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Making Sense of America

ISSUE:  Spring 2002

When the Bureau of the Census began dribbling out results from the 2000 census in early 2001, both the press and the public seemed hard put to make sense of them. What kind of country did they reveal, especially when it came to such obsessions of intellectuals and journalists as race, ethnicity, “gender,” and culture? Nobody doubted that the census would show a different picture from 1990. The question was how to interpret the differences once the Bureau had laid them out in statistical charts and graphs (conveniently available at the Bureau’s website, For most readers, trying to understand the trends inevitably meant fitting them into a preexisting model. Since September 11, 2001, these data take on added value as a striking portrait of a society under violent attack not only for what it does in the world, but for what it is.

Crudely speaking, there are two opposed models of American society that enjoy significant popularity. The older of the two, which retains the allegiance of conservative intellectuals and many ordinary Americans of no particular ideology, is what used to be called the melting pot, a term now in disfavor.(It originated in 1908 as the title of a play by Israel Zangwill.) According to this view, there exists an overarching American culture to which immigrant groups sooner or later adapt, changing it modestly in the process. To simplify slightly, within a comparatively short time nearly everyone starts shopping at Wal-Mart, learns English, joins the Boy Scouts, and moves to the suburbs. The contrasting model of American society that most academics and journalists favor is multiculturalism, a Canadian term that made its way south of the border in the 1970’s. For multiculturalists, the United States is an unstable collection of distinct cultures, defined mostly by ethnic origin. While older immigrant groups from Europe have to a large extent melded indistinguishably, newer arrivals—particularly non-white ones—insist on retaining their ancestral values and way of life, defying the oppressive norms of white, heterosexual, European-descended males.

The appearance of the non-ethnic words “males” and “heterosexual” in the last sentence is no accident. The oppressiveness of the so-called white race over all others is almost as a matter of course equated by multiculturalists with male domination of females and the heterosexual persecution of homosexuals. According to militant multiculturalists, American society is a perpetual civil war, in which the forces of liberation will finally triumph when the non-white population outnumbers whites and other victims of prejudice are accorded equal stature with the majority. A sympathetic Washington Post recently hailed on its front page new census data showing “huge increases” in the number of homosexual households.(Like a number of other census stories, this one turned out to be misleading. Although it had grown significantly since 1990, the proportion of same-sex households in the population covered by the report was still only half of 1 percent.) The importance of the census as a kind of running scorecard is obvious.

Unfortunately for both multiculturalists and assimilationists, the results of the 2000 census do not comfortably fit either of the two models. No wonder the press and its conscientious readers were so often confused.

One census story that understandably got a huge amount of attention was the rise in the Hispanic population, up almost 58 percent since 1990. Hispanics, half of whom live in California and Texas, now outnumber blacks nationally. “Hispanic,” it should be pointed out, is an extremely miscellaneous category devised by the Census Bureau to include all United States residents whose family origins lie anywhere in Latin America or the Iberian peninsula. In other words, “Hispanics” include Puerto Ricans, immigrants from Spain, Cuban exiles, Chileans of entirely English or German descent, and of course Mexicans, now the most numerous subgroup.

The Census Bureau takes pains to point out that Hispanics “may be of any race,” and when required to identify themselves by race on census forms about half of Hispanics chose white.(Most of the others confusingly chose “some other race”—that is, other than white, black, American Indian/Alaskan native, Asian, or Pacific Islander, the five races officially recognized by the federal government.) Nonetheless, the press almost invariably counts Hispanics as non-white, as in stories proclaiming that California now has a non-white majority, or—even more carelessly—that by 2050 whites will constitute a minority in the United States as a whole. In reality, the Census Bureau’s current projection is that by 2050 the American population will be 74.9 percent white, a figure that will fall to 70.7 percent by 2100.

