Has Culture Supplanted Race in the American Social Landscape? by Jeffrey Hicks

Over the years, much has been written about the American racial question and its impact on life in the United States. Conspicuously absent from the debate has been a recognition of how racism may now be but a convenient proxy for cultural marginalization. When racial minorities experience discrimination today, the cause is most likely rooted in differences of culture rather than differences in inherited physical characteristics. Perhaps the time has finally come to attribute American intergroup tensions to “culturism” as opposed to racism. The difference is far more than semantic and it could suggest that America has unknowingly turned the corner in regard to relations between racial groups.

It is well settled that race has historically been the predominant factor negatively affecting the lives of racial minorities. However, upon close examination of the current condition of let’s say, blacks, it becomes increasingly clear that we are most likely to be discriminated against if and when we function outside of what is considered the cultural mainstream. If this is indeed true, the implications would be profoundly positive. Race is an immutable characteristic that one cannot change; culture, however, is very changeable through familiarity and conditioning.

When whites discriminate against blacks today, it is likely that they do so because of negative perceptions of differing attitudes, behaviors and communication styles, whether real or imagined. It is rare today for whites to discriminate against blacks due solely to the physical traits associated with being black.

For example, there exists a sizable and growing class of affluent and successful blacks who have sufficiently adopted the practices and mores of mainstream society. Their adoptions of corporate language, etiquette, and values have equipped them to persevere in America’s competitive environment despite their racial differences. In contrast, the most underachieving strata of blacks tend to function farthest from the cultural mainstream core. Does it follow that a possible solution to the discrimination that blacks and others experience is mainstream acculturization?

Sadly, vehement and defiant resistance to mainstream acculturization remain the rule in many black communities. Years of continual exclusion from American mainstream life has given rise to a vibrant black sub-culture that, among other things, prides itself in rejecting vestiges of the cultural mainstream. That this rejection stifles upward mobility is seldom considered in some black communities. Therein dwells the new American dilemma. To expect these blacks to abandon their familiar culture in favor of a historically hostile mainstream would be truly ambitious. This difficulty notwithstanding, this should be increasingly acknowledged as a critical cultural goal to be pursued.

Some critics might consider this mainstream acculturization to be a form of denial of ethnic heritage. This need not be the case. Obtaining the ability to function in a different cultural milieu does not necessarily displace one’s original cultural disposition. For example, when foreign businessmen come to the United States, they quickly realize that they must adopt American corporate modes of dress, speech, behavior if they expect to make positive impressions in the business world. Are these foreign businessmen thereby rejecting the heritage from which they came? Surely, they are not.

Further, notable figures like Denzel Washington, Colin Powell and Michael Jordan are respected and admired by Americans across the demographic spectrum. Are they any less black by heritage and culture as a result? Again, this is not the case.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that racism no longer exists in American life. In some environments, it continues to be an everyday phenomenon. More often than not however, American racism now consists of slights and indignities rather than systemic measures used to subjugate people as in years past. This fact alone demonstrates just how far American society has come in lessening the relevance of race, per se, as a barrier to equal participation in the American dream. And despite the protestations racial pessimists would have us believe, we are obviously well along the right path.

Jeffrey Brian Hicks, a member of the black leadership network Project 21, is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia who focuses on social and public policy issues. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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