Essay: A Multicultural Nationalism?

The twentieth century is closing with a pessimistic assessment of America's continued dedication to its national motto, E Pluribus Unum. Multiculturalism, bilingual education, and record levels of immigration are said to have fractured America. In response, nativists want to cut immigration sharply and establish English as the official language. The Commission on Immigration Reform—Barbara Jordan's last act of public service—has called for a new Americanization movement to assimilate new immigrants. Meanwhile, multiculturalists continue to assail assimilation as illegitimately "hegemonic," and cosmopolitans say that we should gladly accept our growing diversity and recognize that in this age of "transnationalism" many people will cross borders so easily that they will establish ties and allegiances to more than one country. Neither multiculturalists nor cosmopolitans lose much sleep over the fate of the nation-state or are overly concerned about preserving a strong American national identity.

I want to stake out a different position in this debate. Contrary to the nativists, the increasing and resilient diversity—the polyethnism—of the United States is a current and future fact. Multiple subnational and cross-national group loyalties can be neither wished away nor erased. Yet the idea of the nation—of the American nation—is worth defending against multicultural and cosmopolitan attack. A progressive American nationalism must be forward-looking, welcoming an America becoming rather than bemoaning an America lost. It is not enough to say, as some liberal assimilationists propose, that we should seek unity in commitment to a set of timeless civic values, including the value of diversity. America is an open-ended proposition. We cannot simply expect newcomers to assimilate to our culture, but must accept that they will change it. This view translates into policy recommendations—I will call them "ground rules"—intended to foster a nation comfortable with cultural diversity and culturally diverse groups loyal to the nation. Immigration policies ought to be forthrightly based on national interests—but once admitted, immigrants must be accepted as full participants in the making of America.

The Past as Present

Today's controversies are an eerie echo of the debate over immigration and assimilation that gripped the nation in the opening years of the century. Henry James, touring New York City in 1906 after nearly a quarter century in Europe, visited Ellis Island—"the first harbour of refuge and stage of patience for the million or so of immigrants knocking at our official door." The scene was overpowering to James. He wrote that it brought home to the observer "the degree in which it is his American fate to share the sanctity of his American consciousness, the intimacy of his American patriotism, with the inconceivable alien." James himself now felt alien in his native land, as if the newcomers had taken "settled possession" and natives had lost it—"the implication of which, in its turn, is that, to recover confidence and regain lost ground, we, not they, must make the surrender and accept the orientation." Despite his "sense of dispossession," he did not give up the vision of "some such close and sweet and whole national consciousness as that of the Switzer and the Scot."

What James found troubling, others found bracing. In widely read essays and books, Horace Kallen suggested a model of "cultural pluralism" to replace the idea of the melting pot. Writing in the Nation in 1915, Kallen challenged both the fact and wisdom of the assimilation of immigrants to Anglo-Saxon America. He argued that the very process of Americanization produced "dissimilation" by bringing to light "permanent group distinctions." What was needed was not unison—everyone "singing the old Anglo-Saxon theme 'America'"—but rather harmony, in which the older theme might well be dominant but nonetheless "one among many." Such themes, according to Kallen, were "ancestrally determined." In his famous phrase, we can change our politics, philosophies, and spouses, but we "cannot change [our] grandfathers." Thus, the task before America was to provide "conditions under which each may attain the perfection that is proper to its kind."

Intellectual and essayist Randolph Bourne took a third position. Although a scion of New England WASPdom, he had none of James's sense of dispossession. Like Kallen, he was enthralled by the possibilities presented by the immigration of new groups to America. But in his remarkable essay "Trans-national America," published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1916, Bourne depicted an understanding of American nationality more fluid and open than Kallen's. American culture and traditions had always been supplied by immigrants. "The Anglo-Saxon was merely the first immigrant" whose "predominance in America [is] little more than a predominance of priority." New groups that sustain and expand their cultures here add something distinct to America: "The foreign cultures have not been melted down or run together, made into some homogeneous Americanism, but have remained distinct but cooperating to the greater glory and benefit, not only of themselves but of all the native 'Americanism' around them."

