Is American melting pot now a multiracial stew?

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Arnold R. Weber asks good questions. The other day, during a conversation in the unpretentious second-floor office he occupies as president of Northwestern University, he posed a corker. ``How do you manage a truly multiracial society?'' he said simply.

For Dr. Weber, a labor economist who once served as an assistant secretary of labor in the Nixon administration, that question tops the list of major issues facing America today.

``It doesn't matter,'' he explains, ``what kind of laws we pass to control immigration. All you have to do is look at the demographics.'' When you do, he says, you see that the United States is increasingly composed of separate, unassimilated racial groups.

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The problem Weber foresees is that the ``melting pot'' will become ``more of a stew than a soup'' - containing, he says, ``a lot of glutinous residuals'' that never quite get blended together.

The ``melting pot,'' of course, was a term coined during earlier waves of immigration to America. It was meant to suggest the way in which the world's disparate cultures would naturally fuse into a single American ethos. It was a comforting metaphor, suggesting that limitless amounts of pluribus (in the words of the nation's motto) would ultimately be forged into unum.

During those years, however, the nation was essentially populated by the descendants of white Northern Europeans. Other races were represented, to be sure - known (as they are today) by the arithmetically correct term ``minorities.'' The nation had plenty of racial variety. But it was not, in Weber's phrase, ``truly multiracial.''

So what's changed? The arithmetic. Only 20 percent of the growth in the labor force between now and the year 2000, says Weber, will come from white males. Women will account for some of the rest. But a large part of it will come from minorities.

And that brings us back to the terms of Weber's opening question.

When should a society cease to be described as a mix of ``majority'' and ``minority'' races, and instead be considered ``truly multiracial''? And how is such a society to be managed?

For America, those are brand new questions: The nation, quite simply, has never before been in this circumstance. Weber doesn't claim to have answers. Instead, he spins off further questions.

``Will the American experience which took place over the prior two centuries - and basically ended in the National Origins Act in 1924 - provide useful guides for dealing with the changes that are associated now with the Haitians, the Koreans, the massive movement of Hispanics?'' he asks.

``What does [present-day immigration] mean in terms of schools? What does it mean in terms of the workplace? What does it mean in terms of the way we live?''

Will we have several official languages? ``Are we going to end up,'' he quips, ``with 42 holidays''? - honoring the various feast days of dozens of separate subcultures?

Of one thing Weber is sure: An America made up of independent subcultures will be profoundly different from the America of the past. ``It's got to have more effect than simply expanding the available cuisine for yuppies,'' he notes wryly.

The ultimate question, he says, is ``how to permit the richness and degree of diversity associated with ethnic cultures while at the same time trying to understand those elements that hold us all together as a people.''

Courageous questions? Indeed they are. Some don't dare raise them for fear of being branded racist. Others raise them in inflammatory ways. Weber, to his credit, coolly cuts through to the heart of the matter. We are rapidly creating, in the United States, a truly multiracial society. The question is not whether to resist it or fight to promote it. The question for the future is how to manage it. A Monday column

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