Winter 1998
VOL. 13 NO. 1
ISSN: 0834-1729


By Thelma McCormack

In 1992, Charles Taylor, an eminent professor of philosophy at McGill University, wrote a small but influential volume called Multiculturalism. The title may be misleading, for it is not about the cultures of immigrant populations, past and present, who came to North America fleeing poverty and persecution, nor about the many ethnic minorities or religious groups who have been here for several generations and who together make up the Canadian mosaic. The subtitle of the book was The Politics of Recognition. Taylor assumes we all understand that Canadians use the term 'multiculturalism' to distinguish our approach from the American model of 'the melting pot' with the latter's emphasis on assimilation. In his view the price of assimilation is too high; it is, he says, "the cardinal sin against the ideal of authenticity."

Assimilation, however, may be the push-pull in a society where linguistic, ethnic, and minority groups do not have the full benefits of the society, where prejudice and discrimination divide us. This may, then, be an appropriate time to review our literature and examine how it has evolved, and, in addition, to think of the next century.

Historically, the first phase of research was simply to learn what the facts were. Most of our social science research on racism comes from the U.S. and focuses on African-Americans who were brought to the West Indies and the U.S. as slaves. They were, as one writer said, Africans when they arrived; America made them 'blacks.'

In retrospect, the early research was intended to humanize the image of men and women who had no history or individual identity. Who were they? And what was the impact on them of slavery and, in the ante-bellum years, of discrimination, segregation, and intimidation through violence? How did they view themselves? And how did they adjust their aspirations to the realities of 'Jim Crow' segregation in the North and lynching parties in the South? The evidence of pain was everywhere, but nowhere was it more vivid than in the studies done by Kenneth Clarke which showed that when black and white children had a choice of black and white dolls, black children preferred the white dolls. There is still a flourishing ethnographic research program on the black family, arts, linguistic patterns, religion, occupational histories, and emigration paths. But the major shift in research was to the other side of the equation, to the social psychology of prejudice.

The common sense understanding of racism was that it was the result of racists, of people who held attitudes that regarded Black persons as inferior, and justified their exclusion from full participation in public life, including, in some instances, voting rights. Prejudice was seen in malicious, misinformed attitudes and behaviours that were learned early and passed on from one generation to the next through socialization and re-enforced by the community. None of us were entirely free of it. Hence, the necessity to change ourselves, to develop an open mind, a social conscience, and to give others the opportunity to confront their own irrational biases. Educators and community workers developed educational curricula that would eliminate the negative stereotypes, ways of encouraging students to think critically, arrange opportunities for more face-to-face interaction, and, finally, to recognize that none of this would be easy. Yet, there was optimism, for the underlying assum! pt! ion was that ignorance was the major obstacle to overcoming prejudice, and ignorance was not intractable.

But in this same period, and influenced largely by the Nazi movement in Germany, there was a scepticism about 'learning to know the other better,' indeed of reason itself. New teams of researchers, many of whom were themselves refugees from Europe, drew on psychoanalytic theory and developed a psychological profile of the bigot.

The publication in 1950 of The Authoritarian Personality shaped the direction for many years of all forms of research on prejudice, for the book argued that prejudice was a manifestation of a deeper more unconscious configuration of attitudes ­ a blind faith in authority, a belief in the power of the supernatural, a distrust of strangers, a fear of change, a tendency toward dogma, and stereotypic thinking. The problem, then, was not black/white relationships, but a generalized bigotry, and not likely to disappear with measures to help people become better informed about the others. Close contact might, indeed, intensify it. Moreover, it was not just minority groups who were endangered; it was democracy itself.

The research on attitudes and on motivation was not rejected by scholars, but the first was regarded as too benign, and the second, too pessimistic. What changed this was the rise of the Civil Rights movement. First, the Black population was discovering its 'authenticity,' its African roots. Children who had preferred white dolls to black were being taught that "Black is Beautiful," students in Black Studies courses learned that Black civilization preceded the Greeks and influenced the latter. Second, the Civil Rights movement went from non-violence to violence as riots broke out in Watts and other inner-city neighbourhoods. In this context, a new and more political kind of research was emerging and it was being carried out by a new generation of Black scholars.

If, as we thought in the 1950s, racism was the result of racists, could it be the other way around? The new hypothesis was that racism created racists. There was a growing conviction, then, that racism as a structural and systemic part of our social system had to be confronted through social action, that the state itself must mandate and enforce equal rights. Beyond that, affirmative action.

Research turned increasingly to the politics of backlash as middle-class students, for example, felt angry and threatened by minority students who wanted not just space on campus but empowerment. New coalitions were being formed of feminists, anti-racists, and gay and lesbian rights activists, thus watering-down cultural distinctiveness but, also, leading to a different research agenda based on discourse analysis.

The new racist phenomenon of the 90s is focused on texts ­ 'hate speech,' on the one hand, and, on the other, a new 'politically correct,' multicultural curricula. The hate speech cases of Ernst Zundel, Jim Keegstra, Malcolm Ross, and more recently, Douglas Collins, have been about Holocaust denial. The courts' decisions have sent a shock through Holocaust survivors and human rights activists. What these cases reveal, however, is a profoundly divisive discourse, for the courts have defined these cases in terms of Charter rights (freedom of expression) while victims (Holocaust survivors) define them as survival. In a more abstract way this impasse may frame our research in the new century.

Research may also be more historical as it has not been in the past. A new study of German anti-Semitism, for example, has raised serious problems about the persistence of anti-Semitism among Germans of all classes who were, as the author said, "willing executioners of Hitler."1 The debates over this, by historians, may become more complex as they are joined by sociologists, political scientists, and social psychologists.


1Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. (1997). Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Vintage/
Random House.

Thelma McCormack is a Research Associate at the Institute for Social Research.