Multiculturalism in the United States has a long silent history. The United States has, from its founding, taken in immigrants from different cultural backgrounds, many of whom were, at the time, controversial. First, it was the Germans who raised questions about whether they could or would become "real Americans." Then questions were raised about the Chinese and after them Irish and the Eastern European immigrants. Now it is Hispanic-Americans and Muslim-Americans of whom we ask those questions.
In every past instance those questions and, in a few limited cases, overt exclusionary policies have been overcome and those groups have become as American as descendents of Mayflower passengers. With a thoroughly thought-through effort in response to new globalized circumstances there is no reason why new ethnic and religious immigrant groups, and those that follow, cannot be as successfully integrated into American life as those that preceded them.
Which brings us to the current political version of American multiculturalism. It is a term that gathered force in the aftermath of the 1960s when cultural narcissism and identity politics became fused into the multicultural movement. The historian Christopher Lasch brilliantly captured the first of these trends in his book The Cultural of Narcissism.
In it, he argued that the traditional American cultural of individualism and self-reliance was eroding in the face of growing self-absorption and a society that increasingly seemed to reward it. This set of developments gained momentum in the context of general demands of groups that had not been "mainstream" to become so and have society validate that new status politically and culturally. The absolute legitimacy of the demand by Americans of African descent for full political and legal rights and their public acceptance was the foundation on which other groups based their own demands for "recognition."
There followed group after group demanding public validation, social acceptance, and government policies to redress the historical wrongs – some very real, others exaggerated – that they used to press their claims. Women, varieties of sexual and gender preference groups, and other groups with non-mainstream beliefs built on the moral and political foundation of the civil rights revolution to demand their own acknowledged place in the cultural mainstream. In many ways those movements succeeded in gaining their legitimate objectives, though not without rhetorical hyperbole and questionable government policies still in force to this day.
It was within this contextual legacy that the multicultural demand for "recognition" gathered traction. Multiculturalism in the United States has always reflected two strands of thought. The first, more prosaic and culturally benign strand, simply stated the obvious: America is a country in which many diverse cultures exist, co-exist and find common ground as Americans.
The second more divisive strand has argued that people do, and ought to, gain their primary identities from attachment to their racial or ethnic groups. In this view the role of the government is not only to accept that "fact," but to facilitate it. Advocates of such views insist not only on their right to recognition, but also on their exclusivity along with government policies that ensure it.
It is hard to have a primary identity as an American if all you really care about is yourself. And it is also hard to have a primary national identity if all you really care about is your own group.
Just ask Europe.
Next: "Implications of Europe's Turn Away from Multiculturalism for the U.S."