, for example, the Prince Georges County, Mary- 
land Task Force on Multicultural Education definition of multicultural education 
proposed on August 15, 1988: 

Education that is multicultural is education which promotes [my emphasis] the recognition, un- 
derstanding, interdependence and acceptance of individual uniqueness and cultural diversity 
within a pluralistic society, The term multicultural . . . refers broadly to the many cultural 
groups within our nation and world... 

By implication, multiculturalism as defined in this fairly typical statement pro- 
poses a novel form of political compact in the United States—a compact based 
on the acceptance, validation, and promotion of enduring group cultural differ- 
ences, rather than a compact based on group or individual similarities (see also 
Thompson 1984, 5ff). 

How is multiculturalism related to the distribution of cultural capital between 
blacks and whites? In particular, has it promoted the power of blacks? Has it di- 
vided whites? In short, does multiculturalism—particularly in education—actu- 
ally help to change the balance of cultural, economic, social, and political power 
between blacks and whites? 

The strongest negative response to this question is that of Olneck (1990), who 
compares multiculturalism to the rather innocuous “intercultural” education move- 
ment of the 1930s and 1940s. The crux of Olneck’s argument is that: 

. multicultural education, like intercultural education, is symbolically infused with the con- 
struct of “individual differences,” and does little to explicitly represent, legitimate, recognize, or 
implement the claims and communal lives of ethnic collectivities . . . multicultural education, 
like intercultural education, aims largely to harmonize relationships among culturally diverse in- 
dividuals by cultivating attitudes of empathy, appreciation, and understanding. These may well 
be laudable purposes, but they should not be confused with pluralism. (Olneck 1990, 160) 

I believe Olneck overstates the similarities between multiculturalism and inter- 
cultural education, in the process ignoring distinctive aspects of multiculturalism 
which promote subordinate resistance to domination. Multiculturalism has not re- 
pressed group interests in favor of individualism; instead, it has used individual- 
ism to promote group empowerment. 

To begin with, Olneck (1990) never explains why multiculturalism has devel- 
oped in the United States. This is a significant omission, for, as he points out, the 
United States has experimented with several other versions of group relations. 
The fact that many Americans no longer find such concepts as interculturalism, 

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Racial Conflict and Cultural Politics 13 

the “melting pot,” or even cultural pluralism sufficient for their purposes suggests 
a qualitatively new reality—not simply a repetition of the past. 

Moreover, multiculturalism has already attained greater rhetorical salience and 
educational acceptance than did interculturalism. In fact, even many supposed 
critics of multiculturalism find themselves using the term approvingly. For ex- 
ample, Ravitch (1990), often considered a neoconservative on educational issues, 
writes, “Wisely and intelligently designed, what has come to be known as the mul- 
ticultural curriculum is a tool with which to broaden and transmit the common 
culture that we all share” (18). She then distinguishes between “pluralistic multi- 
culturalism” (of which she approves) and “particularistic multiculturalism” (of 
which she disapproves) (Ravitch 1990, 16-20, 46—48). For Ravitch, it is the kind 
of multiculturalism that is the issue, not multiculturalism itself. Multiculturalism, 
like “Americanization” in the early twentieth century (Olneck 1989, 398-423), is 
a given; it defines the terrain of legitimate debate. Interculturalism, however, 
never aspired to—nor did it gain—a like degree of prominence or acceptance. 

Moreover, multiculturalism, unlike intercultural education, does not conflate 
racial issues with issues in the relationships between white ethnic groups and 
white Anglo Saxon Protestants. Instead, multiculturalism directs itself primarily 
to racially defined group cultures, treating “white Europeans” as largely a homo- 
geneous group. This is because multiculturalism is a direct emanation of racial 
politics in the United States, beginning with the Civil Rights movement of the 
1960s. Not surprisingly, therefore, while interculturalism directed blacks in the 
same predominantly pluralist, political directions as white ethnics (Olneck 1990, 
147-74), multiculturalism may well not. 

