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Multicultarism and the Melting Pot:
Are They Opposing Views?

Last May, a rather unfortunate exchange of opinions between Maryland’s governor Mr. Erlich and members of several minorities advocacy groups, brought to the public attention an issue which is becoming of great importance, not only for the people of that state, but for the entire country: Does the American society still have a melting pot to absorb newcomers? Or if, according with those who adamantly criticize the term melting pot as not only obsolete but also ethnocentric and racist, multiculturalism is the way to go meaning that incoming people with different cultural patterns should not be constrained and even forced to accept American values?
There is no question that the American society is undergoing a profound transformation. Since its beginning as an independent nation, the original 13 colonies struggled to set up a system of government which could hold the group together as the only way to face the challenges of fighting a great colonial power. As a former colony of the British Empire, they developed political institutions and a legal system based on the common law, the organization of states, counties and municipalities, aiming to consolidate a free republic of artisans and farmers mainly following those British patterns. Even tough they followed the British as far as the legal framework is concerned, they moved on to charter a constitution establishing a republic according to Montesquieu ideas of checks and balances amongst the three branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and judicial. Looking at the world in those days, the new nation emerged as a new possibility for those seeking freedom and democracy, particularly when the French revolution was crushed by the terror and fanatic mentality of the Jacobines, who paved the way for the dictatorial regime of Napoleon I.

For decades waves of immigrants came from Europe and other parts of the world. The cultural assimilation of those newcomers was both painful and extremely difficult. The idea was to melt their cultures, customs and morals into the so-called American Melting Pot. In that sense, Americans started to differentiate themselves from the rigid social system prevailing in Europe favored by the expansion to the West and their thriving spirit which the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak captured so brilliantly in musical terms in his Symphony to the New World.
During the last three decades of the 20th Century new waves of immigrants have arrived to the American shores from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. Again, their adaptation to the new environment has been even more difficult than the others, particularly in cultural terms since melting in the pot has proven to be almost unattainable.
Increasing knowledge, facilities in getting information, and the aspirations of those groups to have their own place under the sun, have helped in springing up academics, journalists, scholars and advocacy group’s claims for multiculturalism instead of the melting pot, arguing that the institutions were not responding to the changing nature of the American society.
A lot of confusion has come along. Terms such as multiculturalism, racism, diversity, have been mixed in such a way that the society has been bewildered by a frenzy of litigations and conflicts increasingly dividing the country. Issues, for instance, such as making the English language the official language of the United States have become the scapegoats of extremists from both sides of the aisle. They have tried to make it a political issue when it is matter of practical and rational decision.
What I will try to do in these comments is explain those terms in their real contexts, then discuss them within the parameters which the real problem of the cultural integration of the American society as a whole has to be dealt with. The United States is in the unique position to become the real battleground of this new development in the long process of making civilization a unit, rather than separate compartments. The goal is to achieve diversity within unity.

The Webster dictionary gives several meanings to the word multiculturalism. The one that I think is more appropriate for the discussion states that: multiculturalism is “the preservation of different cultures or cultural identities within a unified society, as a state or a nation”. Now what about culture? The dictionary, among others, provides an anthropological definition: “the sum total of ways of living built by a group of human beings and transmitted one generation to another”
The advocates of multiculturalism believe that the notion of the melting pot it is not only ethnocentric but also racist. But what racism does it mean? The dictionary states: a belief or a doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievements usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule other. But what is a race? Webster’s dictionary defines it as: “ The descendants of a common ancestor; a family, tribe, people, or nation, believed or presumed to belong to the same stock; a lineage; a breed”.

