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Diversity Means Culture, Not Race

Lawrence Mead in 'The Spectator'
By Lawrence M. Mead | June 06, 2019

Americans have long thought that they are no different from other people, only freer and more fortunate. We pride ourselves on living independent lives in which we work out our personal destiny. We wish that everyone had these opportunities. But that individualist style of life is far less universal than most people think, and today it has come into question both at home and abroad. To recognize and address the reality of cultural difference is the leading challenge of our time.

Individualism means daring to pursue our own goals and values. That culture is unique to the Western world: Europe and its offshoots, including America. It made Europe and then the United States unusually rich and powerful, so that they came to lead the world. Most Americans descend from that assertive tradition. But important parts of our society came from other regions — Africa, Asia, or Latin America — where most people cautiously adjust to the outside world, rather than seeking change.

Within the United States, individualism is fading among low-income Americans and the lower-skilled working class, who are less able than they once were to take responsibility for themselves.

All of America’s toughest tests today involve tensions between these different ways of life. Within the United States, individualism is fading among low-income Americans and the lower-skilled working class, who are less able than they once were to take responsibility for themselves.  Immigrants, too, are less individualist today than they were a century ago, because they chiefly come from Asia or Latin America rather than Europe. So adjusting to America’s individualist culture is harder for them than for earlier newcomers. Abroad, America must deal with poor countries much worse governed than ourselves. We also face Asian challengers for world leadership, particularly China, who are also not individualist.

We say we have a multicultural society, but to discuss group differences is forbidden. That has been a tragic mistake.

Since non-Western groups and nations are mostly non-white, we traditionally view these differences as racial. That is why our establishment has suppressed all discussions of culture, fearing racism. We say we have a multicultural society, but to discuss group differences is forbidden. That has been a tragic mistake. My new book, Burdens of Freedom, rejects both sameness and racism. The differences that matter are cultural, in what people think life is about, in what they seek to do or be.  We need to address those divisions and not be deterred by race.

We persist in thinking that all peoples, and all countries, are individualist, when, on average, they are not.

Scholars of world cultures agree that the difference between West and non-West is large and important. How that difference arose is unclear, lost in history, but is not clearly connected to race. Yet expert discussions of public policy have paid almost no attention to cultural difference, in either domestic or foreign affairs. We persist in thinking that all peoples, and all countries, are individualist, when, on average, they are not.

Read the full article at The Spectator.

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Lawrence M. Mead is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at New York University.


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