SEPARATE BUT EQUAL?
INDIVIDUAL AND COMMUNITY SINCE THE ENLIGHTENMENT
To the Western peoples, the newcomers from overseas with different shades of skin seemed more foreign than the longstanding ethnic com- munities with which their countries were also dealing, like the Welsh, the Bretons, or the African Americans. The spirit that gave the Welsh the official use of their language did not extend to the new immigrant com- munities. Religious freedom applied to their faiths, but otherwise assimilation into or exclusion from the homogenous community remained the norm. In Britain success in incorporating “colored” newcomers by giving them civil rights and achieving their economic integration was being challenged by their strengthening identification with their non-Christian religions, especially the South Asians of Muslim faith. The United States and France accepted the arrival of immigrants so long as they could control and assimilate them. The specter of a new community prolonging its own ethnicity— its Muslim dress, its Spanish language—rang alarm bells in both countries. Germany sought to avoid the danger of heterogeneity from its guest workers—especially the Turks—by denying them legal entry to the community, until the inescapable fact that they would never go home induced a praiseworthy change of heart.
During the second half of the twentieth century the Western nations struggled with the hold that the ideal of the homogeneous society had gained over them a century earlier when vertical boundaries replaced horizontal boundaries as the primary structure of Western societies. Three possible paths were present. Two led to familiar homogeneous solutions, one the assimilation of local ethnic communities or newly arrived ones, the other their exclusion. The policy of cultural assimilation of nonconforming communities still found favor, but it faced growing resistance. Revulsion at the horrors produced by the drive for homogeneity in the 1930s and ’40s and a growing acceptance of the equality of all humans—given voice in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights—meant that after 1950 the idea of exclusion faced growing condemnation. Genocide of local ethnic communities had become a crime against humanity, but expulsion of immigrant communities also fell into growing disfavor, though held onto by a shrinking body of hard core advocates. The third path led to the acceptance of two or more different communities within the same society. Before the war this alternative had been expressed, with different implications, as “separate but equal” communities or as legally guaranteed community “minority rights,” the former was now discredited, the latter abandoned. Nevertheless, the belief that the acceptance of two or more different communities within the same society was the most promising and humane solution was now gaining favor.
Policies changed with different speed and in different directions depending on the country and the nature of the community that did not con- form to the national norm, whether longstanding or recently arrived. For the United States, the corrective chosen for the injustice of African- American segregation was assimilation. Opening all opportunities and facilities equally to blacks and whites was taken to mean that the two races should become progressively integrated into one common community. Because a black individual and a white individual now enjoyed equal rights, one could not be considered as different from the other for the purpose of affirmative action. The opposing attempt of the Black Power movement to achieve separate but equal communities did not find enough appeal among African Americans to counter the national ideal of a single people. France faced no such dilemma over the treatment of its permanent nonconforming communities, Bretons, Corsicans, Basques, and the rest. It had never sought to segregate them, and it continued to seek to make them true Frenchmen. But now the times had changed, and the communities fought back, believing in the new “right to be differ- ent.” Spain and England took the opposite approach, accepting the right of their ethnic communities to celebrate their own cultures and preserve their own languages. In all cases, however, there was no doubt that these longstanding nonconforming communities were part of the national society, perhaps not to be assimilated but certainly not to be excluded.
Recent arrivals, the swelling immigrant communities of the second half of the century, posed a different problem. Were they to be part of the national community or were they strangers? The homogeneous ideal called for assimilation, but their numbers, and their different shades, different religions, and different languages posed a new challenge for assimilation. In all countries there were those who believed them unassimilable and called for their exclusion, ideally by their expulsion, but facing the impracticality of such a drastic measure, at least by a ban on more coming.
More and more members of national societies bristled at such nativist intolerance and sought how best to incorporate the immigrant communities. A growing appreciation of non-Western cultures acquired not only through exposure to immigrants in schools and workplaces, but also through economic globalization, international journalism, and flourishing world tourism meant that traditional national cultures were losing their mystique. Something besides assimilation to the national culture began to find appeal. This could mean allowing nonconforming groups to defend their own cultures, and even give them state support, the policy followed in England. Or it could mean that all members of the society should become cognizant of the cultures of the separate communities and accept them as part of a new greater whole. This ideal of multiculturalism was being preached in the United States. It proposed that the canon that formed the national culture be expanded to embrace formerly segregated cultures and newly imported ones. This did not represent a new version of separate but equal, but rather a transformation of the larger community to include more than the dominant historical culture, a new version of homogeneity. France publicly rejected multiculturalism as a threat to its national unity, while Germany gradually came to terms with the reality. The English solution was not so ambitious; here there remained a sense of promoting “separate but equal” communities. That was even more true of Spain, where the communities of Basques and Catalans were actively promoting their local cultures against the traditional Castilian national culture. Even here, though, the preference of the cultural militants would be assimilation of their populations into a homogeneous local community.
As the twentieth century advanced, Western societies were every- where questioning, if not actively rejecting, the ideal of the homogeneous community, but Hydra-like, when one head was cut off, homogeneity replaced it with a new one. Does this mean that separate but equal communities living together in a stable society have never been more than a fantasy? The movement for feminine liberation may solve the question.