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Recently, though, the language of racism in America has changed, though the plot remains the same. It's not about skin color anymore--it's about "cultural traits." And it comes cloaked in a whole lot of social-science babble. The new racialists are too smart to denigrate particular cultures. Instead, they come at things the other way. They praise certain cultures, hold them up as exemplary. The implication--sometimes overt, sometimes only winked at--is that other cultures are inferior and this accounts for their inability to succeed.
The Rise of Groupthink
The U.S.--like Brazil or England--likes to think it has moved beyond race. After all, we elected a black President, twice. But in reality, the terrain of race-baiting has simply shifted. The condescension once aimed squarely at African Americans now also claims as its targets Latinos, Muslims and--in a novel twist--large swaths of whites. And the people doing the condescending might be black or brown themselves.
A Congolese immigrant whom I met in the course of researching my book told me about the African Americans she knows at the supermarket where she works. "We are really different," she said about her community, as opposed to African Americans. "They don't have African values. They don't have the values to be black."
I asked her what that means.
"To be black," she explained, "means you get married and you don't have children before." The American blacks at her supermarket, she said, need to go to college. "They ask if you want to have marijuana. It's just normal for them. It's easy for them to say that 'My ancestors were oppressed.'"
A book like The Triple Package, even if it takes pains to argue in nonracial terms, is an example of this sort of ethnocentric thinking writ large. And it is only the latest in a long line of books--spanning more than a century--arguing for the superiority of this or that American group over others. The roots of alleged superiority have changed over time from race to class to IQ to religion and now to culture.
In 1916 Madison Grant wrote The Passing of the Great Race, which purported to demonstrate the racial and cultural superiority of Northern Europeans over Southern Europeans. The book was influential in drumming up popular support for passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which barred Asians from immigrating to the U.S. and established quotas for Southern and East Europeans, to keep out Jews. Decades later, an influential 1959 article by Bernard Rosen declared that "Protestants, Jews and Greeks place a greater emphasis on independence and achievement training than southern Italians and French-Canadians." They were more successful because of an "achievement syndrome"--which sounds suspiciously like the Triple Package. (Italians, particularly, were portrayed in these works as an immobile ethnicity. But by 1975, they had assimilated, and now, as the sociologist Richard Alba has demonstrated, young Italian Americans have higher than average levels of college and postgraduate education.)