The Thorns and Roses of Multiculturalism

Vincent N. Parrillo: The Thorns and Roses of Multiculturalism

This is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Diversity in America, 4th ed., by Vincent N. Parrillo (Paradigm Publishers, 2013). All rights reserved.

. . . Roses seem a particularly apt analogy in any discussion about multiculturalism. Both require warmth and nurturing to bloom fully. The stronger their roots, the more they thrive. A variety of species is common to both, yet universal treatment gives vibrancy to all. Both also contain beauty and danger. Focusing only on the rose when reaching for it usually brings flesh into painful contact with a thorn; focusing narrowly on racial or cultural differences often causes the pain of isolation or conflict.

Some proponents of multiculturalism (the separatists) want only to focus on one variety of "rose" among many, while other advocates (the inclusionists) stress the commonality in origin that so many kinds of "roses" share. The third group of multiculturalists (the integrative pluralists) emphasize the overall beauty of "roses" of different colors and varieties sharing the same "garden." The critics of multiculturalism, however, seem only to see its "thorns." . . .


The "thorns" of multiculturalism are primarily those of immigration, language, culture, and race. Other smaller ones could undoubtedly be named, but these are the most important, for it is in them that some Americans find the threat to American society.The "Immigrant Thorns"

Make no mistake about it. Continuing high immigration fuels the debate over multiculturalism, for this subject is about much more than simply preserving one's heritage. It is about power struggles among groups. It is about economics, jobs, social welfare, and tax dollars. Concern over large numbers of immigrants arriving each year is likely to instill antipathy in many native-born white and black Americans toward any manifestation of foreign origins through multicultural policies or programs. With over 17 million immigrants arriving since 1971, a sizable proportion of the American public thinks there are too many immigrants in the country. Such anti-immigration sentiments have been heard in the land almost continually since large numbers of Irish Catholics began entering the United States in the early nineteenth century.

Public opinion polls conducted by the Roper Center in 1981 and 1982 found two-thirds of all Americans favored a decrease in immigration. That heavy anti-immigration response should be understood in the context of the 1980-82 recession and the influx of over 200,000 Vietnamese "boat people" and 125,000 Cuban "Marielitos" within this two-year period. A 1992 Business Week/Harris Poll revealed 68 percent of all respondents saying the present immigration is bad for the country. Forty-seven percent of Blacks and 62 percent of non-Blacks wanted fewer immigrants to come. In the same year a poll of almost 3,000 Americans of Cuban, Mexican, and Puerto Rican descent, conducted by the Latino National Political Survey, found two-thirds agreeing that there were too many immigrants in the United States. Obviously, anti- immigration sentiments are not confined to any one group.

One multi-generational pattern about public response to immigration needs mentioning. Contemporary immigrants of any time period have almost always received negative evaluations by most native-born Americans, many themselves descendants of earlier immigrants once castigated by other native-born Americans. With the passage of time, people view these now "old" immigrant groups as making positive contributions to the cultural and socioeconomic well-being of society, as they transfer their negative perceptions to new immigrant groups.

Numerous anti-immigration organizations have emerged to lobby for restrictive laws to curtail immigration. The largest of these are the American Immigration Control Foundation (AICF), the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Although these and other anti-immigrant groups vary somewhat in the intensity of their views, they all see the present immigration as a threat to the United States. Their opposition rests upon their belief that immigrants either take jobs away from Americans, often from poor people who are forced onto welfare, or else the immigrants go on welfare themselves. Either way, these groups insist, the immigrants drive up social welfare costs. Other arguments include the assertion that immigrants strain law enforcement resources, contribute to an overpopulation problem through their higher birth rates, and deplete our natural resources. . .

If multiculturalism means favoring an immigration that places a financial hardship on the American worker and taxpayer, then many Americans oppose multiculturalism. The "Language Thorns"

Foreigners speaking a language other than English has been a thorn in the side of many Americans for over two hundred years. In 1750, Benjamin Franklin expressed concern about the prevalence of the German language in Pennsylvania, and George Washington wrote to John Adams in 1798 against encouraging immigration because, among other things, the new arrivals "retain the language. . .which they bring with them." No doubt these men spoke not only for themselves, but for a great many of their contemporaries as well.

