Beyond the Melting Pot : In America, blending in was once the ideal. But since society has grown more diverse, some say we must learn to respect our differences.


Back in what some think were the good old days, Henry Ford ran his company’s English Melting Pot School. Graduation was a public spectacle in which the auto maker’s foreign-born employees, dressed in Old World costumes and carrying signs noting their birthplace, marched into a large, kettle-shaped prop labeled “Melting Pot.” Moments later, they would emerge dressed in neat business suits and waving small American flags.

America, circa 1916.

America, circa 1991:

Jerry Yoshitomi, director of the Japanese-American Community Center, Stanford-educated and married to an Irish-Catholic American, recalled a recent New Year’s Day in Los Angeles with their children.

“We woke up in the morning and went to Mass at St. Brigid’s (in Los Angeles), which has a black gospel choir . . .. Before or after, we had coffee and doughnuts somewhere. Then we came (to the center) for the Japanese Oshogatsu New Year’s program and saw Buddhist archers shoot arrows to ward off evil spirits for the year. Then we ate traditional Japanese rice cakes as part of the New Year’s service and listened to a young Japanese-American storyteller. . . . On the way home, we stopped in Chinatown for a lunch at King Taco.”

If you think what Yoshitomi described is another example of the melting pot, think again. Many Americans are.

Blending in was once considered the ideal. But as the racial and ethnic nature of the nation has changed, so has that ideal.


Throughout the nation, and especially in California, multiculturalism --the concept of looking at the world through the eyes of more than one culture--is the new end-of-the-millennium buzzword.

The notion of the melting pot has seen “an astonishing repudiation,” said historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the Wall Street Journal last year. “The contemporary ideal is not assimilation but ethnicity. We used to say e pluribus unum. Now we glorify pluribus and belittle unum. The melting pot yields to the Tower of Babel.”

We have heard about the demographic future--seen it in Los Angeles where 90 foreign languages are spoken in the public schools--but no one is sure how to define it.

Some say we should call it multiculturalism, or cultural pluralism--the politically correct term on many college campuses. Or is it a salad? A mosaic? A patchwork quilt? Or is it possible to hold onto the beloved melting pot and just admit there are new ingredients in the stew?

The questions over how we define ourselves are triggered by population shifts that will lead us to what demographers say will be the new majority in 21st-Century America: people of color.

A Time magazine article last year proclaimed: “By 2056, when someone born today will be 66 years old, the ‘average’ U.S. resident will trace his or her descent to Africa, Asia, the Hispanic world, the Pacific Islands, Arabia--almost anywhere but white Europe.”

This already is a reality in Southern California, where ethnic and racial “minorities” compose the majority.

As 1991 begins, interpretations of multiculturalism versus the melting pot are contentious and contradictory, especially among scholars on college campuses.

“Multiculturalism? I don’t use it in the sense it’s used today,” said a leery Shelby Steele, author of a widely touted book about race in America, “The Content of Our Character.” “I think it’s used today as a power term.

“Behind it, you usually have people lined up demanding things: separate black studies, Asian studies, women’s studies. They are usually making demands on the system and the focus is on whatever their power needs are, rather than any exposition of the culture,” said Steele, an English professor at San Jose State University.

However, sociologist Margaret L. Andersen is among those urging the new multicultural century to “come on down.” Multicultural studies “have encouraged us to look at traditionally excluded cultures and study them on their own terms rather than seeing them through the eyes of the dominant class,” said the associate provost for instruction at the University of Delaware in Newark.

But the “spirit of multiculturalism” is not separatist, Andersen said. “It is to enable people to see in plural ways, so that they are not seeing through the lens of any single culture, but understanding the relationships of cultures to each other. . . .”

What must yield, said literary critic and historian Henry Louis Gates, is the “antebellum aesthetic position, where men were men, and men were white, when scholar-critics were white men, and when women and persons of color were voiceless, faceless servants and laborers, pouring tea and filling brandy snifters in the boardrooms of old boys’ clubs.”

