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“Can (or should) Multiculturalism Survive in America?”


Iowa Republican Representative Steve King said some outrageous things recently. His comment, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” and his praise of far-right nationalist candidate Geert Wilders in The Netherlands have been met with criticism from both Republican and Democratic spokespeople, as well as most of the media. While King confined the majority of his recent comments to illegal immigration, he has said other things which reflect the view that even legal immigration hurts America. Indeed, as a recent New York Times Magazine article detailed, not only King, but Trump administration figures such as Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions have argued that legal immigration, by changing the country’s demographics, is undermining traditional American culture. In past remarks, King has shown his agreement with this viewpoint. Within the general public, and some Western politicians, such attitudes shade into those of racism and anti-Semitism, whether connected to immigration or not.

Immigration has been central to cultural changes that have taken place in both Europe and North America over the last few decades. The movement of people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East to the West has reflected a variety of factors, including war, drought and famine in the Middle East and Africa, increasing need for highly educated and trained workers from Asia, greater global information sharing about jobs and opportunities via the internet, and open border policies within European Union nations. In addition, violence and poverty in Central America, Mexico, and Caribbean nations has fueled immigration to the U.S. Most Western countries have responded with some kind of reorientation of their societies to “multiculturalism,” a philosophy that welcomes diversity in race, religion, ethnicity, and cultural practices. A part of multicultural philosophy has been an emphasis or at least a recognition of the importance of ethnic “identity,” a concept that has also been extended to gender identity and sexual preference identity.

In recent years, reactions against multiculturalism have been growing, more in Europe than in the United States, but the recent deluge of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa has strained European societies to the point that anti-immigrant reactions that focus on nationalism (some of the nationalism having to do with rejecting the EU open border policy), and the need to reaffirm traditional European culture are threatening to win the day. In America, the deleterious effects of an influx of poor, ethnically different refugees and immigrants on our system’s resources have been much less than in Europe and anti-immigrant rhetoric has focused on illegal immigrants from the south of us taking jobs and public resources and legal immigrants, such as refugees posing a terror threat. But underneath these arguments, lies the same fear as that harbored by many Europeans, that our culture is changing because of the presence of too many non-White, non-Western Europeans in our midst.

Multiculturalism is a tricky concept. Its former champions in Europe, such as David Cameron and Angela Merkel, have publicly rejected multiculturalism, calling it “failed” or a “sham.” Their about-face on the idea of multiculturalism was a reaction to what was perceived as the failure of immigrant groups to “assimilate” into the national culture of the countries in which they lived. They were primarily referring to Muslim groups and their revised opinions were spoken even before the onslaught of new refugees from the Syrian war turned such words into a populist roar in many European countries. Inherent in the idea of multiculturalism is that it is the preservation of different cultures or cultural identities within a unified society, without pressure upon minority cultural groups to assimilate to the larger society by abandoning their traditional values or practices. It is exactly this reluctance to promote (and for many, to enforce) assimilation into the cultural practices and traditions of the larger society that has been rejected by leaders such as Cameron and Merkel. It is the idea that such assimilation is a futile goal that has become the rallying cry for the far-right nationalists.

Within the United States, the same fears that are becoming vocalized in Europe are simmering just below the surface in the American consciousness. We have, of course, the outright bigots and the politicians mentioned above, who express their racism in terms of preserving a national culture. In the U.S., the issue that is discussed is “identity,” more often than multiculturalism and the arguments in favor of what used to be called multiculturalism are now phrased as arguments for the assertion of cultural identities, merging race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual preference and historical experiences into one’s personal identity based upon these intersecting factors. Unfortunately, this has led from what began as a "celebration" of diversity, to devolution into defenses against perceived slights to individuals' identities. We hear fierce attacks which argue that comments on the experiences of someone who has been the victim of racism or sexism or sexual preference bias by persons who themselves do not belong to that persecuted group are not valid, or that adopting practices, attire, speech or preferences in entertainment that reflect someone else’s background but not one’s own is “cultural appropriation.” Statements such as that “we are all one country with a common history and common goals” are viewed as intolerant and racist because they deny the different histories among us, based upon our race, gender or sexual preferences and the resulting different experiences and goals those may engender. These kind of statements are usually made by those who are not racist and who welcome diversity. But such pronouncements, especially when expressed in a tone of self-righteousness, create antipathy toward ethnic, gender and sexual differences among many citizens, who are confused by distinctions being drawn, which they didn’t even know existed. Such pronouncements, in fact, contribute to attitudes that are hostile toward increasing diversity within our society.