Bourne noted the absence in the United States of the nationalist brutality occurring elsewhere in the world. The mix of groups that produced horrible bloodshed in Europe was "somehow non-explosive" in America. The United States has been witnessing, "however unappreciatively, . . . a thrilling and bloodless battle of Kulturs" that "has been played out peacefully here in the mind." Remarkably, America had achieved "a cosmopolitan federation of national colonies, of foreign cultures, from whom the sting of devastating competition has been removed." As historian David Hollinger has noted, where Kallen stressed the autonomy and fixed identity of each ethnic group, Bourne saw a dynamic, open-ended interaction that would change both the immigrant and native cultures. The result would be "not a nationality, but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors."

Subscribe to The American Prospect

"As long as we thought of Americanism in terms of the melting-pot," Bourne wrote, "our American cultural tradition lay in the past. It was something to which the new Americans were to be moulded. In the light of our changing ideal of Americanism, we must perpetrate the paradox that our American cultural tradition lies in the future. It will be what we all together make out of this incomparable opportunity of attacking the future in a new key."

Has the world of James, Kallen, and Bourne returned? The same cleavages are visible today between nativists and cultural pluralists, between those who feel dispossessed and those who insist America is enriched by immigrants. But the idea of the United States as "a nation of immigrants" is now firmly established. When James wrote, the Statue of Liberty had not yet become our national symbol of immigration; Emma Lazarus's poem attracted little national attention until the 1930s. It was not until after the significant reductions in immigration brought about by the imposition of the National Origin Quota system in the 1920s that America could rewrite its national story to glorify its immigrant roots. That story is now taken for granted.


Today's discussion of immigration has also become linked to debates about multiculturalism. The result is that "Americanism" seems under challenge not just from new immigrant communities, but also from groups pressing "counter-hegemonic" agendas. To some, then, the threat of dispossession and balkanization appears greater today.

In addition, naturalization—once the mark of Americanization—is now controversial. Some are disturbed by the recent dramatic increase in citizenship applications, suggesting that immigrants have been seeking naturalization for the wrong reasons—either to exert their ethnic group's special interests or to maintain eligibility for welfare benefits. Republicans have also accused the Clinton administration of "dumbing down" standards and expediting naturalization for political gain.

Yet another distinctive development today is the rise of dual citizenship. Although immigrants naturalizing in the United States must take an oath renouncing citizenship elsewhere, that renunciation is not binding on the country of origin. Increasingly those countries are permitting their nationals to retain citizenship despite naturalization in the U.S. Furthermore, over the past three decades the Supreme Court has radically restricted the power of Congress to strip citizenship from U.S. citizens. Simply naturalizing in another country cannot be grounds for denationalization unless the U.S. citizen specifically intends to relinquish citizenship.

In light of these new conditions, the old strategies are not up to the task: the molding of a nation in a time of growing polyethnism. The right would have us return to a time when immigrants were nearly all white and were eager to abjure their allegiances to failing monarchies in order to join an experiment in republicanism. But the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Improvements in communication and transportation, economic integration fostered by free trade agreements, and large flows of people back and forth between democracies have produced settled immigrant communities here with close ties to home countries. Dominicans in the United States—both resident aliens and naturalized and native-born citizens—will continue to return regularly to the island, to visit, bring back food items, and perhaps to vote. The United States, as Arjun Appadurai, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago, has noted, is a place where "people come to seek their fortunes but are no longer content to leave their homelands behind." No amount of old-style Americanization will make these multiple ties and connections vanish. So the conservative agenda cannot succeed.

But liberals too may be wrong when they assume, based on past history, that assimilation is a foregone conclusion. There is a difference this time around. The waves of immigration early in this century largely came to a halt with the enactment of the discriminatory legislation of the 1920s. There is no such likelihood today. Even if efforts to pass some restrictions do succeed, more than 500,000 new immigrants will probably continue to arrive each year. The number of aliens seeking naturalization will also likely remain high. By becoming citizens, they can immediately sponsor spouses and children who now are on long waiting lists to gain lawful residence in the United States. Perhaps the American assimilation machine will continue to function smoothly. New immigrants are learning English at a faster rate than earlier generations, as Geoffrey Nunberg has noted in these pages ["Lingo Jingo: English-Only and the New Nativism," July-August 1997]. A recent survey of new immigrants sponsored by the National Science Foundation concludes that legal immigrants are, on average, better schooled than the native-born U.S. population. But the strong maintenance of immigrant ties to home countries may suggest a different kind of assimilation than in the past.