It means having “a double consciousness,” said George Spindler, professor emeritus of anthropology at Stanford University. It means, in everyday terms, not having to live through this seemingly surreal but true and recent L.A. experience:

“Well now,” said the blond nurse, smiling at the tense woman on the doctor’s examining table. “Don’t worry if you bleed too much. I’ll give you some of my blood,” she offered, then gently stroked the black woman’s arm. “But you know what they say about getting one drop of black blood,” she began, then spun into, “One drop makes you black. I heard that all my life growing up in New Orleans. One drop does it to you, that’s what I heard. . . .”

The melting pot has its defenders.

“I subscribe to the notion of the melting pot,” said Karen Klein, a professor of English literature at Brandeis University and the director of a Ford Foundation-funded project to diversify the university’s curriculum. It is one of 19 such projects nationwide funded by the foundation.

“There is a certain homogenous culture in the U.S. that is best exemplified by something like motels"--the notion that if you’ve seen one Howard Johnson’s, you’ve seen them all. “But the melting pot concept has never meant that we give up our sense of pluralistic identity,” she said.

But isn’t that exactly what the concept represents?

“Yes,” she said, “but I am trying to redefine it.”

Pot salvagers seek to minimize what Harvard University professor Werner Sollors acknowledged is “sinister dominance.” But there is a flip side to the smelting notion, said Sollors, an expert on Afro-American literature and ethnic images in American literature as well as the author of “Beyond Ethnicity"--which provided the Ford Motor Co. Melting Pot School anecdote.

“What I like about the melting pot better than those other terms is the process that is implicit in it"--a culture constantly in change:

“Japanese technology is sold by Hasidic Jews on 47th Street to imaginative artists who . . . living in Harlem or Brooklyn use this technology to create rap,” which becomes a national music that is exported.

So far, most of the national debate about multiculturalism has occurred on college campuses, but in California, the ideology of multiculturalism resonates far beyond the classroom.

Among the questions being raised:

* How will the race or ethnicity of the new majority influence the fundamental character of American society?

* Who will hold political, social as well as cultural power in an ethnically transformed America?

* Do we need a new social lexicon to define the changed and changing social landscape?

* What does the state’s growing multiracial population, and its demands for official recognition on the U.S. Census, suggest about the nature of ethnic and racial identity in America?

* What will be the nature of relations among people of color, the emerging majority?

* What are the hopes and fears of the Anglo population in this changing environment?

In asking these questions and talking about them, “Californians are 75% ahead of almost anybody in the country, until you get to some of the metropolitan centers of the East Coast,” said Stanford’s Spindler, who with his wife, Louise, wrote “The American Cultural Dialogue and Its Transmission.”

These questions are new, but the fundamental issues have been central to American life for more than 200 years. Independence, freedom, conformity, success, community, optimism, cynicism, idealism, materialism, technology, nature and work have been the pivotal issues in the nation’s cultural dialogue, the Spindlers conclude in their book.

“The balancing of assimilation and preservation of identity is constant and full of conflict,” they write.

Those arguing against pluralism have to recognize the need to expand America’s political, economic and social base with new blood, new ideas, new cultural styles.

However, no nation can survive if it is truly pluralistic.

“Large groups of people with really separate identities and languages . . . wouldn’t be a nation,” Spindler said. “The fact that the Soviet Union is breaking up right now is a case in point.”

Said Spindler: “I have real questions as to whether we are going to survive as a society, because it is not just a matter of ethnic combat. It is combat between pro-lifers and pro-choicers, between environmentalists and exploiters and developers and so on. There isn’t an area of American life where there isn’t a polarized opposition.”

That’s why the term multiculturalism does not accurately describe the complex dynamics of current American society, sociologist Andersen said. Multiculturalism is really about “culture and the intersection of culture with social power.” But the term multiculturalism obscures the issue of power, she said.

Power implies access to economic, political and social resources, Andersen said. “By social resources I mean how people are perceived, how they are valued, what significance their culture is seen as having.”

Linda Wong, executive director of California Tomorrow, a research and advocacy organization agreed: “We need a new social lexicon to describe the changing dynamics of American society.”