Such complaints have reverberated down through the generations to the present day. They are now also louder and more numerous, given current migration trends. Two out of every three immigrants speak Spanish and, as a result, over 18 million Americans five years old and over speak Spanish. Another five million speak an Asian or Pacific Island language. Education officials expect over five million children speaking more than 150 languages to have entered the nation's public schools by the time this decade ends.

With the prevalence of so many non-English-speaking youngsters and adults, Americans have done more than complain. For example, Japanese-American S.I. Hayakawa, a former U.S. Senator from California and former president of San Francisco State University, founded U.S. English, an organization dedicated to making English the nation's official language, eliminating or reducing bilingual education programs, and abolishing bilingual ballots, government documents, and road signs.

English-only laws were introduced in dozens of state legislatures in the late 1980s. Although thirteen states had rejected English-only legislative proposals by 1990, eighteen states passed such legislation. Other states were considering similar proposals until a federal judge in 1990 struck down Arizona's state constitutional amendment, ruling that it violated the First Amendment. Advocates of language pluralism expect the judicial ruling to serve as the precedent for other state challenges, but the controversy over language usage continues.

Many Americans are impatient with those unable to speak English. Their contention is that anyone living in this country should speak its language. Believing that our schools provide the "heat" for the melting pot, they are particularly irked about bilingual education programs.

Critics see bilingual programs as counterproductive because they reduce assimilation and cohesiveness in American society, while simultaneously isolating ethnic groups from one another. It is here that opponents use the terms "ethnic tribalism" and "classrooms of Babel" to argue that bilingual education fosters separation instead of cultural unity. When LULAC leaders and others call for language and cultural maintenance programs as public expense, the monolingual adherents see red.

If multiculturalism means English proficiency is not a priority, then many Americans oppose multiculturalism.The "Cultural Thorns"

Almost 80,000 new immigrants -- about 85 percent of them Asian or Hispanic --now arrive each month in the United States. Ethnic resiliency in language, ingroup solidarity, and subcultural patterns is both sustained and enhanced by the steadily increasing size of each new immigrant group.

Without this constant infusion of newcomers, the twin processes of ethnogenesis and acculturation would inexorably lessen each group's cultural isolation. Group members would gradually learn to speak English and to function more fully within the larger society. Even if such factors as limited education, poor job skills, and discrimination were present to prevent economic mainstreaming, greater cultural fusion would most likely occur over time.

Instead we have large-scale immigration from Asian and Latin American countries revitalizing ethnic subcommunities with their language usage and cultural patterns. Differences in physical appearance, nonwestern traditions and religious faiths -- together with the prevalence of languages other than English, especially Spanish -- suggest to some Americans that unless immigration is significantly curtailed, American culture and society are in danger of fragmenting.

What makes the cultural thorns even sharper is the new ethnic presence in our suburbs. Once the almost exclusive sanctuary of homogenized Americans, many suburbs are now the residential areas of choice for tens of thousands of first- generation Americans of non-European origin, who are mostly Asian. Well-educated business and professional persons, seeking out desirable communities with excellent school systems, have brought racial and ethnic diversity to towns unaccustomed to such a multiethnic mix, sometimes erecting a mosque or Sikh temple with its unique architecture in contrast to other structures in the community.

It is not simply the presence of visibly distinct newcomers that creates tensions. These first-generation Americans live in the community but they are not of it, for they seldom interact with neighbors. Instead they maintain an interactional network within their own group scattered throughout the area. This informal social patterning is reminiscent of other immigrants who have lived in recognized territorial subcommunities but, because these middle-class suburban ethnics live among homogenized Americans, their lack of involvement in community life encourages social distance and grates on others' sensibilities.

Besides a normal first-generation immigrant preference to associate with one's own people, some pragmatic elements deter suburban ethnic social interactions. Often the wife, filling the traditional gender role as keeper of home and hearth, has limited command of English and feels insecure about conversing with neighbors. The husband is usually at work for long hours and has little free time, except to spend with the family.

