Cultural Pluralism

Cultural Pluralism and Ethnic Violence in America

Since early in the 20th century, the dominant goal of American liberalism, in relation to minorities, has been that of assimilation into the mainstream of American life. “Cultural pluralism” is a term sometimes used to describe a society in which various cultures co-exist in a state of mutual tolerance and respect. Cultural tolerance is usually equated with democracy and progress. The liberal claim that all human beings are essentially equal, and so deserve fair and equal treatment and protection under the law, is now so generally accepted that even the most conservative politicians pay lip service to it. Liberalism could be considered the dominant ideological “discourse” of modern industrial (and post-industrial) society, although it has certainly been threatened by other ideologies – for example, by Fascism and Communism.
According to the liberal ideal, different communities, with different beliefs and traditions, ought to be able to co-exist peacefully within a democratic framework. To their credit, liberals have always recognized that the presence of many different cultures within American life is not only a necessity for the functioning of an industrial system, but also, ultimately, beneficial to the political order. Yet, throughout American history, the co-existence of different cultures has often been a locus of intense conflict. The liberal ideology of cultural pluralism within a democratic framework has not always been able to contain or to resolve these conflicts. Why?
The mass immigrations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created enormous tensions in American society and political culture. Yet, one might argue, it was this very immigration that fueled rapid industrial progress, and with it the creation of fortunes like that of the Mellons and the Carnegies. Here is a perfect example of what the Marxists called “the contradictions of capitalism.” Capitalism, in its dynamic, unrestrained phase, transformed American life from top to bottom. But it did not transform every part of American life in the same way, or at the same rate of speed. Nor did it make every American financially secure. As American transformed itself into the world’s greatest industrial power, it was also drawn into an international monetary and trade system. The current fashionable word for this process, still going on at more rarified levels, is “globalization.” On the plus side, globalization increased American wealth through trade relationships. On the minus side, it drew the country into brutal international conflicts such as the First World War.

These developments were threatening to many Americans, particularly to those who did not benefit in any obvious way from industrial capitalism. Instead of sharing exuberantly in the liberal vision of universal equality and social progress, such Americans longed for the hierarchical, pre-industrial past. This was particularly true in the American South, where entire communities of white Anglo-Saxon Americans fastened onto romantic myths about the Old South of the type generated by films like The Birth of a Nation.

So, even as the United States emerged from World War I as the most powerful industrial nation in the world and the major champion of liberal democracy, many American citizens – and not only in the backwoods – were clamoring for isolationism, segregation, and the closing of America’s borders to new immigration. Capitalism’s discontents, one might call them – although they did not see themselves in this way. Quite often, they seem to have seen themselves as heroic defenders of cherished moral values. Racist and anti-ethnic attitudes are, more than likely, part of our anthropological nature as human beings, yet such attitudes normally exist in an inchoate form. Something happened to American political culture during this period to focus the energies of racism into specific kinds of deadly action.

The authors of “The Rosewood Report” -- one of the detailed sources John Singleton used for his film, Rosewood – describe a dramatic rise in intolerance for racial and ethnic diversity in American society after World War I:

"In his study of the race riot in Chicago in 1919, William Tuttle noted that whites believed that blacks "were mentally inferior, immoral, emotional, and criminal. Some secondary beliefs were that they were innately lazy, shiftless, boisterous, bumptious, and lacking in civic consciousness." Many whites accepted these racial rationalizations because they wanted to, and their newspapers reinforced such attitudes by publishing stories that highlighted black crimes and immoral behavior and by seldom reporting positively about the daily lives of black citizens. Many whites had such a low opinion of blacks that they were prepared to treat them in the most inhumane fashion whenever they felt themselves threatened by the minority." (Jones, et al 4)

Perhaps whites were confused to see African-Americans benefiting more dramatically than they themselves from modernization. Not only had African Americans served in the military in World War I, they were also receiving the same wages as whites for industrial work. Capitalism challenged the racist attitude in an unforeseen manner – not from the angle of religious values or higher moral standards, but in pragmatic terms. In a capitalist society, one’s value is defined by money. As soon as some African-Americans began to make as much (or, in some cases, more) money than whites, it was no longer necessary for them to argue with racists. (Similarly, the African-Americans who served in World War I found themselves on equal footing with white men in the South, where manhood had traditionally been associated with the ability to handle weapons. Maybe this is the real explanation for why whites, during the post-war decades, became obsessed with the idea of African-Americans having sex with white women. Inter-racial sex represented the last border to be crossed before the dawn of a terrifying equality.)
The authors of “The Rosewood Report” are careful to note the influence of newspapers on white communities’ perceptions of African-Americans. Yellow journalism, during the early ‘20’s, tended not only to legitimize racism on a daily basis, but also played a large part in provoking acts of savage violence against minorities. Moreover, secret organizations such as The Knights of Liberty and the Ku Klux Klan evolved a rigid but internally consistent ideological world-view justifying cynical acts of brutality as the necessary means of preserving the white race.

As in the Fascist movements that swept Europe during this same period, the beatings, lynchings, and pogroms of the American 1920’s were not isolated outbursts of rage, but deliberate, theatrical, highly propagandistic events designed to at once frighten minorities into submission and to create a sense of solidarity among the perpetrators. They were also, it seems, the result of an ingrown, parochial, paranoid world view. As Scott Ellsworth noted, in an article on the 1921, Tulsa race riot,

"The vast majority of white Tulsans possessed almost no direct knowledge of the African American community whatsoever. . . most Tulsans had never set foot in the African American district, and never would. Living in all-white neighborhoods, attending all-white schools and churches, and working for the most part in all-white work environments, the majority of white Tulsans in 1921 had little more than fleeting contact with the city’s black population. What little they knew, or thought they knew, about the African-American community was susceptible not only to racial stereotypes and deeply-ingrained prejudices, but also to rumor, innuendo, and, as events would soon prove, what was printed in the newspaper." (49)

It would be pleasant to be able to conclude that it was only poor and ignorant white people, whipped into frenzy by yellow journalists, who committed brutal acts of racial and ethnic intolerance. But the truth is more disturbing. In both Tulsa and Rosewood, local law enforcement officials up to the very highest levels joined both in the violence and in the subsequent cover up.

Moreover, the brutal strikebreaking tactics used against unionized minors, factory workers and coal miners during this same period show that race-prejudice was not limited to the South. The captains of industry used race and ethnic prejudice to serve their own ends, whenever and wherever the profit motive came into conflict with the dangerous temptation of human empathy. A note in the “Afterword” to Thomas Bell’s working class novel, Out of This Furnace, quotes the following passage from a biography of Andrew Carnegie:

The Hungarians, Slavs and Southern Europeans. . . were a savage and undisciplined horde, with whom strong-arm methods seemed at times indispensable, and when strikes broke out murder and arson became their favorite persuasions. (Henrick, quoted in Demarest, 419).

Union-breaking violence, sometimes turning into all out war between National Guard units and coal miners, was a common feature of industrial capitalism in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Once again, the victims of such brutality were portrayed in the press as subhuman. In these instances, liberals themselves suspended the proud ideology of human equality to speak the language of ethnic hatred.


Bell, Thomas. Out of This Furnace: A Novel of Immigrant Labor in America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976.

Scott Ellsworth. Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Foreword by John Hope Franklin. New Orleans: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Scott Ellsworth, “The Tulsa Race Riot.” In The Final Report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (

Jones, et al. The Rosewood Report: A Documented History of the Incident Which Occurred At Rosewood, Florida, in January, 1923, Submitted to the Florida Board of Regents December 22, 1993 ( Teaching & Technology articles