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The Melting Pot Is Rapidly Becoming American Fiction

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A February 2015 edition of The Economist featured an article entitled "The Melting Pot works."

It cites Benjamin Franklin who once complained that German immigrants swarmed into our settlements and will never adopt our language or customs. The Economist points out that "97 per cent of German-Americans speak only English at home. And although they are perhaps America's largest single ethnic group -- 46 million claim German ancestry -- their neighbours barely notice them, so thoroughly have they assimilated (you'd hope that's the case after more than two centuries of settlement in the country).

At best, the above citation suggests that United States is a melting pot for the white population, an observation that overlooks a seismic contradiction.

Respected American thinker now residing in Canada, Richard Florida, has observed that "Americans like to think of their country as the world's great melting pot." He adds that it's an assumption that can no longer be taken for granted." That's an understatement.

You don't have to look very far these days to challenge the melting pot idea. All that is needed is a glimpse at the racial divisions that have marked the 2016 United States presidential election and others prior. In fact, those who boast about the American melting pot are generally thinking about the successful assimilation of white Americans in a society with perpetual racial divisions than run deep across the country. In other words, it's a selective melting process while some get melted and many others. Too often, the melting is based on skin colour.

In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney won the support of some sixty per cent of whites, but just over one in four Hispanics and Asian-Americans and approximately six per cent of African-Americans. The 2016 Republican candidate Donald Trump did about the same. Unlike Romney however his campaign was explicit driving an "us" and "them" narrative with racial overtones. It made the melting pot paradigm sound more like fiction rather than sociological observation.

Writer Amanda Taub has contended that behind the political turmoil of 2016 is a crisis of white identity. Throughout most of American history, there have been essentially two main divisions in American politics: over economic policy (essentially: more or less government intervention in the economy) and over social/cultural/identity issues. She defines whiteness as being part of the group whose appearance, traditions, religion and even food are the default norm. It's being a person who, by unspoken rules, was long entitled as part of "us" instead of "them."

The white ethnic majority is worried about the evolution of their country. This concern underlies the tensions that characterize relations between communities in the United States. Taub suggests that economic and social transformations have led many people to anchor themselves more fully in their whiteness -- even as whiteness itself has lost currency.

Surely the objective of a melting pot would be to strengthen national identity as it diminishes attachments to ethnic, racial and religious identities. Ultimately that model reduces prejudices towards minorities as they melt into the mainstream. The anti-minority rhetoric of the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign does not give the impression that the melt is working particularly well for Hispanics, African Americans and Muslim Americans amongst others.

Canadian politics have also seen their share of divisions along immigrant and ethnic lines with federal Liberals faring considerably better over the course of the last century than the country's Conservatives. But minorities are not locked into one party. In what's long been a multi-party system, the New Democrats have successfully secured support amongst ethnic and racial minorities.

In the last federal election campaign, the federal Conservatives made an unsuccessful attempt to build voter support by proposing veiled measures that would inevitably stigmatize the country's Muslim population. The U.S. elections demonstrated than such an approach works better in the so-called melting pot than it does in a multicultural society.

Those Canadians with melting pot envy should think twice before asking domestic supporters of multiculturalism to look south of the border for the model in meeting the challenges of diversity.

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