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End of the 20th Century, Unity and Diversity

Justice Lewis Powell, Supporters of bilingual education, vital concept, Bilingual Education Act, California voters

As the 20th century came to a close, issues arose about whether group identity challenged national identity. Many Americans wanted to preserve a sense of national unity while respecting social diversity. They debated the pros and cons of bilingual education, the impact of multiculturalism, and the merits of affirmative action policies in education and employment.

Organizations representing Spanish-speaking Americans began to demand bilingual education in the 1960s. Mexican Americans in particular urged the use of Spanish in schools and the teaching of Mexican American culture. In 1968 Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act, which enabled non-English speakers to be educated in their own language. The Voting Rights Act of 1975 enabled them to vote in their own language.

In the 1980s opposition to bilingualism grew; opponents sought to make English the official language of the United States and to restrict bilingual school programs. Supporters of bilingual education replied that forcing students to give up their native languages weakened their distinctive cultures. Opponents contended that bilingual education slowed the pace at which non-English-speaking students entered the mainstream of society. In 1998 California voters passed Proposition 227, which sought to replace bilingual education that had been in place for three decades with a program of nearly all-English instruction. Arizona passed a similar law in 2000.

Multiculturalism is a concept with many meanings, but it often refers to acceptance of immigrant and minority groups as distinct communities, distinguishable from the majority population. Like bilingualism, multiculturalism provokes debate. Advocates of multiculturalism believe that members of minority groups should enjoy equal rights in American society without giving up their diverse ethnic cultures. Multicultural education programs, for instance, strive to teach the content of different cultures, to build tolerance of these cultures, and to eliminate discrimination. The hope is to enable students to understand how other cultures view the world. Multiculturalists reject the idea of a melting pot and assimilation; they dismiss the idea that national identity must be based on a common heritage and values.

Critics argue that multicultural education creates conflict among groups more than it fosters tolerance of one group for another. Cultural pluralism, critics contend, promotes rivalry and divisions. Moreover, they assert, European traditions remain central to American culture and institutions. Some critics find multiculturalism a token gesture designed to hide continuing domination of American culture by the majority group. Others argue that recognition of cultural differences and group identities does not help address social and economic disadvantages.

The policy of affirmative action has probably evoked the most widespread controversy. President Kennedy first used the term in 1961 in an executive order requiring groups that did business with the government to take affirmative action to remedy past discrimination against African Americans. President Johnson reissued the policy in another executive order in 1965. During Nixon’s administration, the government increased affirmative action regulations to include women and other minorities. To supporters, affirmative action provides opportunities for members of groups that suffered past discrimination. To opponents, it is reverse discrimination. Opponents especially object to the use of quotas—the setting aside of a specific number of college admission places or job slots—for members of minority groups.

The Supreme Court dealt with this controversial issue in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). The Court upheld the claim of a white applicant that he had been unconstitutionally denied admission to a state medical school solely on the basis of race. However, Justice Lewis Powell, Jr., wrote in the majority opinion that racial preferences in determining admission are permissible if their purpose is to improve racial diversity among students, and if they do not stipulate fixed quotas but take race into account as one factor among many.

Soon affirmative action was extended to employment, and the policy came before the courts in many subsequent cases. The courts consistently sustained affirmative action policies. Businesses and schools began to use such policies widely. But controversy persisted, and affirmative action continued to be challenged at the polls and in the courts.

In 1996 California voters approved Proposition 209, an initiative that ended affirmative action throughout the state in public hiring, purchasing, and other government business. The same year the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court barred the University of Texas Law School from any consideration of race or ethnicity in its admissions decisions. The Supreme Court chose not to review the case.

The debate over affirmative action is likely to continue, in public and in the courts. Americans will have to balance individual rights against group rights, to consider problems that involve national identity versus group identity, to be both colorblind and race-conscious, and to foster unity while appreciating diversity. E pluribus unum (from many, one) thus remains a vital concept. The experience of the last decades of the century suggests that the pursuit of American ideals—of liberty, equality, and democracy—is a process that rests on conflict as well as consensus.

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