As our van careened around a corner in the rugged Dinaric Alps, the driver gestured toward some people by the roadside:
They are all Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims], just like me. Now, count to ten: one, two, three . . . You see, in that short time, we are in a Serb area. Those people are Serbs. They speak the same language as us and the Croats; we have the same DNA. But they tried to kill us all.
He shook his head: “Only in my country.” He described what happened in 1995: men and boys, including some of his own relatives, were shot and bulldozed into mass graves; young girls were raped in front of their families; thousands were burned alive or tortured to death in concentration camps. “Only in my country,” he repeated.
Not wanting to question the uniqueness of his country’s tragedies, I nodded and remained silent. But I thought about how Bosnia was only one of many multiethnic societies around the world that have suffered similar tragedies. I thought of a woman I met in Rwanda. As a young girl, she went to fetch milk from a nearby village. When she returned, she found her extended family—nineteen people in all—hacked to death with machetes just because they were Tutsis. And I thought of a Sri Lankan pogrom survivor I interviewed. His family managed to slip away from the murderous mobs, while other Tamils nearby were dragged from a bus, dismembered, and disemboweled with broken bottles as bystanders clapped and danced.
Multiethnic societies have a range of possible outcomes, with extreme violence being a tragically frequent one. My Bosniak driver believed the ethnic conflict in his country was horrific and exceptional, but he was only partly right: it was horrific—but utterly unexceptional. Collectively, ethnic conflicts around the world, from Bosnia to Sri Lanka, have killed more than ten million people since World War II.
Many Americans reflexively tune out news of these conflicts. In the words of one satirist, it’s just the “unspellables” killing the “unpronounceables”—peoples too distant or inexplicable to pay attention to. But as Americans, we need to pay attention, not just for the sake of the millions around the world suffering from ethnic division, but for our own sake. We must deepen our understanding of what it takes for diverse ethnic groups to get along and share a country, for America is rapidly becoming vastly more multiethnic.
In the last decade alone, America admitted nearly eleven million legal immigrants, roughly the combined population of Iowa, Oklahoma, and Oregon. Illegal immigrants may account for an additional, Illinois-sized population of twelve million. The current migrant wave will change America’s ethnic composition far more profoundly than previous waves. In the big influx at the turn of the twentieth century, non-European immigrants accounted for only 3 percent of the total; today, they account for over 90 percent.
[Figure P.1. Immigrant population of the United States (millions).]
The United States is unlikely to devolve into another Bosnia or Rwanda overnight. However, the history of other multiethnic countries is instructive: ethnic tension can degenerate into ethnic strife, violence, or outright genocide with ferocious speed. At the end of World War II, Sri Lanka was celebrated as a land of ethnic harmony and rosy prospects. A few years later, divisive affirmative action policies sparked a violent conflict that lasted over forty years, killing hundreds of thousands and condemning a once-prosperous island to poverty. Although the United States might not be on quite the same trajectory, that is no cause for insouciance. Group conflict and ethnically motivated attacks have mounted precipitously in recent years. While most Americans conceive of ethnic conflict in white-black terms, it has become increasingly multilateral, involving other groups. The negative consequences of ethnic division also go beyond overt hate crimes and violence. As the social statistics in this book show, ethnically divided societies that simmer in communal tension suffer dire social and economic costs even when that tension is nonviolent.
While the number of immigrants has soared and ethnic tensions have risen, the philosophy for integrating diverse groups into American society has shifted. For most of US history, the “melting pot” was the prevailing ideal, even if it was imperfectly followed much of the time. Beginning in the 1970s, some mainstream leaders suggested abandoning the melting pot and the goal of a shared national identity. This thinking gained popularity while its focus evolved from tolerating or appreciating the cultural differences and distinctions of diverse ethnic groups to actively fostering and promoting them. The underlying philosophy, known as multiculturalism, also promoted programs and institutions that distinguish individuals based on inherited characteristics, such as race and ethnic origins, and grant preferences to them on that basis.
Although America’s swing from a melting pot to a multicultural model has been vigorously debated, uninformed American exceptionalism has prevailed in this debate. Like my Bosniak van driver, many Americans think their country’s challenges are unique. They are oblivious to the fact that countless other societies in history and around the world have grappled with managing diverse ethnicities. For example, Time magazine’s special issue on American multiculturalism was subtitled: “How Immigrants Are Shaping the World’s First Multicultural Society.” Apparently, Time’s writers were unaware of the existence of the Roman, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires, as well as a long succession of other multicultural societies that punctuate fifty centuries of history all the way back to predynastic Egypt. This myopia is ironic in the case of multiculturalism’s proponents: while they emphasize celebrating other cultures from around the world, they manifest stunning ignorance of these cultures’ histories.
Thus, as the United States has veered from melting pot to multiculturalism, there has been little serious discussion about how similar course changes have worked out in other countries. The reality is that both the melting pot and multiculturalist models have been tried many times in history. In some cases, societies have shifted from one to the other. It’s worth examining how it has worked out for them; perhaps we can distill some useful lessons from their experiences. That is what this book endeavors to accomplish.
We will begin with a brief introduction to the melting pot concept. Then we will survey examples of societies that have adopted the melting pot or multicultural models. Finally, we will analyze cross-national statistical data to evaluate the social and economic consequences of multiculturalism.
The term “multiculturalism” has acquired such a variety of meanings—many of them conflicting—that any coherent discussion of it demands that it be formally defined. For the discussion in this book, multiculturalism is defined as the doctrine that public policies and institutions should recognize and maintain the ethnic boundaries and distinct cultural practices of multiple ethnic groups within a country; it supports group preferences to achieve diversity or to address past injustices or current disparities.
This sense of multiculturalism overlaps with what some scholars have called hard multiculturalism or multicultural particularism—the belief that a shared identity is either impossible or undesirable; in many ways, it is the opposite of the melting pot ideal. It is important not to confuse this sense of multiculturalism with what is sometimes called soft multiculturalism—the view that the unique contributions of multiple cultures should be valued and appreciated within a society. Soft multiculturalism is a form of pluralism that is not only consistent with the melting pot ideal but instrumental to it.