Feature 06.13.2019 6 minutes

Multiculturalism Is Not the Civil Rights Movement


To win, the Right must distinguish anti-Americanism from anti-racism.

Amid intensifying partisan and regional rancor in 1858, Abraham Lincoln advised his fellow Republicans: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” He urged them to recognize the gravity of the threat slavery posed to America: “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’” The Union would not dissolve, he expected, but it would cease to be divided. “It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Some of Lincoln’s friends and fellow conservatives thought his rhetoric rash. If Lincoln was wrong—about the threat itself or the wisdom of declaring it so plainly—then he and his followers could prove to be not the country’s saviors but its destroyers, either by frightening potential supporters into the opposing camp (and thus delivering America to those who would dissolve or transform it) or by plunging the nation into a needless, potentially catastrophic civil war.

In 2019, the leadership of the Claremont Institute contends we are again a house divided; the Founders’ republic again faces an existential threat, this time a more beguiling and insidious one, in the ideology of multiculturalism. As did Lincoln in 1858, they urge their fellow conservatives to recognize the gravity and urgency of the threat, fearing too many are perilously reluctant to do so.

Is Multiculturism a Threat?

Multiculturalism, conjoined with identity, has become the dominant mode of opposition to racism in the post-Civil Rights era. Is multiculturalism a regime in the Aristotelian sense, a comprehensive moral-political order, whose animating principles are antagonistic to the principles, epitomized in the Declaration of Independence, to which America was originally dedicated? If so, is it a regime of sufficient force to pose, now or in a nearly foreseeable future, a threat to America’s survival as a natural-rights republic?

That some conservatives offer an affirmative answer is understandable. At least since the days of Theodore Roosevelt, Americans have had much experience, often not to the good, with rhetorical declarations of war against one or another domestic ill. Such declarations act as temptations to the intemperate, and all declarations of war—domestic or foreign, rhetorical or actual—tend to corrode constitutional restraints. Mindful of Thomas Hobbes’s observation, “force, and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues,” conservatives may reasonably worry that to conceive of our present division on the model of civil war, even a “cold” civil war, could deepen our divisions and accelerate the erosion of constitutional government that they have long and rightly decried.

To these prudent reservations one may add others. It should be needless to say the practical, flesh-and-blood damage wrought or threatened by multiculturalism cannot compare with that wrought by slavery. It is also true that multiculturalism carries various meanings, and in the radical form considered here, it does not command majority support, either among all voters or even among voters left of center.

Nonetheless, it is a mistake to view multiculturalism as a mere, nonthreatening modification of America’s liberal-democratic tradition. A committed minority can wield great power. By virtue of its theoretical radicalism and the moral energy of its motivation, multiculturalism at its core does indeed pose regime-level danger.

Multiculturalism is an Anti-Democratic Movement

Many Americans, including many students in my experience, regard multiculturalism as a progressive continuation of the Civil Rights movement and therefore as a fuller realization of the promise of the American Founding, which the Civil Rights movement took as its main objective. In this account of the relation of multiculturalism to the American political tradition, a portion of truth obscures a broader error—one with profound moral and political consequences.

Large majorities of Americans now regard the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s with reverence, even to the degree, as John McWhorter has observed, that in post-Civil Rights Era America anti-racism has become “a new and increasingly dominant religion.” Cherishing the image of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a martyred savior, many Americans have drawn from the Civil Rights movement the lesson that racism is the deadliest sin, a stain so abhorrent that its comprehensive removal must stand as our supreme, overriding moral imperative.

Taken in its proper measure, this is a healthy lesson: Racism is a sin of a certain kind, one with a particularly grievous history in America, and its rejection is a firm moral and civic imperative. It is also a lesson fundamentally in accord with the Founders’ principles; King had solid reason to proclaim, as he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, that the Civil Rights movement as it had then unfolded meant to effectuate “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Taken to an extreme, however, the anti-racism imperative can assume the character of a crusade—a declaration of total war on racism fraught with dangerous effects similar to those conservatives sensibly fear in other such declarations. Those effects include some already evident, such as multiculturalists’ ongoing efforts to repurpose the nation’s educational and corporate institutions and, above all, to weaken U.S. constitutional norms, eroding or overriding its guarantees of speech, religion, property, due-process, and equal-protection rights.

Over 50 years after the anti-racism uprising that King and others led, multiculturalism derives its legitimacy, as well as much of the energy and zeal that sustain it, from the memory of that uprising. Yet it does not represent the continuation or completion of the movement that Americans now revere. It does not carry forward the legacy of what leading strategist Bayard Rustin regarded as the movement’s classical phase—its first (and far more successful phase), dedicated to integration across color lines and to the securing of equal civil and political rights for all, culminating in the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Instead, it bears the legacy of the movement’s failed second phase, marked by internal fracture between integrationists and separationists, demands for an expansive and ungrounded array of rights to socioeconomic benefits and to cultural autonomy and recognition, and calls for the radical transformation, not the completion, of America’s constitutional republic.