Some might not be concerned with whether or not assimilation is declining. Won't we all benefit, they may ask, from living among a collection of nations—with ties to all the peoples of the world—that happen to find a home within the traditional geographical boundaries of the U.S.? Appadurai sees the United States as "a free trade zone for the generation, circulation, importation, and testing of the materials for a world organized around diasporic diversity."

In fact, we would lose a great deal by giving up on the idea of the nation. Much recent writing discusses the coming of a borderless world, with free-flowing capital and labor and transnational communities. But for the foreseeable future, states will remain the loci of power; both self-government and the protection of individual rights depend almost entirely on states. Nonterritorial, transnational communities do not have armies, fire departments, passports, legislatures, or courts. One of the welcome developments of the late twentieth century, the spread of democratic self-rule, has been attained fully within the state structure. Loyalties to groups may well cross national boundaries, but court jurisdiction to enforce constitutional rights against discrimination based on national origin, race, or gender rarely does.

Furthermore, it is hardly clear that a weakening of national identity and state boundaries would foster a cosmopolitan spirit. In a discussion of the morality of immigration control, Michael Walzer writes that "Neighborhoods can be open only if countries are at least potentially closed. . . . To tear down the walls of the state is not . . . to create a world without walls, but rather to create a thousand petty fortresses." As national identity encourages us to look beyond those petty fortresses, so too it encourages us to look beyond the immediate demands of those alive today to the interests of future generations.

The New Assimilationism

The tensions are apparent: a growing transnational reality and yet strong justifications for the nation-state. Today as in the past, assimilationism proposes to resolve the dissonance. The traditional version seeks to mold new immigrants into an existing American stock, reasserting Western values and excluding people who do not abide by them. Another version of the melting pot recognizes that the later arrivals to the United States have had a significant impact on what it means to be American. According to this account, the various groups melt into a new alloy, distinct from each contributing group. Recently, critics have attacked this conception of the melting pot for not recognizing continuing group loyalties, and thus they have proposed new metaphors: America as a salad bowl, mosaic, or kaleidoscope.

In his recent book, Assimilation, American Style, Peter Salins seeks to revive assimilation as a goal of public policy, arguing that it is consistent with ethnic diversity. Properly understood, Salins says, assimilation means identification with and commitment to America and American ideals. It requires taking pride in the American idea (defined primarily as dedication to the principles of individual rights, liberty, equality, self-government, and the rule of law), learning English, and having a commitment to the Protestant ethic. Salins seeks to avoid both too strong a melting pot metaphor, which "exaggerates the degree to which immigrants' ethnicity is likely to be extinguished by exposure to American society," and the "profoundly insidious" cultural pluralist metaphors, which suggest "that the product of assimilation is mere ethnic coexistence without integration." His conclusions are that Americans should end affirmative action and bilingual education programs, combat illegal immigration, oppose reductions in legal immigration, and support naturalization.

Salins renders a service by saving assimilationism from the melting pot metaphor. But he is too quick to characterize multiculturalism in its worst light (the rhetorical move he attributes to opponents of assimilation). A multiculturalism that denies the legitimacy or wisdom of a national idea is mistaken, but a multiculturalism that informs the national idea makes a valuable contribution. For example, Salins writes that our "master myth" is America as "the land of new beginning," and he identifies immigrants as the central characters in this story. "As the land of the new beginning, America had no choice but to be made up of immigrants. That was the whole idea." But one might well ask where this myth puts slaves and their descendants and American Indians. They are apparently not part of the "whole idea," and this is exactly the point of a well-rendered multiculturalism.

Although Salins properly notes that American culture is a product of many influences and is under constant revision, he misses the dynamic relationship between those newly arriving and those already here. He says immigrants make a contract: They will be accepted as members if and when they learn English, affirm the American idea, and live up to the Protestant ethic, as if they can never hope to affect America and its traditions. We hardly note the immigrant roots of words our children speak as standard English, from schlep to salsa, macaroni to macarena. (Indeed, with no recognition of the irony, we identify English as the world's lingua franca!) Immigrants have lately also shaped our understanding of the Protestant ethic. Cubans in Miami, Iranians in Los Angeles, and Koreans in New York—few of whom are Protestant—have provided different models of hard work and success that are now being touted for native minority groups.

