Book reviews

Thomas F. Powers’ American Multiculturalism and the Anti-Discrimination Regime: The Challenge to Liberal Pluralism (St. Augustine’s Press, 2023)

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Packed with substantial endnotes and an extensive bibliography, thus making his work approachable to both students and ordinary citizens trying to understand contemporary American political culture, Powers makes a compelling argument regarding the anti-discrimination regime’s challenges to traditional liberalism.  He moves from a discussion of multiculturalism as developed in teacher education, to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (the preeminent American challenge to traditional liberalism), to postmodernism’s efforts to expand the categories of persons and groups who have been discriminated against, to the recent expansion of social protest by the woke movement.

Powers employs a variety of definitional methods to engage his reader.  For example, his denotation of “liberalism”, though written as a stipulative one, comports with the standard definition of the term: “Liberalism, as I use the term, refers to the extremely influential modern and contemporary view of political life that begins and ends with some defining notion of individual rights and freedom, as well as some view, therefore, of the importance of ‘limited’ government” (18; internal quotes in original).

An interesting use of negation occurs in the definition of “multiculturalism”, which “does not have anything to do with diversity.  Its only important meaning, [is] a simple, powerful, unified political meaning rooted in the civil rights revolution” (22).

The definition of “anti-discrimination”, the major concept of the work, in contrast, involves scouring a paragraph to determine its attributes.  Anti-discrimination “is a bold and wide-ranging program of moral reform [whose] moral in question is a simple one: discrimination is unjust, an evil heretofore tolerated but no more”; this “massive political project” involves a “politics [which] has been and continues to be a radical force” (279).

Other terms which are now identified with the new political order, “woke” for example, are not as clearly defined, although, to his credit, Powers explains that “This general phenomenon (activist-led social institution-building)” and “woke capitalism” help the reader to understand how deeply the anti-discrimination regime has penetrated ordinary life (83; parentheses in original).

Both students and faculty will appreciate Powers’ claims, some of which, albeit simply stated, can generate hours of class discussion and, hopefully, trenchant student writing on serious topics.  “Anti-discrimination is the cause of multiculturalism, not the other way around” (13) or “The perspective of liberal pluralism is a moral one that aims above all at finding social peace among people with contradictory viewpoints and conflicting interests” (206) are relatively innocuous.

Claims such as:

“As a demand for justice formalized in group representation schemes, inclusion means forever reliving the pain of the past and affirming group mistrust for the present and future” (262),

“Anti-discrimination seems unable fully to escape the hold of its necessarily negative starting point.  There does not seem to be any important place in it for transcending the plane on which it fights against evil; there is no important place for reconciliation, for forgiveness, for integration even” (272), or

“today, merit and personal responsibility are said to represent the language of privilege, a mask for hidden or implicit bias, a cover for racism” (284),

however, would rile any philosopher or theologian and agitate American students to the point that they must eschew slogans learned from woke professors and use critical thinking skills to formulate their moral positions.  These are tasks which Powers would approve as a counter to an inherent negative characteristic of the new politics, as he suggested in a litotes whose humor one could easily miss: “Anti-discrimination morality is thus not only a spirited morality but a somewhat angry morality, though its defenders would insist that it has earned the right to its anger” (267).

Powers’ writing style contributes to the readability of the volume.  For example, the paragraphs built on “that” and “it” parallelisms (5-6) and parallel verbs (45) and the point-counterpoint method contrasting the morality of liberalism and anti-discrimination politics (265) impress the reader with succinct phrases about various concepts, as does a helpful table contrasting multiculturalism and traditional liberal pluralism (225).

Some stylistic features, however, should be reexamined.  As scholarly as the volume is, there is no need for excessive page-length paragraphs.  Also, although he is able to use enumeration correctly to guide the reader, as when he writes that there are “four characteristic features of life under this [anti-discrimination] regime” (48), more enumeration in topic sentences would assist readers to follow Powers’ thought.  For example, in discussing “Several other undeniably radical features of anti-discrimination politics”, the reader can locate the “first” and the “second”, but it is unclear whether the “Another radical dimension of the anti-discrimination regime” a paragraph later is a continuation of the previous paragraph or a new enumeration (280-1).  Thus, quantifying the number of “Several other” initially would make the reading more mellifluous.

Finally, while he explicitly states that “It is not the purpose of this book to enter into the question of reform in any detail” (290), the activist reader (student, faculty, or ordinary citizen) may discover that Powers’ discoveries can be applied to contemporary social movements.  For example, if he argues that anti-discrimination law, which is mostly accomplished by statute, is more effective than constitutional law, then such a position might be an opportunity for pro-life theorists and activists to argue that the unborn child has a right to life based on principles of anti-discrimination diversity, inclusion, and equity (65ff).  Similarly, for the more politically minded, “By becoming the party of anti-discrimination, the Democratic Party” (66) could become an easy target for Republican Party activists because of its extreme support of woke culture.

The volume is attractively produced in a readable font.  Best of all, especially for the student researcher, the thorough 296-page text is expanded by 66 pages of endnotes and a 78-page bibliography.  The 22-page index should be expanded in future editions to include important terms often mentioned in the text (such as “abortion” or “transgender”) as main entries.

Since Amazon collaborates with cancel culture and woke zealots and bans conservative and pro-life books, buy this book directly from the publisher: