Origins of Multiculturalism

By Christine Sleeter and Peter McLaren

Multicultural education can be traced historically to the Civil Rights Movement. African-American scholars and educators, working in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, provided much of the leadership of multicultural education.

The term “multiethnic education” was used to bridge racial and ethnic groups: “multicultural education” broadened the umbrella to include gender and other forms of diversity. The term “culture” rather than “racism” was adopted mainly so that audiences of white educators would listen. As a result, however, many white educators have pulled multicultural education away from social struggles and redefined it to mean the celebration of ethnic foods and festivals; the field is sometimes criticized as having turned away from its initial critique of racism in education. It is important to locate multicultural education in the Civil Rights struggle for freedom, political power, and economic integration.

The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed several other movements that have connected loosely with multicultural education. The women’s movement gained strength and impacted schools with passage of Title IX in 1972. Although the women’s movement has had a white middle-class orientation, there has been continued effort on the part of some workers to link struggles against racism with struggles against sexism. Bilingual education was advanced in the late 1950s by Cubans fleeing Castro’s revolution. This was a relatively privileged minority. Since then Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Asian Americans have advanced bilingual education legislation, theory, and practice. The history and development of bilingual education is somewhat separate from that of multicultural education, although the two have grown in a mutually reinforcing symbiosis. Also during this time, ethnic studies and women’s studies departments were established on some university campuses, providing a basis for contemporary debates about multiculturalism in higher education.

Multicultural education frames inequality in terms of institutionalized oppression and reconfigures the families, and communities of oppressed groups as sources of strength. By the early 1980s, this formulation was turned on its head in the dominant discourse about education. Discussions about education were framed mainly in terms of how to enable the United States to maintain international supremacy in the Cold War and the “trade war.” The early 1980s saw a wave of educational reform reports, beginning with the National Commission of Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk (1983). In this context,students of color, those from poverty areas, and those whose first language was not English were defined as “at risk” of failure,and their homes and communities were defined as culturally deprived and morally depraved.

Nevertheless, by 1985 demographic data reports were informing educators and the general public that people of color would become the majority during the 21st century, and multicultural education received renewed attention. At the K-12 level, workshops on multicultural education became “in” again, with many teachers interpreting it to mean teaching supplementary lessons about “other” cultures. Multicultural educators had made some substantive changes in curricula, however, which led to fierce battles in states such as California and New York. In higher education, lively debates about the canon were met by conservative challenges against “political correctness.” The roots of Western civilization were connected with Africa and Asia, a connection that was fiercely rejected by those who feared that the loss of European supremacy would mean loss of civilization.

However, as white teachers in K-12 classrooms developed “tourist” conceptions of multicultural education and as desegregated schools demanded children of color go far more than halfway to bring about integration, many educators of color grew disillusioned with the fading promises of the Civil Rights Movement and multiculturalism. At the center of the disillusionment has been the failure of white people and institutions to grapple substantively with our own racism at personal as well as systemic levels, concomitant with the escalated transfer of economic resources and the mobility of capital away from poor communities. Native-American, African-American, Chicano/a, Puerto-Rican, and other communities of color responded with resurgent self-determination. [Native-American] tribal schools and Afrocentric schools, and programs are vibrant examples of this response. These efforts argue compellingly for the need to center oneself spiritually and culturally before one can connect meaningfully across cultural borders and illustrate the failure of white-controlled, multicultural schools to advance the interests and needs of communities of color.

Christine Sleeter is a professor at California State University- Monterey Bay. Peter McLaren is associate professor at the Universityof California – Los Angeles. The above is adapted from the introductionto the book they co-edited, Multicultural Education, Critical Pedagogy, and the Politics ofDifference (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995.) Reprintedwith permission.