But numerical predictions about the racial composition of the population 50 or 100 years hence completely ignore one of the other great census storylines, the dramatic increase in intermarriage among racial and ethnic groups. This trend has been going on for a long time and causes tremendous conflict for multiculturalists, since it demonstrates an admirable openness between people of different backgrounds but by the same token breaks down the distinct groups on which multiculturalism depends. Intermarriage also complicates the allocation of such government benefits as affirmative-action goals, since deciding what proportion of the population is black, Hispanic, or American Indian depends on having a reasonably unambiguous count of who belongs to these groups.(The largest affirmative action category, women, is of course numerically unaffected by intermarriage.) Fearing a diminution of such benefits, black civil rights groups successfully resisted the creation of a mixed race category by the Census Bureau for the 2000 census. In a similar spirit, many persons of mixed race who felt a primary allegiance to the black part of their heritage intentionally misdescribed themselves as entirely black, according to The New York Times and Washington Post.

Even so, nearly seven million Americans—about 2. 5 percent of the whole population—availed themselves of an option permitted for the first time by checking more than one box in the mandatory racial self-identification on the 2000 census questionnaire. Whether ethnic or racial (a distinction that the Census Bureau considers real and important), group identity is hard to maintain if much of the group marries outside. The whole concept of a racial or ethinic minority—or for that matter majority—is finally breaking down. Nearly half of all Hispanics born in the United States marry non-Hispanics; roughly half of Asian Americans born in this country marry persons not of Asian descent. With black Americans the proportion is much lower but has risen substantially in every census since 1960.

Until 1967, when the Supreme Court declared miscegenation laws unconstitutional in the sublimely named case of Loving v. Virginia, marriages between blacks and whites were illegal in many states. About 10 percent of all married blacks, whatever their ages, now have spouses who are not black. Among younger blacks the percentage is much higher. As John McWhorter pointed out recently in The New Republic, “One hundred years from now, the marvelous inevitability of interracial mixture will have created a deliriously miscegenated American where hundreds of millions of cafe au lait Tiger Woodses and Mariah Careys will be quite secure in knowing that American is “who they are.”” By that time, with any luck, the Census Bureau will have stopped trying to classify Americans by race.


Some observers understandably see these trends as validating the melting pot model of American society. A hundred years ago white immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were often disdained as profoundly alien—”others,” in the language of multiculturalism. Within half a century their children had become hard to distinguish from the descendants of Mayflower passengers, with whom they were beginning to intermarry. Today the same process is continuing with Hispanics, Asian Americans, and—the hardest case of all because it involves overcoming so much historic prejudice— Americans of African descent. In The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again, a book whose publication coincided with the first release of census data, the political commentator Michael Barone assures us that “we are not in a wholly new place in American history. We’ve been here before.”

The ideal of the melting pot he traces all the way back to George Washington’s famous letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, in which the newly elected first president declared: “For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” Acceptance of American civic virtues was sufficient for assimilation to the new republic; no religious or ethnic tests would be imposed. What exactly those civic virtues might demand, how far they might be compatible with religious or ethnic loyalties, and above all what groups might be included in or excluded from Washington’s welcome, were questions left for posterity. If the details proved unexpectedly complicated to work out, the principle—a promise to the future, like the Declaration of Independence—was clear.

Along with many other observers, Barone points out that America has been redeeming those rash promises ever since and is a much improved society for having done so. After successfully assimilating such objects of once virulent prejudice as the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews, we find ourselves finally integrating a large black population whose ancestors have been here longer than most whites’, together with the even larger “Hispanic” minority who are still arriving. Barone draws detailed parallels between Irish immigrants and blacks, between Italians and immigrants from Latin America, and between Jews and Asians. In each case, the earlier group adopted, more or less, the value system of the native middle class and eventually overcame poverty and prejudice to join the majority. “The descendants of the immigrants who were regarded as members of different races in 1900 have now become deeply interwoven into the fabric of American life,” he observes. “This can, should, almost certainly will happen again. There is no greater biological difference between the minority groups and other Americans of today than there was between the immigrant groups and other Americans of a hundred years ago.” Furthermore, there is much less prejudice.