In trying to get a better understanding of what multiculturalism means and how the term evolved, Wong said she looked at affirmative action, diversity and cultural pluralism by turning to the civil rights movement.

“Clearly, that was the most coherent social movement to bring issues of race, ethnicity and cultural pluralism to the forefront of American life,” she said. Laws were enacted “requiring equal opportunity and equal access for disenfranchised peoples in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age and religion.”

“We (tried to) eliminate differences based on gender, race or ethnicity,” said Wong, a former practicing attorney. The philosophy then was “colorblindness.”

But did colorblindness lead to equal opportunity, equal access? It seldom did, she said. Consequently, affirmative-action policies were developed and goals and timetables were created.

“And what we found,” said Wong--even in cases where benchmarks were reached--"was that we could not keep the women, we could not keep the blacks or the Latinos hired under those affirmative-action programs.”

Why? Because whether it was in the private or public sector “they had to accommodate themselves to a dominant culture"--Euro-Americans in general and Anglo, middle-class males in particular--"with its own set of values and conduct deemed to be acceptable for success.”

Women, blacks, Latinos and Asians couldn’t accommodate themselves to this environment and found they were hitting the proverbial glass ceiling.

“Many times, they found that their values, their conduct, their behavior was misinterpreted by those belonging to the dominant culture in those organizational settings. So they left (the organization),” she said.

Increasingly, “as we move into this third generation of understanding, people prefer to use the term diversity ,” Wong said. It doesn’t automatically conjure associations with affirmative action, she pointed out.

And it seems less loaded than multiculturalism, which in 1990 buzzed 638 times through the pages of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, “melting pot” appeared 307 times, and “cultural pluralism” finished with 13 in the race to define the nature of America’s increasingly diverse population.

Whichever word one chooses, “people are just coming to grips” with what they mean, Wong said. Many corporations are training managers to work with different styles of communication and approaches to problem-solving. “This kind of diversity unleashes the creative, entrepreneurial potential that lies in gender-, culture- or socially based differences,” Wong said.

While corporations and schools in California have begun to embrace this concept of diversity, “it has not taken hold in other public institutions,” said Wong, who says it will take more than moral persuasion to make it work.

“I hate to use this analogy, but it is an accurate one,” Wong said. “California--eventually the nation, if the demographic predictions are correct--is a lifeboat. If the boat is springing leaks because of inadequate and poor quality education, because of deepening poverty . . . the people who are sitting in the boat are going to figure out some way of plugging those leaks and working together if they value their lives. “

But no one should be misled by the “browning of America, " as some have labeled the demographic shifts in progress. It doesn’t signal a change in the power structure.

Education equals participation and success, said George Spindler. “It’s a simple equation. And if whites continue to have the best, the longest . . . the most professional kinds of educational experience,” they are going to stay in control.

But, Spindler added: “If you have a large mass of blacks or Latinos who are educated, or even a smaller group who are superiorly educated, eventually this inequality is going to break down. But for most groups, it takes perhaps three generations to attain that competitive socioeconomic status.”

Potentially the most significant phenomenon in the next decadeswill be the emergence of the multiracial population. In the United States, interracial marriages tripled from 310,000 in 1970 to 956,000 in 1988. An estimated 1 to 2 million children have been born to interracial couples since about 1970, according to an expert on multiracial children. And early reports show an increase in the number of people who called themselves “multiracial” or “biracial” on the 1990 census, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The discussion generated by this new multiethnic generation is going to stimulate a decades-long debate--one that may force Americans to confront the myths that surround race and ethnicity in the United States.

What the coming multicultural, polyethnic, pluralistic--unarguably diverse--America will be no one knows for certain. There are no models anywhere for what is happening here. America is the experiment and California is the first on-line lab.

ON MONDAY In Part II of “Beyond the Melting Pot”: Multiculturalism is more than a buzzword at a Mid-Wilshire school where children are learning reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and the fourth “R"--racial tolerance. Also: Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles discover that working together in the political and economic arenas has become a necessity in this era of changing demographics.