Nor does multicultural education, like intercultural education, elevate indi- 
vidual differences over group solidarity. Olneck (1990) argues that, “Multicultur- 
alists render ethnicity consistent with the core American norms of individual 
choice and individual expression by representing ethnic identity as an option or 
voluntary choice” (161). However, this argument overlooks a fundamental dif- 
ference between the way the two theories conceptualize the relationship between 
individual choice and group identity. In virtually all of its manifestations, inter- 
culturalism assumed that ethnicity commanded no particular primacy either as a 
shaper of individual choice or as a target of choice. Ethnicity was merely one 
among many equally legitimate factors to be considered in evaluating others, or in 
choosing a way of life. Moreover, a person’s actual choice ultimately deserved to 
be judged on the basis of putatively universal ethical norms beyond ethnicity. 

By contrast, multiculturalism construes racial group identity as a distinctly 
positive individual choice. Indeed, loyalty to one’s racial group enhances “self- 
esteem,” thereby actually improving the quality of personal choice (e.g., Prince 
Georges County Public Schools n.d., iii). Therefore, the value of personal choice 
will actually be enhanced by promoting and preserving the culture of one’s own 
group. Thus, multiculturalism concludes that no one should be forced into a false 
choice between conformity to putatively universal standards of personal morality 

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14 Richard M. Merelman 

and loyalty to one’s own racial group. Instead, the multiple group cultures which 
compose the United States possess a unique and enduring claim on the allegiances 
of their members. We can see that this perspective represents a significant depar- 
ture from the intercultural program of subtly disparaging the primacy of group 

Appropriately, this difference is signaled by the very terms “multicultural” 
and “intercultural.” “Jnterculturalism” implies that there exists universal norms 
which bind individuals from different cultures together and which permit unfet- 
tered communication across cultural lines. The purpose of education is to reveal 
such norms, and therefore to undermine ethnicity as a component of personal 
choice. By contrast, “multiculturalism” doubts that such diminution of group 
loyalty is possible, necessary, or even desirable. The many group cultures which 
exist in the United States deserve to be promoted, respected and preserved, not 
rejected in favor of a single standard which only appears to unite people as 
equals, but which in reality emanates from the dominant group, and serves to 
disempower subordinates. 

Finally, as suggested earlier, unlike interculturalism, multiculturalism has pene- 
trated some major sites of dominant group cultural power and culture creation, in- 
cluding universities, the public schools, and the mass media (Raub 1988, 346-71). 
Moreover, at some of these places multiculturalism has also redistributed em- 
ployment opportunities from whites to blacks (Zita 1988, 58—76). Thus, multi- 
culturalism is now better positioned than was interculturalism to influence the 
construction of new cultural capital by blacks and whites alike. 

Although the growing importance of cultural capital provides opportunities for 
cultural assertion by subordinate groups, why should multiculturalism—as op- 
posed to some other concept—be the ideological vehicle of subordinate choice? A 
full answer to this question would take us beyond the present endeavor, but we 
can speculate that multiculturalism may well perform several important functions 
both for whites and blacks. These functions promise multiculturalism a growing 
role in American political culture. 

One factor which favors multiculturalism is the changing position of the social 
sciences in American politics. Recent attacks against “secular humanism” and 
“relativism” from the right, and upon “soulless” technology and philosophical 
positivism from the left, have eroded American support for social science. It is 
characteristic in historical periods where social science retreats that primordial 
identifications—including race—experience resurgence. Multiculturalism bene- 
fits from this resurgence. 

Multiculturalism also extends an all-embracing symbolic umbrella over the 
black middle class at the very time that this class has somewhat escaped an organic 
black community based on shared political, economic, and residential destinies 
(see also Gans 1979, 193-220; Wilson 1987; Tricarico 1989, 24—47). Put differ- 
ently, for middle-class blacks, symbols of black racial community may compensate 
somewhat for the lost substance of racial community. 

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Racial Conflict and Cultural Politics 15 

Finally, multiculturalism sounds value-neutral. Therefore, it does not directly 
repudiate the scientific “objectivity” which many in the middle class, white and 
black alike, continue to employ as signs of respectability (Wuthnow 1987, 117). 

