Our Common Republic?

In the last decade, the United States has admitted nearly eleven million legal immigrants, equating to roughly the combined population of Iowa, Oklahoma, and Oregon. An additional twelve million illegal immigrants—roughly the size of the population of Illinois—entered the country over that same time span. Immigrants account for nearly 14 percent of Americans, which is nearly triple the share fifty years ago. According to Pew research from 2009, adult unauthorized immigrants are disproportionately likely to be poorly educated, and when compared to legal immigrants, undocumented immigrants do not attain markedly higher incomes the longer they reside in the United States.

Concurrent with that significant demographic shift, most public institutions—such as schools and government programs—have abandoned the old “melting pot” idea of American assimilation in favor of multiculturalism. This multiculturalist trend accelerated in the late 1970s, epitomized by President Jimmy Carter’s assertion that “We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.” As Jens Heycke argues in his new book Out of the Melting Pot, Into the Fire: Multiculturalism in the World’s Past and America’s Future, this American conception of multiculturalism posits that “public policies and institutions should recognize and maintain the ethnic boundaries and distinct cultural practices of multiple ethnic groups within a country.” This, notes Heycke, is different from what is sometimes called soft multiculturalism: “the view that the unique contributions of multiple cultures should be valued and appreciated within a society.”

Regardless of what one thinks of America’s shifting conception of itself and how much (or how little) immigrants need to assimilate into our society and culture, it’s undeniable that it is transforming our nation. Thirteen percent of Americans speak Spanish as their first language, and we are the second-largest country (after Mexico) for Spanish speakers. The nation is projected to be majority non-white by mid-century. Grade-school students are increasingly encouraged to celebrate and preserve not their shared American identity, but their non-American cultural identities—Heycke cites Oregon’s 2020 Social Science Standards, which urge every child to “identify the cultural characteristics of my group identity.”

Concurrent to these trends is the multiplication of new racially-based transgressions that occasion grievance by those identifying as the offended parties. Accusations of “cultural appropriation” or “racial cosplay,” the “inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity,” have become a common part of the American news cycle. Many professionals are schooled on “white fragility,” the sin of expressing discomfort and defensiveness when confronted by racial inequality or injustice. And a 2021 New York Times article titled “The Cost of Being an ‘Interchangeable Asian,’” describes (and condemns) non-Asians misidentifying one Asian for another Asian.

It is an interesting juxtaposition: as “persons of color”—an ambiguous term if ever there was one—become ascendant in American society, they are simultaneously being encouraged to adopt (or increase) their shared sense of victimhood. Consider the incoherence and reductionism of the “Asian-American and Pacific Islander” identity and its attendant designation as an aggrieved minority. In regards to the former, this designation ostensibly unites Pakistanis, Koreans, and Samoans—among an incredibly wide diversity of other ethnic groups—who possess dramatically different worldviews, customs and beliefs. The main source of commonality between these disparate groups is that their family lineage spans a geographic region encompassing millions of square miles and about a third of the world’s land mass.

Moreover, Asian-Americans have a higher standard of living than any other demographic group in the United States, (according to Pew). They also, according to a 2018 US Census Bureau study, have the highest median household income, more than 25 percent higher than white Americans. And yet, Asian-Americans, like all other identity groups included in the amorphous category “persons of color,” are encouraged to view themselves as an aggrieved class requiring special protections, and to catechize the ignorant regarding their victimhood.

Where did this self-understanding come from? I can hardly imagine its origin lies in first-generation Asian-Americans—many of whom fled poverty, violent conflict, or persecution—and who realized the American dream perhaps more quickly and successfully than any group of immigrants in U.S. history. A more likely source would be the American institutions who schooled their children, instructing them that whatever their financial and professional success, their racial identity places them in a state of perpetual vulnerability as a minority class. As an extension of that, younger generations of Asian-Americans, like all young Americans, are taught to take offense at the slightest, most inadvertent insults, like confusing you for someone else.