Can a multicultural society survive? Social science literature for many years was filled with both theory and research suggesting that, by increasing the proximity and social interactions of those with different ethnic backgrounds, tolerance, as an attitude, increased. However, beginning with Robert Putnam’s landmark, “Bowling Alone,” published in 2000, the focus shifted from personal attitudes to “social capital”: the value of "social networks" within a community and the strength of these networks in promoting “‘norms of reciprocity” among community members. In other words, the tendency for community members to be attached to and trust each other enough to do things for each other and for their community group. Social capital proved to be a powerful predictor of individual well being, whether the community in which one lived was poor or rich. This focus on the social capital within a community led to studies of the effects of ethnic diversity within a community upon indicators of social capital. In 2006, Putnam himself summarized the results with this devastating conclusion:

Diversity does not produce ‘bad race relations’ or ethnically-defined group hostility, our findings suggest. Rather, inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbours, regardless of the colour of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.


Putnam’s findings regarding the deleterious effects of community diversity upon social capital have been replicated by numerous studies in Britain, Europe and America. One of the most complete, an 18-year longitudinal study of 13,000 residents of British neighborhoods by Laurence and Bentley, in 2015, designed to remedy confounding factors from cross-sectional studies, found that those who stayed in neighborhoods that increased in ethnic diversity, “are likely to become less attached to their community.” They also found that “individuals who move from more diverse to less diverse [more homogeneous] communities are likely to become more attached…” Interestingly, those who moved from homogeneous neighborhoods into more diverse neighborhoods did not become less attached to their new neighborhood. The authors hypothesized that those who moved into more diverse neighborhoods did not have biases against living side by side with people from other ethnicities. In fact, the conclusion of their study was that biases held by community members about ethnicity and about living next to those of another ethnicity were a strong determinant of how they will react to living in a diverse environment in terms of feeling attached to their community. In other words, the undermining of social cohesion as neighborhoods become more diverse may be affected by the biases against other races  already held by members of the community.

Multiculturalism does not enhance, and in fact undermines, social cohesion within the larger community, i.e., the nation, but is this a necessary result of diversity? To the extent that multiculturalism leads to homogeneous ethnic communities within the larger society, those communities themselves may be cohesive and possess social capital. However, the presence of such homogenous ethnic enclaves leads to intergroup suspicion and hostility and is accompanied by overt prejudices that exacerbate social disadvantages already present for some racial ethnic groups and enhance social advantages for others. That was the point of desegregating schools and housing. But pre-existing attitudes toward those different from oneself and the idea of living side by side with them in a diverse community can have a determining effect on whether diversity undermines social cohession. What does this mean?

In America (Europe must figure out its own answers), we can either opt for a homogeneous society by limiting immigration, by insisting upon “de-culturalizing” those who differ from the majority of Americans, and by emphasizing what we have in common, instead of how we differ, or we can try to change underlying attitudes toward those who are different from each of us and try to create an environment in which differences are seen as positive, rather then negative characteristics. The answer is somewhere in between. The harsher the lines we draw between ethnic and cultural differences, the less likely we are to form a cohesive diverse society. Accepting diversity cannot mean simply minimizing differences. Yet, accentuating differences will lead to rejection of diversity. As Putnam found, “diversity does not produce ‘bad race relations’ or ethnically-defined group hostility,” but overt hostility toward ethnnic or other differences does undermine the achievement of social cohesion within a diverse society. Those who favor increasing the diversity within our American society, or even those who may not favor it, but believe it is inevitable, must work toward decreasing the hostility that currently surrounds issues of race, ethnicity, religion and national origin.

In order for a diverse society to work, not only must those who preach hate and suspicion toward other races and religions stop doing so, but those who continually attack, with anger, condescension, and self-righteous zeal, members of the community who do not show deference toward their personal/cultural identity, must change their aim to one of educating others in order for their identity to be valued within the overall community. A diverse society that also values multiculturalism can only achieve social cohesion on a national scale if individual attitudes toward living within a diverse society are shaped toward viewing it as something positive. Bigotry and prejudice are anathema to such accepting attitudes. So is the assertion of identity in such a way that removes any common ground for dialogue or sharing of experience between people who differ in terms of background, history, race, ethnicity or religion. In other words, we cannot elevate our differences above what we have in common. Both exist, and multiculturalism survives only if we acknowledge and accord value to both.



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