The main forces cooling the melting pot today, Barone believes, are misguided government programs such as bilingual education and affirmative action that perpetuate divisions and reduce the capacity of their beneficiaries to cope as equal members of American society. Without these programs and the attitudes that sustain them, the melting pot will continue to boil as it has done so well for nearly 400 years. Continuity, in fact, is the most visible theme in American history. “What is important now,” Barone concludes, “is to discard the notion that we are at a totally new place in American history, that we are about to change from a white-bread nation to a collection of peoples of color.”

An equally impassioned defense of the opposite point of view is The Rights Revolution by Michael Ignatieff, a distinguished Canadian writer on human rights who now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Ignatieff holds up Canada as an explicit contrast to the United States in its policies towards racial, linguistic, or sexual minorities. “Despite the fact that we share our way of life and our public media with our neighbours to the south,” he announces, “our habits of mind on rights questions are very much our own.” His book, which began as the 2000 Massey Lectures sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, offers a qualified case for multiculturalism that comes closer to the realities of North American life than most of its many competitors.

Unlike the United States, Canada has an officially non-English-speaking province, Quebec, and a much larger proportion of pre-European inhabitants.(American Indians constitute less than 1 percent of the United States population.) Because of these comparatively unassimilated groups, Ignatieff maintains, special language and cultural rights—rights that pertain to the group collectively rather than to the individuals that make it up—are particularly appropriate, even inevitable. Here again, he contrasts Canadian practices with American ones, implying that we would do better to imitate our northern neighbor instead of relying on an “intransigently individualistic” notion of rights. Thus Quebec is justified in legally forcing the French language on immigrants who would prefer to have their children learn English; native tribes are entitled to sovereignty in large parts of the country; the rights of sensitive minorities not to be offended outweigh, under many circumstances, what Americans would consider freedom of speech. Affirmative action for favored groups is a constitutional right. Truly, a different country.

Yet the consequences of these differences as Ignatieff describes them will sound familiar to many Americans: “[T]he rights revolution sometimes seems to have fragmented the political community into aggrieved victims’ groups, each seeking its rights at the expense of the others; women against men, aboriginal people against non-aboriginals, children versus parents, Anglo-Canadians versus Quebecois, and so on.” Quebec perennially threatens to secede and nearly did so in 1995. Nunavut, the vast northern territory (one-fifth of Canada) created in 1999 for some 27,000 “aboriginals,” risks becoming little more than a national park for natives, Canadian magazines and broadcasting stations need to be, and are, protected by law from American competition; otherwise their audiences would let them die or be taken over. Western Canada ignores eastern Canada and the federal government as much as it can. A different country, certainly, but perhaps not a terribly successful counter-example of how to cope with a population of diverse origins in a large North American country.

Ignatieff would concede most of these criticisms, yet they do not quite go to the heart of his discussion or its relevance to the United States as the 2000 census reveals it. “Group rights—to language, culture, religious expression, and land—are valuable to the degree that they enhance the freedom of individuals,” he maintains. “This suggests that when group rights and individual rights conflict, individual rights should prevail.” But there is a corollary: “The problem with equality of individual rights is that it is simply not enough. It fails to recognize and protect the rights of constituent nations and peoples to maintain their distinctive identities.”

The whole concept of constituent nations will seem unfamiliar to most Americans, except maybe as it applies to Indian tribes such as the Navajo who control large reservations. Ignatieff’s discussion raises a host of questions that apply to both countries. Does it best serve their interests for native peoples to be walled off from the rest of the population? Are immigrant groups entitled, as groups, to maintain their original languages? What about the effect on individuals who, having been brought up in North America to speak Navajo or Spanish or French as their primary language, find themselves at a colossal disadvantage? And what does the whole controversy over language say about the reality or durability of “distinctive identities” that can be preserved only through laws passed and enforced by the alien majority?

“We simply are a patchwork quilt of distinctive societies,” Ignatieff declares, summarizing the essence of multiculturalism, each of those societies being entitled to a large degree of self-government. Whether such a degree of local autonomy is consistent with belonging to a large, modern nation is open to question, as Ignatieff would again no doubt agree. The United States is not the only country that regards itself as an experiment. Yet Ignatieff’s idealistic picture of a humane multicultural patchwork in which the central government exists to protect and nurture such fundamental differences has a nostalgic ring. It strikingly resembles a museum. The identities in question are nearly all associated with the past—with Indian or Eskimo tribes (the politically correct Canadian term is First Nations) before the white man came; with French Canada before the English conquest; with small, close-knit religious sects on the prairies. The reason the concept of individual rights is not enough is that unless government comes to their rescue, before long these identities will simply die out, merge into the North American norm.