It is comparatively easy to understand why multiculturalism should appeal to 
the black middle class. But why do some whites also entertain this concept? Here 
the argument must be more speculative. Blacks who embrace multiculturalism 
confront whites with a dilemma. Multiculturalism not only asserts the existence of 
a persistent ascriptive basis for racial group inequalities in American society, but 
also claims that individuals gain or lose depending upon their race. While most 
whites may be willing to admit that other whites have benefited from racial domi- 
nation, many no doubt believe that they personally have fairly earned their success 
(Jackman and Muha 1984, 751-69). The concept of multiculturalism casts doubts 
upon this argument. 

This dilemma may well create cognitive dissonance for whites; in turn, cognitive 
dissonance can motivate a reorientation of beliefs (a careful statement is Wicklund 
and Brehm 1976, 132-34). Indeed, as cognitive dissonance theory would predict, 
some whites have experienced a kind of multicultural “conversion.” Why? Perhaps 
precisely because multiculturalism portrays racial and ethnic group identity as dis- 
tinctly valuable. Multiculturalism offers everyone, even whites, the right to give pri- 
ority to race and ethnicity. Indeed, this may be the fuel which powers what Alba 
has identified as an emergent European-American identity (Alba 1990, chap. 8). 
Although advocates of multiculturalism certainly wish no such outcome, by treat- 
ing racial and ethnic affinities as “natural” and “valuable,” they actually invite 
“Euro-Americanism,” an identity which may help release some whites from part of 
the personal guilt they may feel about their positions of domination. 

Moreover, multiculturalism relieves the burden upon whites to defend the “su- 
periority” of their own values or to derogate the values of blacks. By contrast, al- 
though a “melting pot” or assimilationist ideology flatters whites with a single, 
white-defined standard of cultural worth, it also forces whites not only to justify 
their values, but also to denigrate the many blacks who refuse these values. Thus, 
multiculturalism removes from whites the increasingly difficult task of demonstrat- 
ing white culture to be “better” than black culture. After all, to multiculturalism, 
every culture deserves respect. In short, the beauty of multiculturalism is that it 
helps resolve the very cultural dilemma to which it gives rise. 

Yet at best the appeals of multiculturalism to whites are but poor compensa- 
tions for the real weakening of white cultural, political, and economic power. Un- 
derstandably, therefore, many whites find multiculturalism unpalatable, and some 
reject it outright, claiming that it is a recipe for the cultural fragmentation of 
American society (Schlesinger 1991). 

A good example of the discomfort and ambivalence multiculturalism engenders 
emerges from Moffatt’s (1989) study of undergraduates at Rutgers University. 
Moffatt (1989) demonstrates that white students at Rutgers try to adhere to an 
ideology of individualism as they interact with black students. This ideology, 

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16 Richard M. Merelman 

however, cannot explain “the failure of friendliness between persons of different 
races” (166). Eventually, white students reluctantly are forced to acknowledge that 
race and culture do influence most peoples’ choice of friends. 

In order to defend individualism in the face of this challenge, white students at 
Rutgers distinguish between spheres—such as friendship—where they think in- 
dividualism should continue to apply—and other spheres—such as politics— 
where they think the group has the right to come first. In effect, students protect 
individualism by “choosing” multiculturalism as a public norm and by “choos- 
ing” individualism as a private norm. Students thereby continue to assert the pri- 
ority of individualism but now consider the racial group to be a legitimate 
“individual” priority in public life. In this process, of course, multiculturalism 
transforms individualism itself. After all, the “melting pot” and ethnic “plural- 
ism” confined legitimate racial group choice mainly to private life, and proscribed 
it from the public sphere. By contrast, the Rutgers multicultural adaptation re- 
verses this arrangement. 

Were this “Rutgers adaptation” to become widespread, the outcome would be 
sociologically fascinating: the erection of a public norm of racial, ethnic, and cul- 
tural diversity at the very time when the private, organic foundations of such di- 
versity in “ethnically pure” families, schools, neighborhoods, universities, and 
churches have substantially eroded. Thus, racial and ethnic identity would take on 
the essentially fictive quality which Gellner (1983) has insightfully described. 

