Multiculturalism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Since the mid-1960’s, multiculturalists have worked to counter tendencies of immigrant groups and minorities to be denigrated. They have succeeded in gaining adoption of on-the-job cultural sensitivity programs and educational curricula presenting positive images of nonmainstream groups. Government agencies have implemented multicultural reforms in response to pressure from minorities to decrease discrimination and prejudice, much of which resulted from ignorance of the contributions and customs of diverse cultural groups in American society.

In July, 1941, as World War II was being waged by ultranationalists in Germany and Japan, an obscure book review in the New York Herald-Tribune advocated “multiculturalism” as an antidote to nationalism. The term reappeared in a Canadian government report on bilingualism in 1965 that recommended that “multiculturalism” replace the “bicultural” policies of Canada that had been granting linguistic equality to English and French.MulticulturalismMulticulturalism[cat]THEORIES;Multiculturalism[03670][cat]ASSIMILATION;Multiculturalism[03670][cat]CULTURE;Multiculturalism[03670]

Civil Rights Movement

Meanwhile, in the United States, the federal [a]Civil Rights Act of 1964Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in employment, government facilities and programs, public accommodations, and Voting;minority rightsvoting, thereby outlawing racial segregation in most areas of public life. In an executive order the following year, Affirmative actionJohnson, Lyndon B.[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;and affirmative action[affirmative action]President Lyndon B. Johnson mandated government contractors to engage in “affirmative action” by hiring qualified members of minority groups previously excluded. Discrimination was also outlawed in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which resulted in a considerable increase in non-European immigrants.

The movement that produced civil rights legislation also pressured American universities to establish ethnic studies programs, on the premise that the historical status of nonmainstream cultures in the United States had been neglected, consistent with a policy of assimilationist Anglo-conformity[Anglo conformity]Anglo-conformity, so the research agenda was to uncover the contributions of diverse minority groups to the United States, document patterns of discrimination, and otherwise enrich American scholarship by focusing on the cultural diversity of the United States. Educational institutions then voluntarily adopted programs of affirmative action, even though they were not required by law to do so.

Because not all employers voluntarily complied with affirmative action and nondiscrimination requirements, members of minority groups felt as frustrated as government officials who monitored that lack of progress. Concrete programs were needed to overcome resistance attributable to stereotypes and other factors. Immigrants with cultural practices that did not conform to the mainstream were particularly disadvantaged. For example, members of minority groups traditionally known for being employed in menial labor had difficulty being hired for white-collar jobs. In addition, federally funded mental health programs serviced few minorities, partly because many members of minorities were recent immigrants from countries in which the concept of mental illness was not understood as a treatable medical condition. To overcome favoritism toward members of the majority group, employers and directors of mental health and other government-funded programs were urged to adopt cultural sensitivity training, which relied heavily on the scholarship of ethnic studies researchers.

Cultural sensitivity training was designed for adults, and it appeared it would be needed as long as children grew up with mistaken and Stereotyping, ethnicstereotypical ideas about ethnic groups based on ignorance. Accordingly, curriculum reform from kindergarten to college was on the education agenda during the 1970’s to ensure that young people would have more respect for minority cultures that would translate into better utilization of government programs and nondiscrimination in employment. In [c]Lau v. NicholsLau v. Nichols (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court ordered schools to assist language minority children, primarily immigrants, through bilingual and English-as-a-second-language programs.

Multiculturalism soon enjoyed many new forms of government support: approval of radio and Television;and multiculturalism[multiculturalism]television stations in minority languages, funding for minority arts and music, financial aid to minority businesses, scholarships for minority students, Voting;minority rightsvoting on ballots in minority languages, and acceptance of Holidays, publicholidays for minorities. The establishment of African American civil rights leader King, Martin Luther, Jr.Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a federal holiday in 1983 is an example of the latter.

Focus on the special needs of underrepresented groups broadened in scope. Women were the first to benefit, as employment discrimination based on gender was outlawed in the [a]Civil Rights Act of 1964;and women[women]Civil Rights Act of 1964. Other forms of discrimination were banned in subsequent years. The term “multicultural” was soon interpreted to encompass respect for people of different ages, physical and mental capabilities, and sexual orientations.

Commercially, multiculturalism has been profitable. From the sale of traditional furniture and items such as “Black Is Beautiful” sweatshirts, marketing campaigns directed at members of different cultural groups has been successful. At the same time, owners of cinemas have converted single-screen theaters into multiplex operations that can offer films to multiple niche markets simultaneously.

Backlash Against Multiculturalism

Perhaps inevitably, some multicultural innovations were badly designed or implemented. However, the general, incremental progress of multiculturalism gradually rankled many people in the mainstream who resented being labeled as “Americentric,” “Eurocentric,” “parochial,” or “prejudiced,” or who otherwise felt that they were being vilified. The main premise of the counterattack was that the United States was basically a product of Western civilization, so any attempt to divert attention from that foundation imperiled national unity and undermined fundamental values. For the critics, multiculturalism had gone too far.

In one of the most multicultural naturalization ceremonies in U.S. history, 14,000 immigrants from 111 different countries were sworn in as American citizens in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in September, 2000.

