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The Evolution of the American City: Multiculturalism and Social Justice in Municipal Government

Most modern American cities are culturally pluralistic, so communities clearly benefit when municipal policies embrace cultural differences. City administrators are thus responsible for capitalizing on the social benefits that multiculturalism can bring to the community. Otherwise, tension would arise, as citizens feel that municipal policies underrepresent their culture. In a 2002 Berkeley La Raza Law Journal article, “A Latina Judge’s Voice,” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “many of us struggle with this tension and attempt to maintain and promote our cultural and ethnic identities in a society that is often ambivalent about how to deal with its differences.” For example, even though Latino individuals born in American cities may not possess all of the characteristics of their native roots, such as fluency in Spanish, they often consider themselves to be a part of a subculture within their local communities. Multicultural societies are evident from the way that citizens of cities often describe themselves with dual fashion—such as African-American or Hispanic-American—and individual sections of cities often retain their identity, such as in Chinatown or Little Italy.

How do city administrators promote social justice through multiculturalism? Although multiculturalism involves culturally distinct groups, social justice ultimately originates from the perspectives of the individuals within those groups. While individuals of a group may share common traits such as gay or lesbian, Hispanic, or women, those individual group members have differing backgrounds. According to Mahamad Alkadry’s 2007 article, “Democratic Administration in a Multicultural Environment,” “citizens, even those who share the same identity, have different realities, different needs, different standpoints, and therefore different cultures.” Hence, the needs of individual citizens are more easily clarified for city administrators from individual experiences rather than tradition, ethnicity, or race. An inability by city administrators to comprehend the legitimacy of individual needs makes it conceivable that those individuals will be subjugated into following a predetermined set of group rules that may, in actuality, be in direct opposition to their personal beliefs. For that reason, social justice is achieved when city administrators acknowledge their obligation to serve the entire citizenry, something that does not necessarily happen if those administrators solely consider a group-focused philosophy.

City administrators must also be cautious not to inadequately represent a single group due to an embrace of collective group values. An effective way to avoid such a problem is through the practice of cultural pluralism. Cultural pluralism is a course of action that permits city administrators to recognize each group for the specific group values and contributions that enrich the administrative process. Adversely, another course known as collective integration assumes separate groups have collective or shared values. The benefit of cultural pluralism over collective integration is that each group is considered to be a separate element of the system rather than a universal assembly, and unlike collective integration, what is best for one group (African-Americans, men) does not occur to the detriment of another group (Hispanic-Americans, women). The challenge for city administrators is that cultural pluralism is more difficult to implement than collective integration. Cultural pluralism involves policy implementation through an approach that considers the varying needs of a greater number of stakeholders.

Cultural pluralism most often leads to social justice when strategies are implemented through a combination of both organizational diversity (passive representation) and citizen participation (active representation). Organizational diversity is important because it permits municipal organizational memberships to be reflective of the memberships of their local communities. In his book, Democracy and Public Service, Frederick Mosher writes, “research has indicated that citizens have a natural tendency to relate best to people of similar backgrounds, so passive representativeness is at least symbolically critical if not always effectively so in practice.” Mosher’s suggestion is that city administration that mirrors the diversity of the community helps to bridge trusting relationships with the community. There is a palpable need for the citizenry to feel as though it is sufficiently represented by its government if that government is to convince the citizenry that the interests of the community are a primary consideration. Citizen participation builds upon the trust obtained from organizational diversity through the promotion of citizen engagement, thus encouraging citizens to be actively part of the governing process and invoking a sense of purpose within the community. The result is a positive effect on the community’s sense of wellbeing because the citizenry is, in essence, in control of its own future. Surely, the less power the citizenry has, the greater the probability that municipal managers will make uninformed decisions on behalf of the community, and the less likely social justice will be achieved.

City administrators are more apt to promote social justice when they comprehend that the evolution of most modern American cities has involved people of differing characteristics who prefer to retain their own customs rather than melt together into a homogeneous community. City administrators concerned for the sanctity of the American cities of yesteryear—the assimilated American cities—are off-base because government’s embrace of cultural differences has been proven to help municipal managers make better decisions. The idea that an interconnectedness exists between national competitiveness among American cities and the cultural differences within those cities has been written about extensively by Richard Florida in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, and by Charles Landry and Phil Wood in their 2008 article, “The Intercultural City: Planning for Diversity Advantage.” To that end, competitive cities embrace multiculturalism to promote equity, equality, and ultimately social justice. Multiculturalism and social justice are clearly intertwined in municipal government.


Author: James Luna holds a Master of Administration with a Public Management emphasis from Northern Arizona University and is professionally employed in the telecommunications industry. He can be reached for comment at [email protected].


Image courtesy of http://www.iengage.org.uk/component/content/article/1-news/1060-where-are-the-defenders-of-multiculturalism.

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2 Responses to The Evolution of the American City: Multiculturalism and Social Justice in Municipal Government

  1. More Info... Reply

    February 26, 2013 at 4:29 am

    An evolution indeed. A lot of changes have taken place and it is such a good thing that the best are what they aim for. Kudos to those who initiated such changes.

  2. Casey Moore Reply

    February 5, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    Excellent insights. This writer has a deep understanding of modern cities and their management.

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