Should immigration require assimilation?

Distinguishing between the political and cultural spheres of the American identity, however, did not address the question of whether the United States should have a common political culture, meaning the values, attitudes, and beliefs that shape the nation’s approach to politics. Issues such as minority rights, civil liberties, the role of the state, and the place of religion in public life were largely unresolved. What, for example, was the significance of the national motto, E pluribus unum, which is usually translated as “Out of many, one”? One of the most provocative offerings about American identity came from the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who claimed that a “cult of ethnicity has arisen among non-Anglo whites and among nonwhite minorities” and that it was endangering a distinctive American identity. “It belittles unum and glorifies pluribus,” he wrote in his book The Disuniting of America. He detected a slackening commitment to America’s unique goal, which he said “was not to preserve old cultures, but to forge a new American culture.”

Schlesinger’s critics countered that his “unum” was simply a white Anglo-Saxon construct reflective of an earlier, less diverse America, and that it could not possibly bind all Americans in the post-1965 period, whether laudable or not. “A nation of more than 130 cultural groups cannot hope to have all of them Anglo-Saxonized,” wrote Molefi Kete Asante in his book The Painful Demise of Eurocentrism. Asante, a professor of African American Studies at Temple University, argued that Schlesinger and others who wrote critically of multiculturalism were not only out of touch with the contemporary U.S. reality but were actually advocating a vision that would divide Americans, not bring them together. “Since the American idea is not a static but a dynamic one,” Asante said, “we must constantly reinvent ourselves in the light of our diverse experiences. One reason this nation works the way it does is our diversity. Try to make Africans and Asians copies of Europeans … and you will force the disunity Schlesinger fears.”

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