Two further considerations deserve emphasis. At the heart of today’s multiculturalism is the contention that government in America should distribute rights, benefits, and burdens differentially, based on group identity, rather than equally, based on individual personhood. Routinized invocations of diversity notwithstanding, multiculturalism is at its heart an expansive doctrine of reparative justice. For this reason it is not, contrary to its supporters’ (or its moderate adversaries’) claims, a fundamentally democratic ideology, positing the equal dignity of cultural identity groups. However speciously egalitarian its partiality toward the aggrieved, multiculturalism is effectually a doctrine of moral inequality, fueled by moral indignation, positing a binary division between privileged oppressor-groups and the groups they are charged with victimizing—the “debtor and creditor races” to which Justice Scalia referred in his Adarand v. Peña concurrence.

That inequality in status promises to be permanent. Because multiculturalism aims to remediate selected socioeconomic disparities by placing responsibility squarely on the surrounding society—presumed to be culpable—and not on the disadvantaged groups, it rejects suggestions that cultural practices may play a part in explaining such groups’ disadvantaged condition. The difficulty, as Thomas Sowell has long maintained, is that the very existence of cultural differences among groups renders some degree of socioeconomic disparity across groups inevitable. Thus the multiculturalist insistence on preserving and accentuating group differences, and thereby immunizing groups from any suggestion that they would benefit from internal cultural reform, must have the effect of perpetuating the very disparities that multiculturalists wish to eliminate.

The product of multiculturalist doctrine, therefore, must be a regime of group rights and group-identity preferences in public policy, in perpetuity. This would constitute a regime-level challenge to the Founders’ order. It would replace a regime based on equal, individual natural rights with one of unequal group rights, and it would render America once again a house divided, roiled in an ever-angrier atmosphere of accusation and recrimination.

Victory Depends Upon Winning Friends—and Dividing Enemies

What is to be done? Like Thomas Klingenstein and Ryan Williams, I look to Lincoln, mindful of his steadfast devotion to the principles of the Declaration, of the moral clarity with which he identified breaks from those principles, and of his firm insistence upon achieving the right result in the right way.

On this last point in particular: Having identified slavery as a mortal threat to the natural-rights republic, Lincoln did not issue an immediate call to arms. He did everything in his power to avoid civil war, consistent with the imperative of placing slavery again in the course of its ultimate extinction. Three years after declaring America a house divided, he implored his fellow citizens in his first inaugural address, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” Knowing that substantial pro-Union sentiment existed in the slaveholding South, he labored to keep pro-Union slaveholders in the Union, the better to convert them eventually by nonthreatening appeals for gradual emancipation.

Lincoln knew, in other words, that there was a hard core and a softer periphery of pro-slavery sentiment, and he saw the prudential imperative of dividing the two so as to expose, isolate, and weaken the former. There is a lesson in Lincoln’s maneuvering of pro-slavery extremists into attacking Fort Sumter, just as there is a lesson in the tactical shrewdness whereby Martin Luther King, Jr., baited his adversaries into displaying before the entire country the brutality of their bigotry.

As with support for slavery in the 19th century and segregation in the 20th, there is today a hard core and a softer periphery of multiculturalist sentiment—a core of antagonism to America’s first principles, and a periphery earnestly committed to the anti-racism cause and confused about its proper means and modes. To divide the two, it is first necessary to expose the extremism of the core, to which end proposals to protect free speech and due process rights on campus are well directed, along with efforts to publicize campus multiculturalists’ reintroduction of officially sanctioned segregation of racial-identity groups.

It is no less necessary to solicit the sympathies of multiculturalism’s soft supporters. “If you would win a man to your cause,” Lincoln remarked, “first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” The surest way to do this is to make good-faith, intelligent efforts in outreach to the Democratic Party’s most reliable and least rewarded class of supporters. By regaining the trust and support of even a substantial minority of black voters, Republicans and conservatives can re-establish themselves as the party of Lincoln and administer a decisive defeat to multiculturalism.

This is not a fool’s errand. To regain that trust, however, conservative politicians must acquire a thorough and nuanced understanding of the black American historical experience, including a self-awareness as to the sources of the deep mistrust with which many blacks regard the post-Civil Rights era Republican Party. Having thus gained a hearing, they can proceed to articulate conservatism as the true anti-racism and the only effective program for improving the condition of the disadvantaged of any color—a program centering on equal rights under law, color-blind public policy, pro-growth economics, and efforts to revitalize the character-forming institutions of civil society whose decay many black citizens recognize as the proximate cause of persisting racial disparities. Every victory in the cause of racial uplift will count as a defeat for the cause of multiculturalism.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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