“America,” Ignatieff asserts of Canada’s overwhelming neighbor, “is held together by both the civic contract enshrined in its constitution and the fact that a majority of its population, while striated with a vast mixture of minorities, remains white, Christian, and English-speaking. Yet the dominance of this silent majority will soon pass. In the next century, a majority of Americans will not be white, Christian, or English-speaking.” No evidence exists that any part of this prediction is valid. While the United States receives more than half the world’s immigrants—the largest number of them currently white or mixed-race Catholics from Latin America—their record of becoming English-speaking Americans within a few years is thus far unbroken. At bottom multiculturalism is based not on the discovery that the melting pot doesn’t work, but on the fear that it does.


North America is not fundamentally multicultural. Living, healthy cultures would not need so much official propping up. And yet the United States at the beginning of the new millennium is not a melting pot either in the traditional sense of that term. The difference lies not so much in the immigrants who come today as in the society they find when they get here. That society’s sense of itself and its relation to newcomers is drastically different from what it was 80 or 100 years ago, at the peak of immigration, when 15 percent of the American population was foreign-born.(The current number is about 10 percent.)

The early-20th-century United States was a nation with vast self-confidence that showed both in the way it welcomed immigrants and in what it offered them after they arrived. Like native-born American children, immigrants were taught a stilted variety of standard English and an orthodox version of American history. Nobody doubted that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln were the great national heroes. People still read Benjamin Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper, and Ralph Waldo Emerson for pleasure or inspiration. Nearly every aspect of life, from dress and diet to child-rearing and burial practices, had its own set of norms derived from northern Europe as modified by American experience. A morally insistent Protestantism was in effect the national religion. Of my own grandparents, all immigrants or the children of immigrants, two had been brought up as Roman Catholics, one as a Jew, and one as a Protestant. Only the Protestant continued to practice his religion (in a more “American” version) after he became an adult.

Intermarriage among different religions was rare, marriage across ethnic or racial lines usually frowned upon and sometimes illegal. For a real culture, in the sense popularized by 20th-century anthropologists, makes peremptory demands. It tells its members: do this, don’t do that. Marry this person, not. that one. Worship our God, not the unbeliever’s. Above all, defend our tribe against a world of enemies. America a century ago was a real culture in which migrants from other real cultures jostled briefly, then mostly assimilated. The visual symbol of the melting pot was an oft-repeated pageant in which immigrants or their children, garbed picturesquely in costumes that reflected their countries of origin, disappeared momentarily behind a curtain and emerged dressed as Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam and the national culture he symbolized are long gone. Perhaps not surprisingly in a mobile society with such diverse origins, the most salient national commandment today is not to be judgmental. The idea of a national religion or norms of behavior has become unthinkable. There is no longer an official version of American history or literature. In education as elsewhere, heroes are purely a matter of taste. Jefferson or Adams? Martin Luther King or Malcolm X? Madonna or Selena? Take your pick. While a hunger for identity reveals itself in the pursuit of genealogy (a topic on which the Census Bureau has had to develop web resources) and ethnic origins, most Americans are now so ethnically mixed that deciding which heritage one really shares is little more than a matter of taste. Virtually the only Americans who can speak any of their ancestral languages are recent immigrants and those whose ancestors came from England. According to the new census, 82 percent of the residents over the age of five speak no language other than English at home. Of those who do speak another language at home, nearly six out of 10 also speak English “very well.” If language is the key to culture, America long ago changed the locks.