Salins thus repeats the old error of seeing America as fixed and placing the needed adjustment exclusively on the immigrant's side. A more accurate understanding pictures America as a contract under constant renegotiation. Bourne suggested as much: "America shall be what the immigrant will have a hand in making it."

Permeability and the National Idea

Bourne identified two elements that were crucial to the "effective integration" of the various cultures meeting in the United States. The first was a cosmopolitan outlook, which included "an intellectual sympathy which is not satisfied until it has got at the heart of the different cultural expressions, and felt as they feel." The second was the end of prejudice against non-Anglo-Saxon cultures. These elements constitute a principle of mutuality, based on empathy and nondiscrimination. Mutuality is distinct from tolerance, which is a live-and-let-live concept that requires distance, sometimes privacy. Mutuality demands active engagement, learning about others in their own terms—not a suspension of judgment, but judgment based on information and interaction. Tolerance is a politics of peaceful coexistence; mutuality is a politics of recognition. Recognition changes the observer. This is the lesson and promise of multiculturalism that has gotten lost in the culture wars. Largeness of mind, in Clifford Geertz's terms, comes from seeing ourselves as a "case among cases, a world among worlds"; without this recognition of others, "objectivity is self-congratulation and tolerance a sham."

Mutuality moves us beyond assimilationism. But we need to stop short of the strong multiculturalism that, like Kallen, proclaims "permanent group distinctions." A second perspective must come into play: a principle of permeability, which insists on both the reality of group boundaries and the ability to cross them. An exclusively descent-based theory of group identity is no longer tenable. To a significant degree, group identity in modern America is volitional, the product of chosen affiliations as much as unchosen parentage. Scholars for some time have reported the "optional" nature of ethnic identity for white European Americans, documenting, in the words of Mary Waters, "the lack of equivalency between ethnic ancestry and identity." Census data show shifts in ethnic identification unexplainable by demographic change, such as the 255 percent increase from 1960 to 1990 in persons identifying themselves as American Indians. Even if we can't change our grandparents, we can and do choose which grandparents we recognize as endowing us with our national origin, ethnicity, religion, or other group membership.

The ethnic option, however, remains more available to whites than nonwhites, and deep ethnic and racial consciousness continues to pervade American culture and constrain choice. The ever-present racial divide shows the distance we must travel to a society where group boundaries become truly permeable. David Hollinger posits a "postethnic America"—a world in which "ethno-racial affiliations" would be "subject to revocable consent." The goal of postethnicity is not the destruction of group affiliations. Rather, it is "the renewal and critical revision of those communities of descent whose progeny choose to devote their energies to these communities even after experiencing opportunities for affiliating with other kinds of people." Hollinger's world may be the best contemporary rendering of Bourne's transnationalism. It describes an America where group identities persist but are more fluid than under Kallen's account of cultural pluralism.

The existence of mutually respecting groups gets us much but not all of the way there. The important question is how such groups interact. What is required is an identification with a whole beyond the parts. Henry James's yearning for a "close and sweet and whole national consciousness" need not be seen as either overly romantic or nativist. If one believes that the idea of the American nation is worth preserving, there must be a coming together, a common ground, for society's constituent parts. A cultural unity is not in the cards, and a mutual commitment to liberal political principles including diversity—although important—produces a thin unity that may be little more than an agreement to disagree, tolerance without mutuality. What the unum has a right to ask of the pluribus, to use Lawrence Fuchs's figure, is that groups identify themselves as American. To be sure, there may be significant disagreement over what it means to see oneself as an "American." But the central idea is that a person be committed to this country's continued flourishing and see himself or herself as part of that ongoing project. The allegiance, the common identification, need not be exclusive, but it must be paramount.

Here, then, is a strategy of integration for a new century. It values attachment to the nation, and respects mutuality and permeability. The survival of subnational communities, many with significant economic and cultural ties to countries of origin, is not just a fact—it is a fact that America can live with and profit by. An American nationalism that respects principles of mutuality and permeability can fit the society that America will become in the next century.

