MULTICULTURALISM. American multiculturalism long predated the widespread use
of the term. A 1965 report by the Canadian Commission on Bilingualism and
Biculturalism used "multiculturalism" to represent that nation's diverse
peoples, and after 1971 Canada used the term as a policy to preserve its myriad
cultures. The word appeared in the American press in the early 1970s, and
multiculturalism became commonplace by the 1980s. It was a flashpoint for
controversy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially in relation to
educational curricula and government policies, and remained troublesome in 2001.
Multiculturalism has been provocative because it represented intensely held,
conflicting perceptions of American society, principles, and standards. Many
viewed it as the fulfillment of America's quest for equality of racial and
ethnic groups and women. Many others have seen it as the subversion of the
nation's unifying values.
The movement for multiculturalism was the culmination of a number of defining events. Challenges to inequality following World War II sparked the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, initiating the institutionalization of the principle of equality of all Americans, men and women. The 1968 Bilingual Education Act, the related 1974 Lau v. Nichols decision, and the 1972 Ethnic Heritage Studies Program Act bolstered the multicultural movement, awakening many groups to seek their cultural roots, proclaim the value of their cultures, and call for the inclusion of group histories and cultures in educational programs. The goals have been to overcome historic invisibility and to nurture group pride, and some have believed schools have the obligation to help preserve such cultures.
But as some spokespersons became more strident in their insistence on such curricula reforms, repudiating the long-held American belief in assimilation, their demands generated equally intense opposition among those who already perceived threats to American core culture and values, especially in the emerging affirmative action policies. Multiculturalism became the focal point of the battles over group rights versus individual rights, ethnic cultures versus the common culture, pluralism versus assimilation, and particularly the diversity content in school curricula.
Placing diversity at the center of the American polity and educating all children about the richly varied components of the nation's heritage were viewed by advocates
of multiculturalism as the fulfillment of America's promise of respect, opportunity, and equality. Others perceived a lack of a consistent definition of multiculturalism and felt that culture was being made synonymous with race. In addition, they argued, ethnic cultures were fading in the United States. They also maintained that proponents used curriculum changes for separatist political ends, retarding the education of non-English-speaking children and posing a threat to the common center that bound the nation together.
Some people have explored a middle ground. They accepted the multiplicity of heritages and cultures and have seen pluralism as a part of the core culture and values, but they deemphasized contemporary ethnicity and have viewed Americans as possessing flexible and fluid identities because they lived in multiple "worlds." That approach prompted an emphasis on cosmopolitanism and universalism over the particularism of ethnicity. The conflicting visions of the nation's mission ensured that the controversy did not end with the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Gordon, Avery F., and Christopher Newfield, eds. Mapping Multiculturalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Higham, John. Hanging Together: Unity and Diversity in American Culture. Edited by Carl J. Guarneri. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.
King, Desmond. Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Nash, Gary. "Multiculturalism and History: Historical Perspectives and Present Prospects." In Public Education in a Multicultural Society: Policy, Theory, Critique. Edited by Robert K. Fullinwinder. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 183–202.
Elliott R. Barkan
See also Civil Rights and Liberties ; Education, Bilingual ; Race Relations .
Source Citation Barkan, Elliott R. "Multiculturalism." Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 5. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003. 473-474.