Argument: Multiculturalism is like cohesive ethnic federalism

Issue Report: Multiculturalism vs. assimilation


  • Peter D. Salins. “Assimilation, American Style”. Reason Online. February 1997 – “A third strain of criticism was first voiced by sociologist Horace Kallen in the early part of this century. Among the most prolific American scholars of ethnicity, Kallen argued that it was not only unrealistic but cruel and harmful to force new immigrants to shed their familiar, lifelong cultural attributes as the price of admission to American society. In place of the melting pot, he called for ‘cultural pluralism.’ In Kallen’s words, national policy should “seek to provide conditions under which each [group] might attain the cultural perfection that is proper to its kind.”
Kallen introduced the concept in 1916, only eight years after publication of Zangwill’s The Melting Pot, determined to challenge that work’s premises. Cultural pluralism rejects melting-pot assimilationism not on empirical grounds, but on ideological ones. Kallen and his followers believed that immigrants to the United States should not ‘melt’ into a common national ethnic alloy but, rather, should steadfastly hang on to their cultural ethnicity and band together for social and political purposes even after generations of residence in the United States. As such, cultural pluralism is not an alternative theory of assimilation; it is a theory opposed to assimilation.
Cultural pluralism is, in fact, the philosophical antecedent of modern multiculturalism–what I call ‘ethnic federalism’: official recognition of distinct, essentially fixed ethnic groups and the doling out of resources based on membership in an ethnic group. Ethnic federalism explicitly rejects the notion of a transcendent American identity, the old idea that out of ethnic diversity there would emerge a single, culturally unified people. Instead, the United States is to be viewed as a vast ethnic federation–Canada’s Anglo-French arrangement, raised to the nth power. Viewing ethnic Americans as members of a federation rather than a union, ethnic federalism, a.k.a. multiculturalism, asserts that ethnic Americans have the right to proportional representation in matters of power and privilege, the right to demand that their ‘native’ culture and putative ethnic ancestors be accorded recognition and respect, and the right to function in their ‘native’ language (even if it is not the language of their birth or they never learned to speak it), not just at home but in the public realm.”