Culture of Intolerance: Chauvinism, Class, and Racism in the United States.


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Cohen, Mark Nathan. Culture of Intolerance: Chauvinism, Class, and Racism in the United States. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998. xiii + 325 pp. $27.50Affirmative action is a volatile notion. The idea has become so politicized that understanding how it relates to the state of race relationships in the United States is difficult. In the volume under consideration here, the author presumes that America's black population continues to suffer severe disadvantages, and this work is written to support affirmative action. What is not so clear is who the intended audience is. Although it has academic form, this is not intended as a scholarly book. The hope is that by organizing well-established knowledge, "The important insights emerge without much further help" (p. x). Ideological argument is always structured to have the reader accept what is proffered as obvious. This denies that findings never "emerge" from the data and information always depends on how the analyst interprets the data.Much of the analysis is directed at pointing out the faults of the modal middle American who is characterized as chauvinist, patriotic, ethnocentric to the point of xenophobia, and endorsing the greediest aspects of capitalism. The author is of the school of thought that says all whites are racists so he includes himself in his own indictment. Given the nature of this caricature, it is hard to see how this book can be intended for a mass American audience though there are repeated instructions about what must or should be done. You do not get people to change by telling them that their values are worthless.The argument is developed by first presenting problems with American racial attitudes. This is the standard presentation of America as a racist society. Then there is a chapter on the biological aspects of race. Anthropologists have abandoned biological conceptions of race as a meaningful category, and it is used now mainly as a social or a political concept. This is an outstanding chapter and it should be widely read.He then reviews the basic norms of cultural functioning. Where American culture is concerned, his judgment is uniformly negative. The problem with his method of analysis is not that real problems aren't identified but that they are presented as though this is all there is to the American value system. This shows most clearly when he moves on to an analysis of cultural relativism. He misstates the argument. The conflict over relativism comes not because different cultures work out different answers to universals, like a system of justice, but because within this culture some groups want their own standards accepted because American culture is oppressive. Thus, some black criminals define their crimes as political acts.He claims that there is no freedom to examine the concentration of wealth in this society or to admit that class differences exist. He offers as an example of how Americans do not understand other cultures the idea that when Iranians chant in the streets "Death to Americans," this is only the equivalent of Americans at the ballpark saying "kill the umpire." The death rate of umpires killed by fans is nil but the same can't be said for the many people killed by Iranian-inspired terrorist acts.The next part of his analysis reviews criticisms of intelligence tests. Much is made of not testing children on things they have not experienced. One example used is that one should not expect inner city kids to recognize that a chimney is missing from a picture of a house. This denies that knowledge can come from books.

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