Joining social organizations is a strong American orientation, as noted by Tocqueville and many others. Possessing neither time nor yet fully acculturated, few Asian Americans get involved in such typical suburban activities as parent-teacher organizations, team sports coaching, or scouting leadership. In time this will probably change, but the present non-involvement maintains Asian social distance from other Americans in their local communities.

In response, suburbanites often view the Asians as not giving, only taking from the community. This reaction is especially acute when Asian American children, reflecting the high motivation and goal achievement instilled in them by their parents, appear overrepresented in garnering awards and recognition in scholarships and music.

If multiculturalism means maintenance of an alien culture and lessening community cohesiveness, then most Americans oppose multiculturalism.The "Racial Thorns"

Except for extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP), and neo-Nazis, few talk openly of race in their opposition to multiculturalism. Nevertheless, race is an important component of the multiculturalism debate.

The United States may be a less racist country than in earlier years if civil rights legislation, public opinion polls, and the social indicators of education, occupation, income, and elected officials serve as a barometer. Yet racism still exists, perhaps less intensely in some areas than others, but it remains nonetheless. It can be found in numerous conversations, avoidance responses, subtle acts of discrimination, and a myriad of interaction patterns.

Institutional racism--the "established laws, customs, and practices which systematically reflect and produce racial inequities in American society"--is a more significant factor than individuals committing overt racist actions, however. Biases remain built into the social structure, causing many individuals unknowingly to act without deliberate intent to hinder the advancement of nonwhites.

Although the Commission on Civil Rights in 1981 identified areas where affirmative action could take aim at institutional racism (job seniority rules, nepotism-based recruitment or union membership, bank credit practices, culturally biased job performance tests), some of these remain problem areas. De facto housing segregation and disparities in school funding for urban and suburban schools are other examples of the multi-generational continuation of a subtle, structural racist practice. The pervasiveness of institutional racism remains both an obstacle in the path of upward mobility to many racial minority group members and a basic impediment to better interracial relations.

As successful as this country has been in assimilating national minorities, it has been far less successful in assimilating racial minorities. African and Native Americans are still not fully integrated as mainstream Americans. Because we have never fully resolved our centuries-old twin problems of race relations and racial integration, the growing presence of people of color from Third World countries exacerbates the matter. . . .

Racial tensions have heightened in some areas because of the influx of racially distinct, "clannish" strangers into neighborhoods unaccustomed to their presence. When this has occurred in previously homogeneous middle-class suburbs, the reactions may be more subtle but the resentment is real and finds expression in avoidance responses, zoning regulations, and verbal complaints within one's circle of family, friends, and neighbors.

If multiculturalism means an increased racial presence and/or increased racial power that puts their own racial group to any disadvantage, then most Americans oppose multiculturalism.


Roses bud, bloom, and fade away. Rosebuds give us the promise of new beauty about to arrive, and when the flowers are in full bloom, their contribution of beauty to our lives has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Gradually, though, the roses fade and their petals gracefully fall to the ground, covering the dark earth with their pastel colors. With modest pruning, the gardener can coax other roses to appear and repeat the process again and again.

Multiculturalism is not a rose that will fade away in the United States, which has always been a land of diversity and destination for millions of immigrants. However, some "blooms" of ethnicity do fade away as, for example, we witness what Richard Alba calls "the twilight of ethnicity" among European Americans. Moreover, what appears to some people as thorns, may actually be roses instead. Let's extend our metaphor of roses onto the four types of thorns just discussed.The "Immigrant Roses"

If a nation's strength lies in its people, then America's strength clearly lies in the diversity of its people. Immigrants from all over the world have come here and, in one way or another, each group has played some role in the nation's evolution into its present superpower status. . . .

Combatting negative stereotyping, societal ostracism, and fear about their growing size, each immigrant group then and now has worked hard to survive and put down roots. Viewed as a threat, each has proven to be an asset. While most might accept that pronouncement about the first two waves of immigration, how true is it of the current immigration? One answer can be found in a 1992 Business Week report that, in the 1980s, the economic benefits of immigrants to the nation far outstripped their costs; some 11 million working immigrants earned over $240 billion a year, paying more than $90 billion in taxes, far more than the estimated $5 billion immigrants received in federal welfare.

