Multiculturalism is Still an Experiment

Democracy is sometimes called America’s “Great Experiment.” By any measure, it’s a success. We rocked it. Now every country wants to be a democracy, or at least call themselves one.1 In the 1960’s, we leveled up. America embarked on its 2nd Great Experiment: co-equal multiculturalism.

Post-Columbian America has always contained many cultures. Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans melded up and down the continent, producing the world we knew until 1960. To give credit where due, the diversity of the pre-1960’s United States was already remarkable. Europeans of every stripe melted into “White” people, and White Americans constantly re-negotiated their uneasy co-existence with Black Americans and Native Americans.

But there was no mistake about who was in charge. White men. And the official culture was a derivative of British. We sometimes call it “Judeo-Christian ethics.”2 WWII shattered the colonial foundations of that world, and in 1965 America opened up.

The 1790 Naturalization Act said only White immigrants could become citizens. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act…is self explanatory. 1917 brought the Asiatic Barred Zone Act. The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act finally allowed Asian immigrants to become citizens, but only 100 immigrants per country per year. During that whole time, free African immigration was also nearly impossible. America was closed to fully 75% of the world population.

Along with the 1965 Civil Rights Act that ended Segregation and the 1968 Fair Housing Act that banned Whites-only neighborhoods, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act allowed substantial willing immigration from everywhere including Asia and Africa for the first time.

We’re not alone. Although most countries in the world are controlled by a single ethnic group, there are many important exceptions. India, Indonesia, and Nigeria are gigantic amalgams of people groups consolidated into countries by European colonialism. They all gained indendence after WWII. And other White settler societies like Canada and Australia have embraced non-European immigration even more fiercely than the USA in recent decades.

Co-equal multiculturalism can be contrasted against “group+guest” multiculturalism. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are group+guest. China is group+guest. America is shifting from a long history of group+guest multiculturalism to co-equal multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism doesn’t happen with the flip of a switch. There is a difference between de jure and de facto multiculturalism. De jure multiculturalism was passed as a federal law in 1965. But de facto multiculturalism is a gradual process of popping bubble after bubble of Whites-only space. Big-city school busing – pop! Country clubs admitting women and minorities – pop! Black families moving into a white neighborhood – pop!

Most of our lives are lived in local spaces; some are multicultural and others are not. But national media like Hollywood and TV networks are a shared experience for most Americans. Until the early 2000s, non-White actors were guests in that space. If you don’t believe me, contrast any pre-2000 romantic comedy on Netflix to one made since 2015. Today, non-White actors on TV are not only more common, they are portrayed as normal people. That’s new.

The thing is –- unlike democracy which undeniably succeeded –- we’re still watching for whether co-equal multiculturalism will succeed in America. It doesn’t help us to deny it. Multiculturalism has many recognized benefits. (Jesus might start the list of benefits with “justice.”) But many of our country’s current struggles also trace back to multiculturalism. Monoculturalism encourages in-group trust, political unity and shared ethical ideals.

East Asian countries that have hugely succeeded post-WWII are unbelievably mono-cultural. Think Japan, Korea, China. Meanwhile, America is increasingly seen as being in decline. Our current prosperity is clearly built upon our history of group+guest diversity. Are we succeeding on momentum, or will our new intensifying mix propel us to a new age?

Tucker Carlson is a loud voice correctly recognizing this shift and challenge to American society. Unfortunately, Tucker wants to meet the moment with blame, selfishness, bitterness, and an unworkable desire to go backward. It’s too late. The genie cannot go back into the bottle. The fundamental reason all these multicultural societies have emerged since WWII is that European world domination disintegrated. It’s as if the Galactic Empire from Star Wars collapsed and power shifted toward all the star systems it had been repressing.3 Even if America could restore monoculturalism today, world economic conditions would no longer support it. We’d look more like North Korea than like 1950s America.

The correct response is to embrace co-equal multiculturalism while addressing its challenges head-on. We need large-scale efforts to build community, trust, and a national identity. We need empathy for groups that are losing power even as we affirm those groups that are ascendant. And we need local independence – federalism – to lower the tension. There is a role for top-down forced multiculturalism, but not everywhere all the time. America’s shift toward multiculturalism has already gotten over the hump, so that prosperous places are diverse places. The fastest growing local US economies are in the South, attracting diverse immigrants from everywhere. After decades of leaving, African Americans are actually returning to the South in recent years.

Ronald Reagan said, “The best social program is a job.” More than anything, the cure for what ails America is broad-based economic prosperity. Pre-1960s America got some things wrong, but they were right about the dynamism enabled by limited governments and unfettered human creativity. America will thrive when we get back to loving our neighbor – including the new neighbors, some of whom are probably due an apology and reparations – and giving people and business freedom to thrive.

  1. Just ask North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

  2. It’s unclear whether Christ would agree. 

  3. Credit is due here to the stabilizing power of the American military, with appropriate caveats. 

Written on August 5, 2022