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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

Out of Many, Many - American Multiculturalism

The luck so far of the American experiment has been due in large part to the

vision of the melting pot.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Disuniting of America

The point about the melting pot [...] is that it did not happen.



Hyphen: Nation

Matthew Frye Jacobson, Roots Too

It is in the 1960s that the (multi)cultural turn marks a shift in the perception of the melting pot myth that subsequently tends to be lumped together with models of assimilation of all kinds, in the process of which the melting pot loses all of its utopian appeal because it has since been primarily seen as a form of standardization implying the destruction of cultural variety, and has been falsely equated with assimilation. The advent of multiculturalism thus precluded any further discussion of the melting pot among the cultural left. When Gordon suggests that the multiple melting pots in American society point to cultural pluralism rather than to homogeneous Americanness (cf. Assimilation), he is articulating the zeitgeist of the 1960s, which celebrated pluralism under the banner of ‘multiculturalism.’ The “dawn of the new pluralism” (Feldstein and Costello, Ordeal 415) and the beginning of the new “age of pluralism in American public discussion” (Landsman and Katkin, “Introduction” 2) are often dated back to the publication of Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s influential study Beyond the Melting Pot in 1963. Using the melting pot concept as a shortcut to refer to various processes of assimilation, its authors contend that there never was a melting pot in the history of the US, but only distinct and diverse groups and group identities. Focussing in their study on New York City’s socio-cultural composition, Glazer and Moynihan argue that even though New York City cannot be equated with the United States at large because of its “extreme” heterogeneity (Beyond the Melting Pot 9), it can nevertheless be regarded as the country’s cultural epicenter (cf. ibid. 6). The authors find that “the negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York City” are all distinct ethnic groups with identifiable characteristics and life patterns; even though the melting pot may have been “an idea close to the heart of an American self-image” (ibid. 288), according to Glazer and Moynihan, it has neither been realized in New York City, nor elsewhere in the US: instead, it is the “pattern of ethnicity” (ibid. 310) that they consider to be at the heart of urban politics and institutions, which is why they suggest moving “beyond the melting pot” to account for the complexities of affiliation and loyalties in the ongoing formation of a US national identity. Glazer and Moynihan’s study clearly constituted a paradigm shift in the discussion of the melting pot and paved the way for the discourse of multi- culturalism, i.e. the explication of the “multicultural condition” (Goldberg, “Introduction” 1) on the one hand, and the political debate on the cultural heterogeneity of the US on the other. Multiculturalism, in its programmatic version, is positioned in clear opposition to the melting pot myth: First, like cultural pluralism, multiculturalism as a political program recognizes and seeks to retain cultural difference within the US as valuable and characteristic of a collective/ national American identity; second, it considers “monoculturalism” (ibid. 3) and ethnocentrism as repressive and coercive; third, multiculturalism engages in identity politics and calls for the representation and recognition of individuals and groups formerly underrepresented; fourth, it formulates a clear political agenda in terms of citizenship and access to society’s resources (such as education) through, for instance, affirmative action programs. Multiculturalism calls for a pluralism based on an “ethic of toleration” (Landsman and Katkin, “Introduction” 4) and the primacy of “recognition” (cf. Gutmann, Multiculturalism). In the 1980s and beyond, discussions around multiculturalism were so polarized - especially in regard to canon debates and controversies around school curricula - that they have often been called veritable ‘culture wars.’ Rick Simonson and Scott Walker’s The Graywolf Annual Five: Multi-Cultural Literacy (1988) for example explicitly sought to challenge E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987), which the authors found “alarmingly deficient in its male and European bias” (Simonson and Scott, Graywolf 191), as well as Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which claimed that American education was in decline. Hirsch’s selection of what he thinks an American needs to know about - for instance, act of God, Adam and Eve, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, adultery, Adonis, and The Aeneid - is based on a very different (humanist/universalist) notion of cultural literacy than the multicultural literacy of Simonson and Walker, who think that an American should also be knowledgeable about, for instance, the Asian Exclusion Act, action painting, Agent Orange, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Chinua Achebe.

Conservatives have denounced initiatives such as Simonson and Walker’s as an “attack on the common American identity” and as an “ethnic revolt against the melting pot” (Schlesinger, Disuniting 119, 133); they thought that multi- culturalism was overcritical of the US and its history and bred a “culture of complaint” (cf. Hughes’s book of the same title) defined by intolerance and political correctness. Other critics in contrast suggested that “we are all multi- culturalists now” (cf. Glazer’s book of the same title), since sensibilities do have changed, and quite ubiquitously, we find the rejection of the melting pot myth and assimilation policies in favor of a celebration of the diverse cultures of America’s many racial and ethnic groups (cf. Gerstle, American Crucible 348). As the debates around multiculturalism in American academia have ebbed, the term itself seems to have done its part: recent American studies glossaries frequently even fail to include an entry for the term multiculturalism. Moreover, a re-evaluation and critical assessment of multiculturalism has been offered by scholars such as those of the Chicago Cultural Studies Group, who critique what they call “the flattening effect typical of corporate multiculturalism” (“Critical Multiculturalism” 540); Terence Turner, who engages with “difference multi- culturalism” as an impoverished version of multiculturalism (cf. “Anthropology”); Michelle Wallace, who views multiculturalism as a new institutional logic that preserves the status quo (cf. Invisibility Blues); Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, who argue for a “polycentric multiculturalism” that takes into account “all cultural history in relation to social power” (Unthinking 48); and Richard Sennett, who suggests that diversity may eventually discourage solidarity and in fact breed indifference rather than tolerance (cf. Conscience). Sennett reflects on this matter in his description of a walk through a New York City neighborhood; whereas Glazer and Moynihan described New York City as a space differentiated along ethnic lines, Sennett holds that the city should be a space of interaction, of civitas and engagement rather than what he perceives as “[a] city of differences and of fragments of life that do not connect” (ibid. 125). In Sennett’s story “of the races, who live segregated lives close together, and of social classes, who mix but do not socialize” (ibid. 128), tolerance has turned into indifference, and multiculturalism into disengagement. Sennett’s account of his New York City neighborhood points to the potential problems of multicul- turalism and critically re-interprets the meaning of living “in the presence of difference” (ibid. 121).