The crucial point, though, is that in any rigorous sense of the word, the United States itself no longer has most of the characteristics of a culture. That does not mean Americans are uncultured; the point is not a derogatory one. Nor is it a mere matter of semantics. It means that America has become the world’s first post-cultural society, a society in which no inherited identity or way of life makes more than minimal demands on the vast majority of the population. The word “culture,” ironically, is met with everywhere, not only in the jargon of multiculturalism but in news reports about corporations, government, even sports. The Microsoft Corporation has a unique culture. So do the FBI and the New York Mets. The fact that the word is used so widely and loosely suggests that those who use it have no idea what living in a real culture would be like. The last ten years of news from Yugoslavia, Indonesia, Rwanda, the Middle East, and Kashmir give some indications. There, real cultures have been engaged in mortal conflict, as real cultures so often are. Losing one’s cultural identity has some major advantages as well as disadvantages.

In the United States, long-standing ideals of tolerance and equality, together with the effects of large-scale immigration to a land where everyone begins as a foreigner, have after more than two centuries of national life broken down the strong cultures that multiculturalists yearn for and nationalists kill for. The same forces have broken down the traditional moral commands and sanctions for which conservatives mourn. The United States at the beginning of the 21st century has neither one big culture nor a patchwork of little ones, only an unsettling mixture of freedom and nostalgia. Most people have simply too many choices—of how and where to live, what occupation to practice, whom to marry, whether to marry at all, what God (if any) to worship. Who one is and what to do with one’s life, questions that culture used to answer, have become more open and perplexing than ever before. The whole structure of concepts on which multiculturalism (the persistence of plural ancestral cultures) and the melting pot (one American culture to which everyone assimilates) depended is now obsolete. Both the multiculturalism of the left and the family values of the right are futile attempts to recapture a past that is gone forever.

With few exceptions, the most significant dividing lines among Americans at present are age and income, not ancestral origins or region of residence. Being of Italian or Norwegian descent no longer offers much predictive value about a person’s life. Nor does being Hispanic or even Arab American. Being a Hopi Indian is another matter, but only so long as one lives on an isolated reservation and associates primarily with other Hopis. Being black, or African American, is also an exception, though—as trends in intermarriage, residence, education, and occupation make clear—to a rapidly diminishing extent.

Cultural distinctions among regions are likewise in steep decline. The South, which until the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s was the most profoundly different American region, now approaches the national norm in income, urbanization, immigration, and social attitudes. No more singing “Dixie” and waving the Confederate flag at football games, practices that many colleges have banned. Most of Stephen Foster is gone forever. Wal-Mart, the Mecca of rootless consumerism, has its headquarters in Arkansas. In the fabled West, Tombstone, home of the O.K. Corral, survives as a tourist trap filled with movie fans from Germany. The most popular bar and grill in Prescott, another Arizona Wild West town, offers its customers Cajun beef Stroganoff. In New York City the venerable Pastrami King delicatessen has added chicken curry and beef lo mein to its menu. All the cultural lines in the sand have blown away, leaving only a mass individualism.

For good or ill, most likely a combination of the two, the America that newcomers now adapt to bears little resemblance to the Lower East Side or Great Plains of 100 years ago. A recent Washington Post story about Hispanic and Asian immigrant couples with children unintentionally encapsulated the extent to which both multiculturalists and believers in traditional values find the America of today a disappointment:

Urban Institute analyst Jeffrey Passel said as immigrant families grow into second-generation Americans and beyond, evidence indicates they will assimilate in every way possible, including absorbing the trend toward fewer married-with-family households.

“The incomes go up, the education goes up, the divorce rate goes up, out-of-wedlock childbirth goes up as immigrants assimilate,” he said.

The 2000 census and other evidence amply confirm all these observations. The deepest meaning of America has always been individual freedom, and freedom has always been a tree with a tangle of ambiguous fruits. Today the post-cultural America where native-born citizens and immigrants alike struggle to succeed is more than ever defined by freedoms that render the demands and identities of the past barely intelligible. No wonder fundamentalists of every land see us as a mortal threat.


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Kyle 's picture
Kyle · 8 years ago

Wow. You're the guy I've been looking for. I'm trying to make some sense out of the world right now and that knocked me right out. Thank you Christopher. 


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