A further appeal of multiculturalism to whites is its rejection of more threaten- 
ing conceptions, such as Afrocentrism. Afrocentrism not only asserts the particu- 
lar worth of black culture, but, unlike multiculturalism, it also argues that whites 
cannot fully appreciate certain aspects of black culture, nor understand how op- 
pressive to blacks much white culture is (Hayes 1989, 71—89). Most important, 
Afrocentrism claims that blacks actually invented much of what eventually be- 
came “white” civilization (Asante 1988). 

The emergence of Afrocentrism converts multiculturalism into a comparatively 
moderate ideology, one which can serve as an acceptable cultural compromise for 
blacks and whites. By adopting multiculturalism, whites eschew their discredited 
and increasingly dysfunctional public cultural hubris, yet protect the right to their 
own private beliefs. At the same time, blacks gain needed cultural capital, as well 
as the material rewards such capital confers. The resulting racial accommodation 
permits blacks and whites to continue their familiar forms of pluralist competition 
over the distribution of economic and political resources. However, the acceptance 
of multiculturalism promises to direct more of these resources to blacks, whose 
culture, now newly validated, can claim public support in order to be respected, 
taught, and cultivated. 


This article has argued that shifts in the nature of American capital forma- 
tion—especially the increasing demand for cultural capital—help to explain 

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Racial Conflict and Cultural Politics 17 

recent political conflicts over culture in the United States. These conflicts involve 
struggles between dominant and subordinate racial groups, and take place largely 
around the concept of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism appeals to many African- 
Americans and some whites on multiple grounds, and also fosters the redistribu- 
tion of economic, political, and cultural power from whites to blacks. 

Of course, multiculturalism remains primarily a symbolic affirmation. Some 
might contend, therefore, that the diffusion of this symbol serves only to divert 
“real” power struggles between the races into comparatively safe channels. This 
view is shortsighted, for symbolic challenges are essential parts of all major strug- 
gles for power. Institutionalizing the “rights of man” did not divert French 
Jacobins from their revolutionary exertions; promoting “no taxation without repre- 
sentation” did not divert American colonists from their attacks upon the British; 
nor, sadly, did the symbol of “Aryan superiority” distract Nazis from their san- 
guineous exercises against Jews, gypsies, and Slavs. If at times there occurs the 
cooptation of conflict through symbolic manipulation, so also, at other times, there 
occurs the extension of conflict through symbolic and cultural projection. 

Appreciating the distinctiveness of multiculturalism in relation to issues of 
racial equality in the United States requires a historical context. Historically, the 
pursuit of racial equality in the United States has emphasized cultural similarities 
between blacks and whites. Egalitarians have argued that blacks and whites are 
similarly worthy individuals, similarly patriotic Americans, and similarly capable 
citizens. Weighed against these similarities, racial group inequalities in power and 
status are unjustifiable. 

By contrast, multiculturalism asserts that racial domination has contributed to 
blacks and whites becoming culturally different groups. Symbols of commonality, 
such as “individualism,” “Americanism,” and “citizenship” not only hide this 
fact, but also protect “meritocratic” practices which impede real political and eco- 
nomic parity between the races. Multiculturalism also argues that the preservation 
of cultural differences is a legitimate way of advancing economic and political 
equality between the races. We can see, therefore, that multiculturalism challenges 
the received conceptions of American social structure and identity to which most 
whites adhere. 

But multiculturalism has yet to develop a fully articulated vision of the Ameri- 
can nation as a whole. By contrast, liberal individualism successfully imagined a 
unified American nation emerging out of the unfettered choices of individuals. 
Multiculturalism has so far provided no equivalent myth of nationality; it has not 
shown how a unified nation can emerge out of newly legitimate racial group differ- 
ences. Therefore, multiculturalism is distinctly vulnerable to counterattack. Yet 
the fact of its vulnerability ought not to diminish its accomplishments, for it has 
supported cultural conflicts which have undercut, at least for the moment, the ca- 
pacity of white dominants to protect in concert their position of domination. 

Manuscript submitted 5 February 1992 
Final manuscript received 9 Fune 1993 

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18 Richard M. Merelman 


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Richard M. Merelman is professor of political science, University of Wisconsin, 
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