However much we continue to welcome the immigrant, we must encourage his or her assimilation into a dominant, if always changing, American culture.

The proliferation of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) offices across government agencies, universities, and private companies enervates this trend. “By their very profession, the people who staff these organizations are positioned as ethnic opportunists,” Heycke writes. Such offices then have a vested institutional interest in perpetuating, rather than eliminating racial and ethnic victimhood and grievances: “They will forever maintain that there is an institutional racist conspiracy lurking around the corner. If there are no overt incidents of racism or bias, then they will conjure up ‘micro-aggressions’ to be combated.” For the DEI industry’s self-preservation, there can never be a “mission accomplished,” even if all Americans are persuaded that their nation, and many of its citizens, are irredeemably racist, the result of which will be to perpetuate group division and distrust.

It is this type of propaganda that persuades Americans, even successful Asian-Americans, that institutional racism remains a threat to their future success, and even their very person. And who would want to assimilate into a system defined by racist power structures? Celebrity racial grievance academic Ibram X. Kendi categorically labels attempts at assimilation as “racist.” Slate has argued that assimilation is used to “codify special privileges for whites and legitimize abuse toward people of color.” That’s quite a shift from Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that the average black American “knows nothing about Africa. And I think he’s got to face the fact that he is an American, his culture is basically American, and one becomes adjusted to this when he realizes what he is.”

Resistance to assimilation is a trend Heycke identifies through human history: political elites or the ruling class tend to be the strongest advocates for distinguishing and dividing people by ethnicity and race, and the biggest opponents of melting pot integration. Though originally following the “melting pot” model, the leadership of the Roman Empire abandoned that policy beginning in the fourth century, allowing large numbers of barbarian peoples to settle in Roman lands without assimilating into the imperial system. It was those Germanic people groups who would in the fifth century destroy and conquer the Latin-speaking western part of the empire.

Or consider the Aztecs, who far from being a monolithic culture, were actually an alliance of three major people groups who subjugated a diverse number of surrounding people groups speaking about eighty different languages, extracted tribute from them, and made no attempts to assimilate them. Though our popular accounts of the Spanish conquest of Mexico emphasize the military superiority of the Conquistadors, defeating the Aztecs would have been impossible without the assistance of thousands of Mesoamerican warriors who in their hatred of the Aztecs fought alongside the Spanish. At the Battle of Chalco, the Chalcoans and Huexotzincans crushed an Aztec army of twenty thousand before the Spanish even reached the battlefield.

Heycke offers many other fascinating examples to prove his point regarding assimilation, from the Balkans to Rwanda to Sri Lanka. All of them strengthen the argument that the less a society retains a shared sense of identity that transcends racial or cultural markers, the less stable and more vulnerable that society will become. Generations of diverse American immigrants, for example, once embraced the dominant WASP identity and ideals that, despite America’s obviously checkered racial history, seemed ethnically and racially inclusive—so much so that scholar Walter Russell Mead labeled President Barak Obama a WASP. “If the examples in this book teach anything, it is that the solution to past segregation is not even more segregation. The answer to past racial discrimination is not even more racial discrimination,” Heycke writes.

Even if those in favor of tighter immigration restrictions secured serious political victories, the composition of America will continue to dramatically change, given demographic trends that have proven remarkably resilient to government intervention. The question is then what will we teach younger generations of Americans about themselves? Unfortunately, the current trajectory of our national self-identity—manifested in the popularization (and monetization) of the DEI industry—suggests a futured defined by more identity-based tensions and instability.

If we are to avoid that, we’ll need civic lessons that emphasize not our differences—however profound they may be—but our shared identity as Americans who participated in a common republic and common culture, which is different than that of other nations and cultures around the world. However much we continue to welcome the immigrant, we must encourage his or her assimilation into a dominant, if always changing, American culture. Heycke approvingly cites Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play The Melting Pot, “There are no groups. We are all Americans.”