The affirmation of ethnic, often hyphenated identities has also led to an ethnic revival among those groups in American society commonly categorized as ‘white’ or ‘non-ethnic.’ Thus, it almost seems as if the melting pot not only failed to ‘melt’ non-white ethnic groups, but also managed to ‘melt’ white immigrant groups only superficially, as their third or fourth generation descendants have been coming forward to identify themselves as ethnic Americans. Early on philosopher and journalist Michael Novak in The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1972) anticipated a (re)turn to ethnicity among the lower-middle-class whites of Irish, Polish, Italian, etc. descent that had no longer been perceived as ethnic. Yet, this book about the ethnic revival among white (Catholic) Americans had - much to the discomfort of its author - a curious career: As Novak had written his book in 1972 “to divert attention from ‘blacks, women, and the poor’” (Novak, Rise xiii), he felt uneasy about the enlistment of his study by scholars and advocates of multiculturalism in the 1970s and 1980s - so uneasy, in fact, that he felt compelled to re-issue his book in 1996 with a new introduction in which he disclaimed any affiliation with the “multiculturalists,” listed what he called the “Nine Perversions of ‘Multiculturalism’” (e.g. “Anti-Americanism,” “Tactical Relativism,” “Censorship,” and “Double Standards”) (Novak, Rise xvi-xvii), and related his conversion from the cultural left to the cultural right and to a wholehearted embrace of capitalism.

Novak’s unease notwithstanding, the discussion of those white ethnics who had only seemingly melted into American society continued in the context of multiculturalism and critical whiteness studies, which analyzed the power and the limits of white privilege. Sociologist Mary Waters points in her study Ethnic Options to the flexibility of the category of whiteness, which may accommodate Jewish Americans, Polish Americans, or Italian Americans (to name but a few groups), but may also lead them “to misconstrue the experience of their counterparts across the color line” (36; cf. also Jacobson, Roots) by over-emphasizing the voluntary character of ethnic identification. The latter also resonates in David Hollinger’s idealistic vision of a “post-ethnic America” that has at its basis the notion that “the identities people assume are acquired largely through affiliation, however prescribed or chosen” (Postethnic America 7, 12).

The new popularity and acceptance of hyphenated identities in the context of multiculturalism encompass African American, Asian American, Hispanic Ame?rican, Native American, as well as European American groups (e.g. Irish Americans, Italian Americans, and Norwegian Americans). Matthew Jacobson relates an episode in which members of an anti-racism workshop, one by one, disown their status as white (“‘I’m not white; I’m Italian;’ ‘I’m not white; I’m Jewish,’” etc.), leaving the teacher to wonder: “‘What happened to all the white people who were here just a minute ago?’” (Roots 1-2). Whether in the context of immigrant genealogies or mixed race identities, at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, ethnicity is seen largely as a way of distinction and distinctiveness, as “a distinguishing from” rather than as a “merging with” (ibid. 36). However, subnational melting pot myth revisionism is somewhat polarized: For the multiculturalists on the left, the melting pot model is unattractive because it is perceived as “the cover for the domination of one [group]” over others (Appiah, “Limits” 52), whereas cultural critics on the right have ironically become its most outspoken defenders, and have celebrated it as a genuinely American invention. Yet, contemporary critics as well as defenders of the melting pot myth operate with a very simplistic notion that equates the melting pot with assimilation and Anglo-Saxon conformity rather than with a creative, continuous, and democratic process of hybridization - i.e., both strip the idea of its transformative power. On a somewhat different note, Richard Alba and Victor Nee have recently considered the “remaking [of] the American mainstream” through processes of migration and cultural change by applying the term “assimilation” to the mainstream rather than to minorities:

Assimilation has reshaped the American mainstream in the past, and it will do so again, culturally, institutionally, and demographically. [...] Through assimilation, the mainstream has become diverse in ethnic origins of those who participate in it; and the ethnic majority group, which dominates the mainstream population, has been reconstituted. (Remaking 282, 284)

In their “new assimilation theory” Alba and Nee stress that the incorporation of immigrant groups in the long run always involves a transformation of the mainstream, which as a result becomes increasingly heterogeneous itself; thus, they come close to a re-interpretation of melting pot dynamics which presupposes that cultural contact leaves no one unchanged.

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