While the immigrant roses bloom, others do not often appreciate their beauty; it is the exceptional individual who admires immigrants when they are immigrants. Only after the immigrant rose fades and its falling petals mingle with the soil that contains all our roots, do we look back and cherish the bloom that is part of our heritage.The "Language Roses"

Unlike the people of most nations who are at least bilingual, most Americans are monolingual. This limitation encourages ethnocentrism and provincialism, and places the business community at a disadvantage in the global marketplace. Mastery of a second language enhances one's mental mobility while enriching cultural insights and perspectives. If Americans were to become proficient in a second language, encouraged to do so by the Asian and Latino population cohorts now living here, the result could easily be a society reaching greater maturity and tolerance in its intergroup relations. Most Europeans have long been at least bilingual and their cultures and societal cohesion have not suffered. Bilingual advocates argue bilingualism would not undermine U.S. culture either, only enrich it.

For those who do not "buy into" bilingualism for all citizens, public opinion polls and scientific studies about English language acquisition offer comforting news. Echoing similar newspaper polls and studies in California, Colorado, and elsewhere, a 1990 Houston Chronicle poll showed 87 percent of Hispanics believed it was their "duty to learn English" as quickly as possible. A few years earlier, a study by the Rand Corporation determined that 98 percent of Latino parents in Miami felt it was essential for their children to become competent in English. Such attitudes reach fruition according to the data, as indicated by Rodolfo de la Garza in 1992, who reported that most U.S.-born Latinos and Asians use English as their primary language. Teachers and other schoolchildren everywhere give corroborating testimony to this fact. Despite all fears of Asian and Hispanic immigrants posing a threat to the English language, assimilation is still, as Nathan Glazer (1993) asserts, "the most powerful force affecting the ethnic and racial elements of the United States."

. . .To allay further the anxieties of those who fear that the large Hispanic American presence is an unprecedented threat simply because of its size, we have a comparable example in our past, with the almost 4.9 million Germans who entered the United States between 1841-1900, a number roughly comparable to all Hispanic immigration since 1971. Keep in mind the U.S. population was much smaller then (23.1 million in 1850 and 62.9 million in 1890, compared to 203.3 million in 1970 and 248.7 million in 1990). Also, twentieth century media are ubiquitous English-learning means unknown at the time of this large German presence.

. . . In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, so many hundreds of thousands of Germans lived in the area lying between Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis, that it became known as the "great German triangle." Because so many German children attended public schools in the German triangle, the states passed laws permitting all academic subjects to be taught in German, whenever the demand was sufficient to warrant it. Ohio passed its statute in 1837; the others followed in the 1840s. Consider the profundity of this action! In major cities, as well as in rural regions, the states of Ohio, Missouri, and Wisconsin (other states too) authorized German as an official language for all classroom instruction! Cultural diversity, including that of language, was not only tolerated, but also encouraged.

The use of German in the public schools served a purpose other than academic instruction. It was intended to preserve the whole range of German culture, even more so after the unification of Germany in the 1870s. With an increased pride in their origins, German immigrants and their children developed a greater sense of their ethnicity than they possessed before their emigration. Since language enhanced their sense of being German, the German Americans continued to speak their language in their schools, homes, churches, and in everyday business transactions.

As extensive German immigrant settlement in the region continued decade after decade, German-language instruction in all subjects continued in the public schools. Such was the case in the private schools as well. By 1910, more than 95 percent of German Catholic parishes had parochial schools taught in German, and more than 2,000 parishes conducted German-language services, much to the consternation of the Irish-American church hierarchy.

During World War I, patriotic hysteria to drive the "Hun" language out of the schools prompted states such as Ohio and Nebraska to pass laws prohibiting instruction in German in all schools, public and private. A legal challenge to this action reached the U.S. Supreme Court in Robert Meyer v. Nebraska (1923). Although the Court upheld the states' right to determine public school instruction in English only, its ruling on private and parochial schools was an important one with regard to language rights. Ruling that all state laws prohibiting the teaching and use of German in private or parochial schools were in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore unconstitutional, the Court declared that the rights of both parents and private/parochial schools to teach their children in a language other than English was within the liberty guaranteed by that amendment.

