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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .

American Conversations: Puerto Ricans, White Ethnics, and Multicultural Education
Ellen Bigler

Philadelphia: Temple University Press
289pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: $59.95 ISBN 1-56639-688-3. Pb.: $19.95 ISBN 1-56639-687-5.

In 1995, U.S. social analyst Henry Louis Gates suggested that we should consider American culture as a "conversation among different voices. . .that some of us weren't able to join until recently." Using the frame of reference described by Gates, the author of this book describes the roots and conflicts of these American "conversations" by focusing on a specific conflict that occurred in a small, upstate New York town over school curricula in the early 1990's. The book's focus is a well-researched analysis of a community charged with the task of integrating multicultural curricula in their public schools as mandated by the New York State Education Department. In 1991, a major conflict in the community erupts as a result of disparaging comments against Latinos made by one of the city's school board members who was asked to comment on the proposed multicultural curriculum changes. The school board member's comments provoke a public uproar among both the Latino (predominantly Puerto Rican) and Euro-Americans (mainly senior citizens) of the community. According to the author, the reaction by both groups highlights their "contrasting discourse" (p. 5) which has deep roots extending far beyond the parameters of the curriculum debate at hand. It is this analysis of the roots and contextual backdrop of the conflict that is the strength of the book. The author provides extensive historical and theoretical explanations of how the two communities hold fundamentally different views of social reality which affect their perceptions of each other. The older, Euro-Americans represent predominantly second-generation immigrants who benefited greatly from the post WWII expanding economy with plentiful jobs and opportunities for high quality education. The Latino population on the other hand, is "newer, poorer, and have less formal education" than their Euro-American counterparts (p. 29). In addition, the author contends that the community has changed dramatically since the 1950's - the period when most of the older Euro-Americans were using the schools and working in the thriving industrial labor market. The community is in its third decade of economic decline, while the local political and educational leadership is dominated by a vociferous group of Euro-American senior citizens who perceive the growing numbers of Latinos (about 12% of the city's population) as a threat to their quality of life. Moreover, the author argues that the tensions in the community exist within the context of the enduring American myth, which holds that U.S. public schools are meritocratic institutions that serve as the vehicle for immigrant groups to achieve upward mobility and incorporation into the mainstream. Thus, given that the Latino community is not excelling in the public school system, nor behaving as many in the older, Euro-American community consider "American," such as speaking English in public places, there is much distrust and misunderstanding between the two groups. Proponents of multicultural education, which aims for equal recognition of the histories, perspectives, and cultural expression of nonmainstream groups in school curricula, see multicultural educational policies and curricula as part of a larger agenda for social change. Given that by 2020, students of color will make up almost one half of the total U.S. school population and as global migration continues to skyrocket, the subject matter of this book could not be a more timely and relevant issue for educators and policymakers.

Heather McPhail, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, DC

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