The End of Multiculturalism

January 2, 2008 Topic: Society Regions: Americas Tags: Multiculturalism

The End of Multiculturalism

Mini Teaser: From its Iraq policy to immigration, the Bush Administration fell victim to multicultural thinking. Until policymakers take culture seriously, we'll continue to make mistakes.

by Author(s): Lawrence E. Harrison

But immigration looks very different when viewed in cultural terms, particularly with respect to the vast legal and illegal Latino immigration, as many as a million or more people a year, most of them with few skills and little education. To be sure, the United States 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.11

The power of culture, for good and for bad, was captured a few years ago by Mexican journalist Mauricio González de la Garza after a visit to California:

Seeing San Diego, one becomes aware of what Mexico could be if it hadn't experienced a demographic explosion and an explosion of corruption, graft, and nepotism, and political, moral, social, and economic degradation.12

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

SO CULTURE needs to be added to the debate on a variety of foreign and domestic policies. It may be too late for Iraq, but migration and development are ongoing issues. And if multiculturalism is a myth, how do we avoid the woes that will 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 United States and Canada, are apparent.

First, Latin American political, intellectual, religious and other leaders should heed the advice of prominent writers like Osvaldo Hurtado and journalists Mariano Grondona and Carlos Alberto Montaner. They must reject the "foreign devils" explanations for Latin America's development shortcomings, for example, "dependency" and anti-capitalist neo-liberalismo. They must instead focus inward on those features of traditional Latin American culture that are obstacles to the consolidation of democracy, social justice and prosperity, among them authoritarianism, elitism, fatalism, absence of long-term focus, a low priority for education, and an emphasis on connections and amiguismo rather than merit. And here, the transformations undergone by Spain and Portugal that have vaulted both into the Western European democratic-capitalist mainstream provide a culturally relevant model for the rest of Latin America-as opposed to regressing toward failed socialist/authoritarian "solutions" of the Hugo Chávez variety.

Second, the flow of immigrants into the United States must be calibrated not only to the needs of the economy-and it bears remembering that new arrivals have particularly affected in negative ways low-income American citizens, disproportionately African-American and Hispanic, as Barbara Jordan stressed as chair of the 1990s Immigration Reform Commission-but also to the capacity of the United States to assure acculturation of the immigrants. We must be a melting pot, not a salad bowl. The melting pot, the essence of which is our 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.

Finally, as with the immigration flows of the late 19th and early twentieth 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 is one measure that would be helpful in this respect. And tasking respected social scientists with periodic assessments of acculturation of the burgeoning Hispanic minority would also provide useful benchmarks.

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. The United States and Canada should be promoting acculturation to the national mainstream, not a mythical, utopian multiculturalism. And they should take care that the Anglo-Protestant virtues that have brought them 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. He is the author of The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself (Oxford University Press, 2006) and author or co-editor of six other books on the role of cultural values in human progress.


1The research undertaken by the Culture Matters Research Project (CMRP) and its conclusions are presented in my overview of the entire project, The Central Liberal Truth. The papers prepared for the CMRP appear in two edited collections: Developing Cultures: Essays on Cultural Change (New York: Routledge, 2006), co-edited by Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan and me; and Developing Cultures: Case Studies (New York: Routledge, 2006), co-edited by Boston University sociologist Peter Berger and me. See also my two contributions to The National Interest-"Culture Matters" (Summer 2000) and "The Culture Club" (Spring 2006)-and the ongoing research of the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School at Tufts University (

2William Easterly, Finance and Development (The World Bank and the IMF), March 1994, pp. 51.

3Co-edited with Samuel Huntington (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

4Take Latin America. In his new book, Las Costumbres de los Ecuatorianos (The Customs of the Ecuadorians), former President of Ecuador Osvaldo Hurtado spotlights traditional Ibero-Catholic culture as the source of Ecuador's problems in constructing a democratic, just, prosperous society. Those cultural obstacles to progress are now much less prominent in Spain and Portugal, both of which find themselves substantially in the Western European cultural mainstream.

5Roger Doyle, "Civic Culture", Scientific American, June 2004, pp. 34.

6See, for example, comments posted at

7Space does not permit a detailed discussion of the findings that have led to this conclusion in this essay; interested readers are encouraged to peruse the sources listed in the first footnote.

8Samuel Huntington, Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), pp. 59.

9Octavio Paz, El Ogro Filantrópico ("The Philanthropic Ogre"), (Mexico City: Joaquín Mortiz, 1979), pp. 55. My translation.

10See Lawrence E. Harrison, "The Culture Club", The National Interest, No. 83 (Spring 2006).

11Those who profess not to be concerned about the acculturation of Latinos because of the successful acculturation of immigrants from similar cultures-Italians are often cited-should ponder the numbers: Americans of Italian antecedence account for about 6 percent of the total population. The Census Bureau projects a Latino population proportionally four times more numerous in the year 2050. In a front-page story on November 17, 2007, The New York Times noted that two Hispanic surnames-García and Rodríguez-were among the ten most common American surnames, the first time in history that a surname not of Anglo origin appeared in the top ten.

12Cited in Lawrence E. Harrison, The Pan-American Dream (New York: Basic Books, 1997), pp. 173.

Essay Types: Essay