Despite 1) the institutionalization of academic instruction in German, 2) the steady influx of large numbers of German immigrants, and 3) over sixty years of German language maintenance, German language usage declined. That process had already begun by 1885, as indicated by the complaints then of German-American leaders that the younger generation was losing the German tongue and that parents no longer insisted on their children studying German in the schools.

As with other ethnic groups, English gradually replaced the homeland language, even among the millions of Germans so heavily concentrated in regions such as the German triangle. The German language rose once bloomed mightily in the United States, but it has faded, its petals drifting downward and blending with others that fell earlier. Perhaps the Spanish language is another such rose.The "Cultural Roses"

The United States contains many persistent subcultures, people who steadfastly adhere to their own way of life as much as possible, resisting absorption into the dominant culture. These are usually religious groups -- such as the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, Hasidim -- or groups whose ancestors predate the United States, such as the Native Americans and Spanish Americans in the Southwest. One could also argue that a persistent subculture exists among one-third of the black Americans mired in poverty for multiple generations. Until society finds an effective means to end their deprivation, these hard-core black poor will continue to subsist within a subculture necessary for their survival.

Most racial and ethnic groups, however, are part of a convergent subculture gradually disappearing as its members become integrated into the dominant culture. For some, their "cultural roses" bloom longer than others but, at some point, the roses do fade. Besides the Germans just discussed, we have dozens of other examples of once vibrant ethnic subcultures, ones that contemporary native-born Americans considered both persistent and a threat to the dominant culture, that converged into the mainstream.

Ethnic subcultures do not undermine the dominant culture. The United States has always had ethnic subcultures and, at the time of their growing strength and vitality, they often contain separatist advocates. It is not uncommon for outsiders to become anxious about subgroup loyalties posing a danger to the larger society. Theodore Roosevelt's famous remark that "there is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism" spoke to the same fears of subversion of American culture that Schlesinger has addressed as the "disuniting of America."

When immigrants come to the United States, they come to join us. In foresaking their ancestral lands, they pay us the highest compliment: they want to spend the rest of their lives with us in a country where they hope to realize their dreams of a better life. They come to be a part of us, an "us" they have imagined our being after exposure to thousands of pictures, films, television shows, stories, letters, and rumors. They come to join us, not keep separate from us. It may take some time, longer than some Americans' patience but, for most, that integration into the dominant culture occurs. . . .The "Racial Roses"

Here we have a rare species of rose, for its bloom in a multiracial setting in the United States is difficult to produce. Too much of our past and present has been filled with racial animosity, exploitation, and violence. As I said earlier, we have never fully resolved the twin problems of race relations and racial integration in our society.

Part of our problem has been our cultural mindset. With a simplistic "white" and "nonwhite" racial classification system, we have insidiously enmeshed race within our social structure. We have created and consistently reinforced an "us" and "them" mentality that manifests itself in social distance, differential treatment, deprivation, and suffering. Furthermore, our monoracial categories ignore the multiracial backgrounds of millions of African Americans, Filipinos, Latinos, Native Americans, and "whites.

As changing demographics make an increased multiracial society more evident to Americans, perhaps we shall see the removal of the weeds of racism (particularly the rooting out of institutional discrimination) and the blooming of the racial roses. Such a change will not be easy. Yet, as the nonwhite segment of the American population increases, so may the multiracial component of the American identity. If no longer relegated to the periphery, racial groups will be more at the center, and at the center one finds both power and integration.

Increased racial tensions remain a distinct possibility and we certainly find examples of that today. However, with the greater sharing of power that must come, that very same sharing of power could also cause greater racial acceptance.

At the risk of being accused of wearing rose-colored glasses in depicting the racial roses, I would suggest that if we can get the racial roses to bloom in this land--get to that point where each of the races displays its full beauty-- then we can look pass that point to the next horizon. When the racial rose petals fall and mingle with the soil common to us all, we will have moved past race as a divisive aspect of our society. This was Martin Luther King's dream, that one day his children would judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin.