The University Record, January 24, 1994

Long: Multiculturalism must face tragedy and truth of history

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

As Americans look ahead to the challenge of becoming an integrated, diverse society in the 21st century, they must first look to past notions of multiculturalism, keynote speaker Charles Long told a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Symposium audience at Hill Auditorium.

“As a nation, we have always put forth slogans of toleration and acceptance, but we have never understood ourselves as a nation with the history and ideology of pluralism and multicultural realities as the fundamental meaning of our being,” said Long, professor of religious studies and director of the Center for Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Long said America has always been multicultural, at least since “Europeans came here,” joining Native Americans as inhabitants of this land and, later, bringing African Americans to this country as slaves.

He admits that he is leery of talk about a new multiculturalism because “no reference is made to a past state of affairs, such that one is able to understand the relationship between the need for the new language and past situations that are presupposed by it.

“I am always suspicious of new languages that purport to describe our situation and our futures,” he said. “The notion expressed by phrases such as multiculturalism and pluralism are admirable, but I’m concerned when a new meaning of multiculturalism does not refer to the old multiculturalism.”

Long believes Americans must first “come to terms with the primordiality of the original multicultural meaning of this country,”—the dominance of “hegemonic Europeans” over Native Americans and African Americans.

“Why,” he asked, “should those who have been in a ruling situation change tomorrow when there’s no basis in their education, their history, their background, upon which you can base a meaning of multicultural?” he asked.

“If the new multiculturalism does not, in a critical manner, understand the old multiculturalism, then we abandon to another situation of ‘We, the people, and the others,’” he said. “That is, we do not have multiculturalism simply because we have lots of people from different backgrounds together. It really has to do with how we define ‘We, the people.’”

Long said the meaning and practice of multiculturalism should stand for more than “a rhetoric and more than a slogan. It must affect the very notion of the beginnings and history of this republic. It must face the tragedy and truth of this history.

“We must return through that history before we will be able to authenticate work, and create new time and space for American people.”