Multiculturalism in America: The Struggle for Acceptance Continues

by October 7, 2011

In 1966 boxing legend Muhammad Ali, just 24 years old, took a memorable stand against the Vietnam War.  He’d been drafted by the government, but refused the call famously saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the VietCong…No VietCong ever called me nigger.”  At the time, this nation’s Black citizens were struggling to gain the respect and acceptance promised by the land of opportunity.  At just 24 years old, Ali’s act of “defiance” was an electric rallying cry for at least one minority group to overcome.

Decades later, minority groups are still struggling to find a multicultural embrace in America. Shortly after the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001, Muslims quickly became a visible target of intolerance.  As the most adored Muslim-American, Ali participated in a 9/11 celebrity telethon, weeks after the attack, designed to foster understanding and tolerance of Islam and Muslims among other Americans.

Since that tragic day 10 years ago now, Muslims in this country have struggled with anti-Islamic rhetoric, threats, and exclusionary tactics that make the ideals of multiculturalism – namely acceptance and appreciation of another’s culture – seem unrealistic.  But the Muhammad Ali Center, in Louisville, Kentucky is working toward improving the future of multiculturalism. Barry Alberts, its interim director, said that the center was built to honor Ali by, advancing the principles by which he lives.  He said, they aim to help those who visit, “find their own greatness within and understand each other in a more compassionate and respectful way.”

That goal of the Muhammad Ali Center and, of course, numerous others becomes more and more critical as American society becomes more and more diverse.  For example, census data shows that since 2000, Americans of African descent grew from 12.9 percent of the total population to 13.6 percent of the total population.  During that time, Americans of Hispanic origin grew four times as fast as the total population of Americans: they now make up 16.6 percent of the overall population.  Among religious orders, the number of Muslims jumped from 2.6 million to 6.2 million in 2010.

But the inexorable movement continues to provoke, resistance to inclusion, acceptance and change.  Dominique Appollon, director of research for the Applied Research Center, in Oakland, California, believes that while younger Americans – who themselves are more diverse than older Americans – are much more accepting of diversity, past hurts can continue to haunt the progression of minority groups as a whole.

“You can have a seat at the table”, Appollon said.  “But if your community wasn’t able to develop wealth because of past racist policies and continued potential racist effects of housing policies or banking or lending practices, ultimately you don’t have real fundamental change”.

As it stands now, the two largest American groups of color, African Americans and Latino Americans are also the poorest: the Census Bureau’s report on poverty shows roughly 27 percent of African Americans live in poverty, and approximately 26 percent of Latino Americans live below the poverty line.

Appollon said one challenge with trying to reduce such reducing concentrations of poverty among people of color is that many whites will mention central to overcoming such odds but “there’s always a Barack Obama … always an Oprah Winfrey.  There’s always these exceptional individuals who the majority white population can point to and say ‘they made why can’t the rest of you?’  But those assertions you know ultimately ignore structural [barriers] that prevent truly equitable outcomes.”

In other words, multiculturalism is not just a matter of tolerance but of expanding access to the resources of the society.

The evolution of multiculturalism has not just been about acceptance, but about leveling the playing field.  Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance – a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, agreed and added, “people do not necessarily welcome change.  I think right now the combination of the tremendous demographic change in the last decade [and] combined with the tremendous economic hardship [has been] is a recipe for fear and for scapegoating.”

But Costello believes money is only part of obstacle.  Politics has also been a thorny opponent in many ways to accepting multiculturalism.  Popular conservative host Bill O’Reilly famously caused a media frenzy when he said “Muslims killed us on 9/11.”  Also Connecticut based conservative Rick Torres boldly announced during his congressional campaign “we are at war with Islam.”

Costello says the trickle down affect of anti-Muslim rhetoric feeds into our schools of our youngest most diverse Americans.  She said that within the last year a school district in Texas, which was about to adopt both Chinese and Arabic as language electives, surrendered to political pressure to get rid of the latter.

She added the push back against multicultural policies is fueled by a chosen, but powerful few.” “Government is responsive to voters,” she explained.  “Who votes in larger numbers than anyone else?  The older you the more likely you are to vote.  So in a sense the government is responsive to the least multicultural and least tolerant of its citizens, if we also accept that the youngest generation is the most tolerant; they unfortunately are not the most active politically.”

That’s why organizations like the Muhammad Ali Center, and publications like Colorlines and Teaching Tolerance are imperative to the evolution of multiculturalism in this country according to Costello.  America has a storied past with multiple cultures.  But the road to acceptance for European immigrants and Asian immigrants, as well as Latin American immigrants, African-Americans, Jews and Muslims has been more like an embattled journey than a paved way.  Still Costello believes those groups must continue to push for a more tolerant and accepting society. In the end, she says it will be worth.  “That long arc of history, it’s long but it does bend towards justice.  The trend is that we’re going to get there.”

Tarice L.S. Gray is a freelance writer and blogger for

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