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The end of multiculturalism

The US must be a melting pot – not a salad bowl.

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But immigration looks very different when viewed in cultural terms, particularly with respect to the vast legal and illegal Latino immigration, a million or more people a year, most of them with few skills and little education. To be sure, the US has absorbed large numbers of unskilled and uneducated immigrants in the past, and today the large majority of their descendants are in the cultural mainstream. But the numbers of Latino immigrants and their geographic concentration today leave real doubts about the prospects for acculturation: 70 percent of children in the Los Angeles public schools and 60 percent in the Denver schools are Latino.

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In a letter to me in 1991, the late Mexican-American columnist Richard Estrada captured the essence of the problem:

"The problem in which the current immigration is suffused is, at heart, one of numbers; for when the numbers begin to favor not only the maintenance and replenishment of the immigrants' source culture, but also its overall growth, and in particular growth so large that the numbers not only impede assimilation but go beyond to pose a challenge to the traditional culture of the American nation, then there is a great deal about which to be concerned."

Some recommendations

If multiculturalism is a myth, how do we avoid the woes that inevitably attend the creation of an enduring and vast underclass alienated from the upwardly mobile cultural mainstream? Some policy implications, one for Latin America, the others for the US and Canada, are apparent.

We must calibrate the flow of immigrants into the US to the needs of the economy, mindful that immigration has adversely affected low-income American citizens, disproportionately African-American and Hispanic, as Barbara Jordan stressed as chair of the 1990s Immigration Reform Commission. But the flow must also be calibrated to the country's capacity to assure acculturation of the immigrants.

We must be a melting pot, not a salad bowl. The melting pot, the essence of which is the Anglo-Protestant cultural tradition, is our way of creating the homogeneity that has contributed so much to the trust and mutual identification – and progress – of the Nordic societies.

As with immigration flows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an extensive program of activities designed to facilitate acculturation, including mastery of English, should be mounted. A law declaring English to be the national language would be helpful.

The costs of multiculturalism – in terms of disunity, the clash of classes, and declining trust – are likely to be huge in the long run. All cultures are not equal when it comes to promoting progress, and very few can match Anglo-Protestantism in this respect. We should be promoting acculturation to the national mainstream, not a mythical, utopian multiculturalism. And we should take care that the Anglo-Protestant virtues that have brought us so far do not fall into disrepair, let alone disrepute.

Lawrence E. Harrison directs the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, where he also teaches. This article is adapted from a longer essay in the January-February 2008 issue of "The National Interest."