In light of tensions surrounding race and religion in the United States, it seems worthwhile to look back and ask: what kind of relationship has the United States had with its multiculturalism?
Imagine this: an American president repeatedly calls for the country to withdraw itself from global affairs. This president denounces the chaos, violence, and barbarism of the rest of the world, and pursues what he perceives to be the only logical action : raising the gates and keeping people born into that chaos at a defined distance. Although this attitude may seem painfully contemporary for many Americans, the principles of nativism and American cultural exceptionalism actually echo throughout that country’s history. One need only look to the words of James Madison, a founding father and the 4th American president who advocated excluding immigrants who could not “incorporate [themselves] into our society.”
The United States has presented itself as a global symbol for multiculturalism and inclusion. This ideal is one that scrapes against the stories of intolerance and opening of the collapse of the American ideal because of the influence of minorities and foreigners who do not fully appreciate the wonder of the American experiment, and indeed pose a threat to it. These views underline a near constant debate in American political and cultural life: is the United States actually made stronger by a philosophy of inclusion, or does this attitude of accepting multiculturalism only weaken the country by forcing people of disparate cultures and principles together?
The way to the Johnson-Reed Act
This mistrust of the “other” seems to find its clearest expression in the recent actions of the Trump administration. Recently, the White House released an executive order to ban immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries. This order may run in direct opposition to American ideals of pluralism and tolerance, but it is deeply reminiscent of American politics of just a century ago. In 1917, Congress passed legislation that required any immigrant over the age of 16 to pass a literacy test before entering the country. This legislation opened the way for the Johnson-Reed Act, a law specifically aimed at limiting immigration from eastern and southern Europe, while cracking down on African immigration and outright banning Arabs and Asians.
According to the State Department, the goal of the act was to “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” Immigrants from these regions of the world were seen as intrinsically unable to adapt to the American way of life. When this prejudiced sentiment, combined with fears of cheap immigrant labor and the xenophobic anticommunist sentiment of the Red Scare, the result was one of the most restrictive immigration laws. As the country is faced with the same fear of cheap immigrant labor and xenophobia sparked by islamophobia, it may not be entirely shocking that the country is adopting the same legislative ideas.
Bannon, the most influential source of policy in the White House
These recurring economic and cultural issues lie at the center of the immigration ban and empower President Trump and populist leaders throughout Europe. Throughout the western body politic there exist the ideas that immigrants are responsible for a stagnating working class, and that Western culture is in a historic and ideologically critical conflict with the rest of the world. This is the perspective of people like Steve Bannon, the former editor of far right Breitbart News, and current chief strategist for President Trump. Bannon is acknowledged to be the most influential source of policy in the White House, including the ban. Although the order has been struck down by the courts, the attempt to push it through is deeply telling of Bannon’s personal belief, expressed on his website and through his films, that the United States and Western culture are at risk at being overrun. He describes a “Judeo-Christian west” that is engaged in a “global war” with “jihadist Islamic fascism”. For Bannon, and those who agree with him, leaving the door open to wholesale inclusion gives room for a radical element that has the potential to destroy the principles that the country holds.
One may see a similar distress in the works of Samuel Huntington. In his work Clash of Civilizations, Huntington hypothesizes that the world is separated into distinct cultural zones that will succeed states as the primary actors in conflicts. Huntington went on to assert that a lack of a homogenous American culture only served to undermine the social cohesion and ability of the country to compete in the culturally divided world. This mistrust of multiculturalism is not at all new – it has existed in all eras of American history. However, the country remains deeply divided on whether the idea of multiculturalism will hurt or hinder the country going forward, and this contention runs within the very DNA of the country. In the face of this retrenchment, it also becomes critical to ask what will come to pass when today’s minorities become the majority of the American public. Demographics project that whites will only make up 48% of the American public by 2055. If the solvency of the country is founded on some obscure principles defined by the country white privileged founders, the demographic shift may make it necessary to reconsider exactly what constitutes the American life.
The racial and cultural tension that marks contemporary American life
This debate between inclusivity and assimilation is one that can only grow as every year brings the United States closer to the moment where the issues of minorities become the issues of the majority. The racial and cultural tension that marks contemporary American life only foreshadows this critical moment. So too does the Trump administration’s strategy of tailoring its message to white Americans who stand to lose the power of majority. The current administration was lifted to power by whites angry at their perceived loss of prestige and identity in the American life. The effort to recall memories of a country in firm rule by a cultural and demographic majority preyed on the fear of many who believed their country no longer belonged to them. Whether this attitude will be addressed by a change in these people’s perceptions of the country or further efforts of division remains to be seen.