(Getty Images)

One of the endangered values was said to be respect for competence. Some beneficiaries of Affirmative action;criticisms ofaffirmative action, notably students at leading universities, were told that they had been admitted to the institution merely because of their ethnicity, not because they were qualified. When private businesses were pressured to fill what they perceived as ethnic quotas in their workforce, white male job applicants cried out against “reverse discrimination.” The same was true of many disappointed applicants for entry to prestigious universities.

Whereas Cultural pluralismcultural pluralists view each culture as making unique and valuable contributions to a collectively shared mainstream, multiculturalists were accused of being more concerned with preserving the distinctions among cultures. Accordingly, the aim of Bilingual educationbilingual education morphed from serving as a transition to English-language literacy for immigrants into a permanent track in elementary and secondary education in which the entire educational curriculum might be learned in a language other than English, thereby stunting the ability of immigrants to rise in social mobility. In Hawaii;native peoplesHawaii, for example, residents with Native Hawaiian ancestry were provided opportunities to attend schools in which the initial language of instruction was Hawaiian, with English introduced for the first time in the fourth grade.

Another criticism of multiculturalism was that the teaching of basic American history was being eclipsed by too much attention to minority history. Because fundamental principles of American culture and democracy were treated as an orthodoxy that needed to be challenged, the result, according to critics, was cacophony and confusion in the minds of students, including members of minority groups themselves.

Multiculturalism was said to unleash identity politics and political correctness. Identity politics involved the pursuit of public policies by each ethnic group without cooperating with other ethnic groups, sometimes resulting in advocacy of conflicting solutions and lack of progress for all groups. Political correctness meant that one would be accused of being a racist for making factual statements about group characteristics or for posing hypotheses about differences among various ethnic groups. Multiculturalists responded that such statements created a “hostile environment” for students and workers, producing a chilling effect on what could be said in public, according to their critics.

Philosophically, multiculturalists were attacked for advocating a relativism in which everything is both true and not true, depending on one’s cultural perspective. Social science was questioned as inherently ideological, so college debates regarding differences of opinion on public policy issues were no longer focused on achieving consensus but instead on mobilizing support among minorities to prevail over the traditional mainstream view or vice versa.

Alternatives to Multiculturalism

Both monoculturalism and multiculturalism were eventually challenged by interculturalism. The latter view holds that members of different cultures should learn from one another, rather than have one culture prevail or allow diverse cultures to become separatist. Interculturalists strive to find commonalities and consider differences as subcultures.

Another alternative, polyculturalism, insists that the world’s cultures have been in flux in part because they have influenced one another for centuries, are interrelated, and therefore possess common values that should be stressed. Those who have long said that they are “citizens of the world,” rather than nationalists, now reside under the banner of polyculturalism.

The election of Obama, BarackBarack Obama to the U.S. presidency in 2008 may have opened a new chapter on multiculturalism, as many expect that this first African American president will adopt “postracial” public policies that bring Americans together after decades of “culture wars.” Obama spent the first eighteen years in his life in Indonesia and Hawaii, outside the American mainland, and with relatives on four continents as well as in the mid-Pacific. His values were shaped by multicultural experiences. He also taught American constitutional law with a focus on civil rights. His apparent interculturalist message was that diverse Americans should listen to one another in order to achieve pragmatic solutions to festering problems. Many observers hoped that his message would be translated into action during his presidency.Multiculturalism

Further Reading
  • Bennett, Milton J. Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication. Boston: Intercultural Press, 1998. Develops a methodology for intercultural communication.
  • Bloom, Allan. Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. By the most prominent early opponent of the multiculturalist ethos, which the author compares to the malaise in pre-Hitler Germany. Bloom was concerned that multiculturalists saw all “truth” as relative, while the best-financed entertainers promoted mindless hedonism and narcissism.
  • Haas, Michael, ed. Multicultural Hawai’i: The Fabric of a Multiethnic Society. New York: Garland Press, 1998. Collection of articles on aspects of multiculturalism in Hawaii, ranging from literature and music to education and politics. Contributions describe a form of multiculturalism that developed not from government intervention but from social necessity. Some of the state’s diverse cultural groups were historically bitter rivals and had to learn to live together in close proximity on Hawaii’s small islands.
  • Kivisto, Peter, and Georganne Rundblad, eds. Multiculturalism in the United States: Current Issues, Contemporary Voices. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 2000. Anthology of article presenting nearly fifty diverse views on aspects of multiculturalism.
  • Kymlicka, Will. Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. Written by a Canadian, a classic statement supporting multiculturalism.
  • Okin, Susan M. Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. Focuses on how the preservation of cultural diversity may overshadow or even block the effort to dismantle male dominance in American society by marginalizing women’s rights issues, including the right to an abortion and to avoid the humiliating roles assigned to women in traditional non-Western cultures.
  • Prashad, Vijay. Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001. Classic statement of polyculturalism.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Disunitinig of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. Rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. While accepting cultural pluralism, in which diverse cultures join together in a democratic culture, Schlesinger attacks the “cult of ethnicity” for endangering national unity by focusing on crimes committed by Western civilization on non-Western cultures while ignoring the positive elements of Western heritage.

Affirmative action


Assimilation theories

Civil Rights movement

Cultural pluralism


Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Language issues

Lau v. Nichols


Categories: History