Comptroller William Donald Schaefer

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer at the Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis. (Sun photo by Algerina Perna / May 5, 2004)

The concept of multiculturalism is "bunk" and "damaging to the society," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said in defending remarks about non-English speakers made by political ally Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

"Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, that some folks are teaching in our college campuses and other places, you run into a problem," Ehrlich, a Republican, said during an appearance on WBAL radio Thursday. "There is no such thing as a multicultural society that can sustain itself, in my view, and I think history teaches us this lesson."

Ehrlich's comments came as he was asked about remarks made a day earlier by Schaefer, who opened Wednesday's state Board of Public Works meeting with a diatribe about his trouble placing an order at an Anne Arundel County McDonald's restaurant because of the counter staff's limited knowledge of English.

"Then I got a bag, and instead of having English on it, it had Spanish and German and every other" language, Schaefer said. "I don't want to adjust to another language. This is the United States. I think they ought to adjust to us."

Ehrlich did not attend the public works meeting because he was at a funeral, but he said in the radio interview that he supported Schaefer's sentiments.

Ehrlich has worked hard to keep on his side the cantankerous Schaefer, whose vote the governor needs to approve most state spending and other policy decisions on the three-member panel.

"With regard to this culture, English is the language," Ehrlich said. "Can [immigrants] obviously honor their ethnic traditions and languages at home and other places? Of course. They are not mutually exclusive. The point here is there is a major distinction between ethnic pride, which is appropriate, and multiculturalism, which is damaging to the society in my view."

Ehrlich did not define what he meant by multiculturalism, a term that has been the subject of fierce debate that has included overtones of political correctness and racism.

The concept has its roots in the 1960s, as growing numbers of educators came to believe that school curriculums focused on Western European values, history and literature to the exclusion of other views.

As the concept took hold, a backlash developed.

"In fact, any group can identify itself as a marginalized culture group," wrote Don Closson, a theologian with Texas-based Probe Ministries in a paper on multiculturalism available on the group's Web site. "The homeless become a cultural group, as do single mothers on welfare. Should their perspectives get equal treatment in our schools?"

Said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster: "One of the complaints is that the multicultural curriculum pushes into and intrudes into the teaching of American history, given that there are only so many hours in a week."

Steven L. Kreseski, Ehrlich's chief of staff, said the governor spent time thinking about the concept as a congressman. Ehrlich believes that different ethnic groups should embrace American values such as capitalism and the celebration of Thanksgiving, Kreseski said. Kreseski pointed to Quebec as a place where debates over language and cultures have produced damaging results.

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat and one of a handful of Hispanics in the General Assembly, said he agrees with the governor's views that immigrants should assimilate into society, without giving up their cultural touchstones.

But he said the governor should have stayed out of the debate, because his statements may generate confusion and hostility.

"It just seems to me that the governor should set a higher tone. You can sometimes set a higher tone by refusing to exacerbate a problem," Simmons said.

"As someone who sees the positive contributions Spanish-speaking residents are making every day, I see Governor Schaefer's comments as mean-spirited, and Governor Ehrlich's comments as opportunistic," he said.

A broader discussion of the rights and roles of immigrants was aggressively debated in Annapolis this year. Republican delegates from Baltimore County introduced bills that restricted illegal immigrants from borrowing vehicles or obtaining identification papers, but the measures were defeated.

Ehrlich has worked, however, to enlarge his administration's outreach to minority groups. He has refocused the state's minority business laws, and has attempted to give Hispanics a larger role - with uneven results.

By making his comments on AM radio, Ehrlich ran little risk of political damage, said Smith.

"He's speaking for his core constituency: the Republicans in Maryland. It's a pretty monochromatic choir in the main," he said.