Definition: Concept that individual ethnic groups have a right to exist on their own terms within the larger society while retaining their unique cultural heritages
Significance: As a concept cultural pluralism is an alternative to the “melting pot” view that immigrants should assimilate to American culture by abandoning their own cultures, languages, and other traditions. Cultural pluralists insist that different ethnic groups have enriched the American way of life as immigrants and native-born citizens have learned from one another, thereby broadening their views on art, cuisine, education, history, music, and other aspects of life.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which saw the largest surge of immigrant arrivals in American history, an anti-immigrant backlash took the forms of nativism, xenophobia, and other expressions of prejudice. Criticism of the unfamiliar appearances and behaviors of the newly arrived peoples prompted discriminatory treatment of the new immigrants in education, employment, government programs, housing, and public accommodations. As a result, the advance of industrious and talented immigrants whose efforts could enhance American progress was held back.
In 1914, sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross, an advocate of scientific racism, published The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People. This book contained scathing critiques of immigrant peoples such as Italians and Slavs as genetically inferior, arguing their presence in the United States as a rootless proletariat threatened skilled native-born workers and promoted political corruption. Reviewing that book for the leftist magazine The Nation in 1915, Horace Kallen critiqued assimilationist theory in an article titled “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot.”
Kallen was first and foremost a philosophical pluralist—that is, he believed in the value of differences existing side by side. He opposed orthodoxies as imposing oversimplified straightjackets on the inherent complexity of reality. Philosophical certainty is impossible, according to pluralists, so different theories should be debated and respected rather than having one dominant view overturn another in an endless power struggle among competing narratives or paradigms.
Applying his philosophical views to matters of social reality, Kallen advocated cultural pluralism. He believed that the acceptance of diverse cultures coexisting in the United States strengthened, rather than jeopardized, American solidarity. If one culture insisted on dominating all others, he argued, the result would be continuing disunity and strife.Heasserted that assimilationists not only misrepresented the contributions of immigrant groups but also ignored fundamental American constitutional principles of equality and justice.
More to the point, Kallen interpreted Ross and the assimilationists as members of an elite Anglo- Saxon class that was losing its dominance and fighting to protect its prerogatives by means of an undemocratic and unscholarly discourse. The uniqueness of America, Kallen felt, lay in the many streams of immigrants that had been enriching the country for more than a century. He argued that ethnic groups should be free to retain what is valuable in their own social cultural heritages while accepting a common political culture in the form of democratic principles—representative government under a rule of law that protects the liberties of the individual.
Cultural pluralism has been attacked for justifying cultural separatism—that is, a transformation to a “nation of nations” similar to what is found in Switzerland or a segregated America of ethnically pure residential enclaves. A second critique is that cultural pluralists assume that because ethnic traditions are static they suppress individuality. Third, cultural pluralists are attacked for a belief that ethnic identity is primary and thus more powerful than other identities. Some critics even see Kallen’s concept of cultural pluralism as rooted in Jewish ideology.
Cultural pluralists respond that American cultural pluralism thrives in an integrated, not a segregated, society. They accept cultures as internally dynamic, changing and adapting over time with plenty of room for diversity inside each culture. Cultural attachments are seen as important but not exclusive, as Americans must respect those of different cultures in order to enjoy liberty together. Moreover, Kallen’s argument is entirely philosophical.
Originally, cultural pluralists had much difficulty distinguishing their views from segregationist rhetoric. In contrast with more politically active multiculturalists, they were incoherent in stating how the political system should treat separatists. By the early twenty-first century, the philosophy of cultural pluralism seemed almost irrelevant as many Americans were by then claiming multiple ethnic and racial backgrounds. That very multiplicity, according to some observers, is a reason for a crisis of identity.
See also: Anglo-conformity; Assimilation theories; Ethnic enclaves; Hansen effect; Immigration waves; Intermarriage; Jewish immigrants; Melting pot theory; Multiculturalism; Nativism; Xenophobia.