Ground Rules

The task at hand is to develop policies that foster a nation at peace with its constituent groups and groups that identify with the nation. Immigration to the United States is not a right, and it ought to be regulated in a manner that best serves the economic and social interests of the nation while respecting values of family unification and protection of refugees. Here, too, Bourne got it about right: "It would be folly to absorb the nations faster than we could weave them. We have no duty either to admit or reject. It is purely a matter of expediency. What concerns us is the fact that the strands are here. We must have a policy and an ideal for an actual situation." With these considerations in mind, here are some ground rules for a progressive nationalism.

First, we have a right to control our borders, and it is appropriate for the federal government to devote substantial resources to doing so. Continued public support for legal immigration depends on a serious commitment to stop illegal immigration. Complete control of the border is not possible at a price this country is willing to pay, but enforcement can be improved. Recent increases in border patrol staffing are a good start.

Second, we need a national reexamination of appropriate levels of legal immigration, shorn of the usual shibboleths from the left and the right. There is nothing magic about the current number of legal immigrants granted entry each year. As a recent blue-ribbon panel of the National Academy of Sciences found, immigration is a net economic plus for the United States as a whole, but there are costs to immigration and they are borne disproportionately by lower-wage workers and a few geographical regions. The federal government should contribute funds to offset the medical and educational costs faced by communities with large concentrations of newcomers. We should also reconsider what kinds of immigrants we admit. It is difficult to justify an admissions category for unskilled labor, and it borders on the perverse to continue to add to a ten-year waiting list of brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens. Paying more attention to skills and placing less weight on family relationships—perhaps through a "point system," as Canada has used for some time—ought to be on the table.

Third, we must resist a growing tendency to harden the line between citizens and immigrants. Policies that tighten the circle of membership have two perverse effects. They make the integration of immigrants more difficult, and they encourage resident aliens to naturalize for instrumental reasons rather than identification with America. National policy must recognize immigrants as "citizens in training," affording them the means of a productive and healthy life in the United States. Until recently, permanent resident aliens were eligible for most jobs, opportunities, and benefits in the United States, the central exceptions being voting, jury service, and federal civil service employment. Last year's welfare law, however, terminated most means-tested benefits for permanent resident aliens. Society has a right, if not a duty, to provide for full members first, but immigrants are not exactly guests. They are close family members of U.S. citizens, skilled workers filling important jobs, refugees fleeing persecution, and applicants for naturalization. In daily life, resident immigrants are largely indistinguishable from citizens; they work, attend PTA meetings, join houses of worship—and pay taxes. In the recent budget agreement, Congress reversed the unconscionable provisions of the welfare law that took away Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid from immigrants who had been receiving benefits. (The goal of welfare reform—fostering participation in the workforce—could hardly apply to the elderly and disabled beneficiaries of such programs.) But Congress did not restore food stamps to needy immigrants already in the country, nor did it alter rules that will prospectively bar permanent resident immigrants from participation in social safety net programs. These harsh rules ought to be repealed.

Fourth, public policies should pursue the goal of a nation of English speakers. A single language does not guarantee civil peace, but it can help sustain a common nationality, enable groups to understand each other better, and make markets national in scope. But there is no need to designate English as the "official language" of the United States, because nearly all children or grandchildren of immigrants are fluent English speakers—no less today than earlier in our history. Restricting public business to English would be an ugly gesture of exclusion.

Finally, wishing away or seeking to eliminate cultural differences is not a productive response to polyethnism. To be sure, we ask allegiance of newcomers to the nation, but the nation must welcome them in a way that fosters their allegiance. Bourne wrote that integration and dedication to the American project could only come when no group felt that "its cultural case is being prejudged." This demands a politics of recognition, not a politics of group-blindness. It is simply wrong to lay the fracturing of America at the feet of immigrants. This is the problem with resurrection of the term "Americanization"; it seems to promise cultural unity once immigrants agree to acculturate. Our cultural differences result not from newcomers refusing to become Americans, but rather from citizens who have different ideas about what being American means.

We live in tender times, when assertions of subnational or transnational affiliations are too frequently read as disloyalty and claims about the value of the nation-state are too frequently deemed nativist. We would do well to heed Bourne's call for an open-minded and optimistic view of America. "The failure of the melting-pot, far from closing the great American democratic experiment, means that it has only just begun," he wrote. "Whatever American nationalism turns out to be, we see already that it will have a color richer and more exciting than our ideal has hitherto encompassed." That confidence ought to inform our view of immigration and our country.

You may also like