Not as much as straight-up racism. That’s made a comeback these days. This year, the number of incidents of “black face” and other assorted throwbacks to Jim Crow racism is astounding. My own campus suffered this, as did Texas A&M (where the scandal broke just as President George W. Bush nominated its president, Robert Gates, to be his Secretary of Defense). Such Klan-variety racism is generally couched as juvenile thoughtlessness, lubricated with drink and drugs, although it doesn’t feel like a prank for African American students. For them, this is terrorism of a domestic sort.
Colleges respond to such racism with a call for tolerance and diversity.
More diversity, less racism. That’s the received wisdom. Diversity and tolerance are part of an ensemble of concepts that form the heart of liberal multiculturalism. College administrators rightly cast out cruel racism.
Against intolerance of difference, they champion a diverse cultural life world and ask that we respect that which is unfamiliar. With experience comes comfort. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with such an attitude.
Indeed, it is far better to have differences championed than denigrated.
Liberal multiculturalism, whose main concepts are tolerance and diversity, provides a raft for students who otherwise would be on the frontline of juvenile cruelty. But, liberal multiculturalism does as much long-term harm as it does short-term good. Here are some of its problems:
(1) It adopts a narrow view of “culture,” seeing it as the property of a “people” rather than a set of resources and traditions that emerge in different parts of the world, filled with contradictions and opportunities.
As Gandhi said of a narrow idea of culture, “if I can’t swim in tradition, I’ll sink in it.”
(2) It gets caught in who it allows to define the boundaries of a “culture,” and in who gets to regulate it. Typically, because theocratic and conservative forces organize on the field of culture, they have come to dominate it. Therefore, it is not ordinary people, with all our contradictions, who fashion the “culture” of multiculturalism. Rather it is most often the most conservative elements, those who have an investment in making purity central to their cultural project, who seize control of the multicultural dynamic.
(3) Finally, because multiculturalism sets up culture to such a high standard for the understanding of the world’s people’s, “culture” operates as the determinant of destiny. There is no place for political economy or social institutional analysis, if indeed culture can explain everything about how and why people behave.
The descent of multiculturalism into the provision of cover for projects of cruelty is best illustrated in the world of Indian America. In 1990, a group of committed activists of the hard right formed the Hindu Students Council (HSC) in the woods of New Jersey. Their public pronouncement was along the grain of liberal multiculturalism, that they wanted to assist Hindu students who struggle with the “loss and isolation” due to their “upbringing in a dual culture Hindu and Judeo-ChristianÅ .We try to reconcile our own sorrows and imperfections as human beings in a variety of self-defeating ways. And we usually go through this confused internal struggle alone. It was precisely to assist you with this spiritual, emotional and identity needs that HSC was born.” Given the strictures of liberal multiculturalism, everyone, including college administrators, must stand by and applaud.
But the HSC was never simply about the identity struggles of those whom it called Hindu Americans. It was also the youthful fingers of the long-arm of Hindutva-supremacy in India. It was initially a “project of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America,” the far right “cultural wing” of the hard right Sangh Parivar (Family of the Faithful). When activists of the right destroyed a five hundred year old mosque in 1992, the VHP egged them on, the VHPA cheered, and so did the leaders of the HSC. For them, concern over the identity struggles of young Indian Americans could easily be reconciled with their anti-Muslim politics. Multiculturalism in the U. S. provided cover for the cruel, cultural chauvinism in India.
All this is revealed in a new report, Lying Religiously: The Hindu Students Council and the Politics of Deception, released in early April 2007 by the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate (the report is available at http://hsctruthout.stopfundinghate.org). In 2002, the Campaign had unmasked another “front” organization of the far right, the India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF), a U. S. based charity organization that raises money for mayhem (it continues to operate with impunity).
The HSC tried to rebut the report, saying in a press release that it is not only “open about its activities,” but that it does such ordinary things as “hosting speakers, performing community service, holding poojas, celebrating festivals, and participating in interfaith discussions.” But, as the report shows, in 2000, the head of the VHP, the cultural wing of the hard right, Ashok Singhal said of the HSC, “Now, the first project we have in mind is strengthening the Hindu Students Council. The second-third generation Hindu youth do not want to identify themselves with India because they are American citizens, but they do not hesitate to call themselves Hindu. This is the generation which is going to throw up the leadership of the future.
We therefore feel that they should be the focus of our attention. Our anxiety is that they should not be torn asunder from their own roots.”
Singhal, who is a fire-breathing leader of the Hindutva right, is currently in the midst of an election campaign, where he is defending the use of a repellent election DVD made by the party of the Hindutva right, the BJP (it shows, for example, graphic details of a Muslim butcher killing a cow, an image intended to inflame hatred against Muslims). So much for tolerance and diversity. The HSC now claims to be a separate organization. The Report from the Campaign makes the circumstantial claim that its independence is a sign of its maturity within the far right, “Such a severance of links signifies the very opposite, that is, this marks the graduation of the HSC from being a mentored project of the VHPA to a full member of the Sangh.” This might be so. It is, of course, hard to prove beyond a circumstantial argument. But the claim is sufficient to start a discussion inside and around the HSC.
What is the nature of its independence, and what are its links with the VHPA and the “family”?
But it is another worthwhile place to hold a discussion about multiculturalism, the social ideology on our college campuses that allows a conservative idea of culture to take charge. Diversity trumps over a forthright campaign against white supremacy, and one that dispatches all hurtful cultural forms, whatever their provenance.