European Multiculturalism's Lessons for the U.S.: The Psychology of Belonging

By Stanley Renshon on February 21, 2011

Europe's turn from multiculturalism has, as we have been noting, implications for the United States and its policies for helping new legal immigrant become American. Prime Minister David Cameron's detailed critique of his country's failed efforts to enlist multiculturalism to further that goal provides some cautionary lessons.

He says, that new immigrants "find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity." His observation points to the reciprocal relationships between assimilation as a successful process and the existence of a strong national identity into which immigrants can assimilate. And this in turn requires some established consensus on the part of both ordinary citizens and civic and political leaders as to what that that common national identity is.

Douglas Murray, director of the Center for Social Cohesion in London, writes of Cameron's speech that "It concedes that in societies that have had high immigration there are all sorts of different cultures – which will only work together if they are united by a common theme (emphasis mine). I am not sure if the concept of "theme" is useful as a definition of, or a substitute for, a real national identity that is made up, at least in the United States, of institutions that reflect basic cultural premises, a culture that can be usefully described as based on the Protestant Ethic without the religion, and a commitment to liberal democratic political values.

Mr. Cameron further emphasizes that it is "that feeling of belonging in our countries that is the key to achieving true cohesion." In response we might ask what does it mean for immigrants to feel that they belong and what does it take to develop that feeling?

The sense of belonging is not a simple emotion. It is built on some mutuality – best understood as reciprocity. It requires an acceptance of the new immigrant by those whose community he is joining. That means a basic acknowledgement of the legitimacy and equal nationality standing of the new immigrants. It also requires patience with their good-faith efforts to acquire and develop the cultural skills (acculturation) and feelings (attachment) that are part of real membership in the national community.

Assimilation is best measured by a calendar, not a stopwatch.

And it requires an acceptance on the part of new immigrants of the premises of their new circumstances. New legal immigrants have chosen to join an ongoing national community whose premises, institutions, and practices have been basic facts of that community's life. They can only expect, fairly, limited accommodation to their original culture, the culture from which they immigrated. This is not a result of racism or anti-immigrant feelings but rather of the simple fact of weight of accumulated cultural, institutional and political patterns that every country, including the United States, experiences on a day-by-day, year-by-year basis.

The implications of this element of the European critique of multiculturalism for the United States are quite clear. A strong common-ground national identity is very important in helping new immigrants become integrated into the new national community in which they have chosen to live.

Ambivalence, disdain, or indifference to our national identity makes it harder for new immigrants to grasp, much less to understand, just what that community expects of them. It is a recipe for the failure of assimilation.

The question that arises here is: Just what is American national identity?

Next: "What Is American National Identity?"