The United States has moved from the notion of being a "melting pot" toward the hope of becoming a multicultural society. While some people are holding on to a rear-guard action to protect what they perceive to be the values and virtues of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture that shaped and perhaps even defined US culture since the founding of Jamestown in 1607, the future favors the advocates of multiculturalism as the US becomes a more diverse society. But is multiculturalism the road to the future? Or, is it a chimera? Webster's Dictionary offers two definitions of "chimera." A chimera is either "a monster vomiting flames," or "an illusion or fabrication of the mind." Let me explain why I believe multiculturalism is a chimera, and then offer an alternative vision for the future.
Multiculturalism emerged as an umbrella concept in the 1980's and 1990's, indicative of our changing demographics. Multiculturalism is clearly to be preferred to either a system of apartheid or a plan of forced assimilation. And the concept enjoys wide pubic support. However, there is no standard definition of multiculturalism. A thin definition of the term equates multiculturalism with tolerance of diversity. A somewhat richer understanding of multiculturalism proffers that a multicultural society accepts and incorporates the values, beliefs, and ideas of people from diverse cultural backgrounds. An even thicker and richer definition of multiculturalism suggests that the concept celebrates diverse cultures and empowers diverse cultural groups to claim a greater measure of equality with others in the public square.
Because multiculturalism is an umbrella concept the breadth of groups that cluster under its shelter is breathtaking. Multiculturalism includes a defense of all groups protected by the American Disabilities Act, demands respect for all religious holidays, offers protection against discrimination in places of employment, encourages the development of educational curriculum that respects all types of diversity, and much more. For some advocates, multiculturalism is a rights-based concept.that applies to both individuals and groups. Accordingly, everyone has equal rights, and society has a moral obligation to respect and protect the rights of each person and group.
The concept of multiculturalism has broad appeal in a liberal democratic society--within limits. The rights associated with multiculturalism are civil rights. When the norms of multiculturalism begin to impinge on political and economic rights we often witness increasing tension among and between diverse groups, and popular support for multiculturalism softens. A desire on the part of the majority to maintain the status quo and to protect the appearance of social unity and harmony outweighs the urgency of change for the sake of greater inclusion. Enduring poverty in the midst of economic abundance and recent battles over voting rights witness to the retreat from multiculturalism in these areas of public life. Multiculturalism has its place, and it must be kept in its place.
The retreat from multiculturalism is due neither to a lack of awareness of the need for change, nor to a want of desire for change on the part of well-meaning citizens who want to "do good." Like the myth of the "melting pot," the impetus for multiculturalism comes from a deep commitment to the creed of E Pluribus Unum. What is missing from this effort to preserve unity is an adequate understanding of our own history. It is this failure of understanding that turns the otherwise noble intent into a chimera.
Native American scholars and historians like David Chang and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz are helping non-Indians understand that everything in US history--nation, race, and class--is about the land. Who owns the land and who controls how the land is used is a--perhaps the--central theme of US history.
The quasi-religious doctrine of discovery, which Steven T. Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) more accurately calls the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination, is the foundation of US-Indian law, and US land claims. Settlers invoked this doctrine and the doctrine of Terra Nullius (meaning empty land), promulgated by Pope Urban II in 1096, to justify Indian genocide and taking land from Indigenous Peoples. The philosopher John Locke fortified their land claims when he argued that the settlers were defending their superior culture and religion (Christianity) against "pagans," whom the settlers also branded as "wild beasts." Locke argued that because the settlers were forced to defend their superior way of life and religion from the threats posed by the Indians, the Indians were obligated to pay for the cost of the war waged upon them. Taking land once held by Indigenous Peoples was, in Locke's view, just compensation paid to the settlers.
I am not ready to give up on E Pluribus Unum. But if we want to turn this chimera into a viable vision for the future we have to begin with the historical truth of the settler-indigenous conflict and the record of Indian genocide, exploitation and subjugation. Repudiating the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination opens the way for the US to honor the 370 treats with Indian nations that the US Senate has ratified, and gives Indigenous Peoples their own land and greater control over their political and economic future. Of equal importance, knowing and accepting the true history of settler-indigenous relations sets white citizens free from the shackles of historical distortions so that together we can create a future beyond multiculturalism; a future in which interracial justice is normative.