As it can be seen, those definitions do not help enough in clarifying the issue of multiculturalism and the melting pot. The problem becomes even more complicated because of the fact that the debate is falling into extreme positions. The term multiculturalism initially was an expression of academic black representatives to widen the scope of teaching in the higher education institutions. Up to then, conventional wisdom assumed that American cultural development was believed to be a byproduct of the European white ideas and traditions.. They claimed that the black input had been ignored, as also that of the Native Americans. They favored an empowerment of those neglected sectors as to make students aware of the diversity of cultural inputs in shaping the American society. When the movement started it was somehow easy to do that. But, when America became a magnet for so many nationalities and groups from over the world, confusion replaced enlightenment, and the whole issue became polarized. The debate went down to extremisms
For those defending tradition and status quo, multiculturalism was a direct attack on the foundations of the American society, which could not be tolerated. For those trying to enlarge the vision of cultural contributions from different sources, multiculturalism was thought to be the answer widening their concept to a degree in which preservation of one’s own heritage was more important than unity.

How can one focus the discussion on more rational terms? Perhaps one can start understanding what the concept of a melting pot is. In the first place, let’s asks ourselves, what it constitutes the “pot”?. If one considers the term from a political point of view, it would be the constitution of the United States including the Bill of Rights, the respect of the law as a fundamental basis for social interchange, the organization of political institutions based on the interaction of citizens from the local level up, and the establishment of a secular State. From the economic point of view, the freedom of market forces to determine the way the economic activity is performed, the right of the individual to pursue his or her own search for opportunity and financial success, and the role of the government as a countervailing power to guarantee equal opportunities to everyone. From the social point of view, developing a social fabric under which the roads are kept open to personal development, protection of contingencies, and assurance of each citizen’s access to learning.

That pot has changed from the early days of the American revolution sailing through stormy seas which challenged the will of the people to overcome slavery, race prejudice, war, crisis, and a deep economic and financial depression. Otherwise the pot would have cracked by the action of centrifugal forces demanding change and/or updating its components.
Now, turning to the “melting” part of the equation it never meant that the early newcomers should have forgotten where they came from. The idea was that the process of integration required that they incorporate themselves into the main stream of the society, learning its history, its language, its customs, and contributing with fresh ideas and work of their own making. That contribution was done at all steps of the occupational ladder. Inventors, scientists, professors, philosophers, educators, technicians, blue-collar workers, farmers, professionals and semi-skilled and non-skilled laborers, did that. Without that input the United States would have never reached its present status as the only superpower left in the world. The flexibility shown by that “melting pot” made it possible.

But in order for the melting pot to function properly it needs that updating of its components. That is a different story. The confusion starts when one talks about multiculturalism as it had never existed, when actually, the melting pot was doing precisely that. In other words, Americans today have gained with the incorporation of different cultures. If the melting pot would have been broken, America would be today a country divided in different compartments, each one with its own language, its own culture and a sort of tribal political and social organization which only could provide economic deterioration, and a permanent conflict to decide any situation. In modern terms, it can be safely stated that this country would have fallen down the hill to a suicidal process of Balkanization
Let’s talk about the latest newcomers.
The majority have come from Asia and Latin America. The last census brought the following data:
Total Population in the year 2000 281,421,906
Total population estimated in 2002 288,368,698
Division by race: White: 2000: 211,460,626 (75.1%)
2002 232,646,6l9 (80.7%)
Black or African American:
2000 34,658,190 (12.3%)
2000 36,746,012 (12.7%)
2000 10,242,998 (3.6%)
2002 11,559,027 (4.0%)
Hispanic or Latino
2000 35,305,818 (12.5%)
2002 38,761,370 (13.4%)

In spite of the rigid controls and state-of-the art electronic surveillance used by the security government agencies- now under the coordination of the Home Security Department- to check the flow of people into the United States, immigrants have kept coming from all over the planet. Three elements feed that constant influx of people: 1) world conflicts resulting in displacement of people and the programs set up by the United Nations to relocate those refuges in various parts of the world, 2) the visa programs set up by Congress to meet the needs of business to have access to professionals, teachers and nurses particularly from Asia, and 3) those immigrants who make through legal means to become residents of the United States, although the main group has been the so-called “indocumentados” a euphemism to disguise the reality of people entering illegally into this country.

Within these two sectors the most important one is the Hispanic or Latino group. During the last two decades, the influx of people particularly from Mexico and Central America has increased significantly the number of their nationals coming to America. The case of Mexico is the one that has a greatest impact. Out of the 35 million people included in the so-called racial group” Hispanic or Latino” in 2000, more than 58% are of Mexican origin. If we add the Central Americans, more than 80% of the total Hispanic population have come from that region. The NAFTA treaty, the needs of local industries for unskilled workers and the politics involved by the growing importance of that community in the national political process, have contributed in creating a network of vested interests. Politically, the Bush Administration has hinted that they are ready to accept more Mexicans coming to work here, in an effort to win an electoral advantage in the group which could easily determine who will be the next occupant of the White House. The Mexican government, besieged by its own inability to transform the economic boom brought by NAFTA into better jobs and less inequality for its people, is eager to jump into that promise welcoming the gesture of Mr. Bush. The Bush Administration’s statement is rather irresponsible, since it will only encourage more people to come to the United States crossing desserts, paying exorbitant sums to the human traders and burdening the social fabric of the neighboring states. Because the newcomers are creating a lot of problems for the infrastructure which is not prepared to absorb the continuing flow of people. On the other hand, that influx hampers the efforts of those local communities to make easier the transition of the immigrants to adjust to the new environment. Absorption becomes a problem of a larger magnitude. Local schools need more funding to make for the cultural shortcoming of the immigrants and their families. As a result, the immigrants’ communities tend to isolate themselves becoming real ghettos in a society that preaches cultural integration. Their children fall behind their classmates, they cannot receive home support because their parents, generally speaking, do not have the literacy needed for that family interchange.
Unless there is a sort of control of the flow of people regulating somehow their numbers and timing of their arrival, it will be practically impossible to do much about it. Without enough resources, the immigrants have to resort to charity and public programs of help, to take care of their health and other essential services.

The newcomers provide a big pool of labor available for unskilled jobs, sometimes getting not even the minimum wage increasing their poverty in a country where plenty is the rule. On top of that, advocacy groups want to have them trained in a bilingual system, so they cannot loose their cultural identity. A good purpose such as the incorporation of cultural diversity in education is entangled by the reality of lack of resources. Politicians, judges, local and federal officials are all part of the problem, because they do not explain to the community that programs required funding. The victims are the immigrant themselves who cannot speak the English language and they do not have the tools to reverse the situation.

This type of things are the real problem of cultural integration. Without a common language immigrants are not able to communicate not only with the Anglo-Saxons but also with blacks, Asians, Africans and Hindus. One has to reach the conclusion that multiculturalism will not work when there is not a common language to unify the different components of a changing society. A society that is so diverse because it has groups from all parts of the world. The English language is part of the pot, without it, no one can melt anything. So there is incongruence in trying to achieve a multicultural society without a basic element of integration, such as a common language.
Therefore, it is was wrong for Governor Erlich to talk about multiculturalism as “crap” or “bunk” during his biased comments He was right, though, in telling Latino groups to focus their attention to learn English in order to be able to become part of the game. Melting pot, multiculturalism are expressions which have the same meaning. A society can be as diverse as their components want, but within unity. It has to have a common sense of mutual undertaking making everybody just Americans regardless of their race, color, gender, religion or what have you. When a person in the United States has to fill out the Census questionnaire is shocked to find that it looks more like a psychological test, than a gathering of data. Races are so divided in groups and subgroups that sometimes people are counted twice! A simpler questionnaire asking for a person’s name, place and date of birth, as well as their parents, will make things a lot easier. As for nationality, just naming Americans, either by birth or by nationalization, will provide the tools for a change. It will pave the way for that mutual understanding of people coming together as a nation. A cement that will make sure that the United States will be able to sail trough the influx of new people, new ideas, and new values keeping the pot that those visionaries in the 18th Century envisioned when they drafted the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, building a new nation.
Unless something is done soon to put things in that perspective, the future for a real integration will be bleak, since a social and cultural Balkanization will come as the most likely byproduct.
What is to be done? That will be a subject of an upcoming article®.

© Ruben Rotondaro -
Bethesda, MD, June 2004

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