E. Bergman, Ph.D.
Yale University

Titled by J.M.

The myth of the United States as a “nation of immigrants” erases the history of settler colonialism as a process that entails the elimination of Indigenous peoples, perpetuates the subjugation of African Americans, and sustains the racial logic of white supremacy.1 Embedded in this sense of the nation as something singular emerging from the multiple (“e pluribus, unum”) is the ideal of assimilation: Newcomers are imagined to enter the United States and become part of the nation by adopting the mores, culture, and lifeways of the white hegemony. White, Protestant European immigrants have always welcomed as essential to the success of the settler project, and even those white Europeans who at first faced discrimination (namely, German and Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century as well as Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century) were able to gain favor as whiteness expanded to welcome them.

Yet other groups have long been excluded from settler society and denied the full benefits of settler citizenship. Despite being long settled in America, African Americans are still denied full citizenship, and settler colonialism continues to oppress Indigenous populations. As for immigrant populations, Mexicans suddenly subject to the political authority of the United States after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago (1848) found themselves systematically disenfranchised. Chinese immigration was banned altogether between 1882 and 1965. Nonwhites have found their rights constricted according to white settler (whether native or immigrant) economic interests and the necessities of maintaining white supremacy.

Thus a multicultural ideal of the United States unsettles the construct of “a nation of immigrants,” which erases difference and obscures oppression by ignoring structures of power to blame individuals or cultural groups for any perceived failure to thrive in the United States. The possibility of multiculturalism as a challenge to the economic exploitation and political exclusion of immigrants was first mounted after the repeal, in 1965, of the national origins quotas from 1924, which had severely restricted nonwhite immigration.2 Most recently, Mexican and Muslim immigrants have been subject to the nativist pushback prompted by the election of the first Black president and success of a white woman presidential candidate.3 President Donald Trump has repeatedly made racist and xenophobic comments that validate the views (implicit or otherwise) of white supremacists and advance the cause of white nativism, reinforcing historical notions of settler privilege.

The full inclusion of nonwhites as equals in the American polity cannot require their assimilation to white supremacy, and the argument that immigrants can successfully assimilate and so enjoy full inclusion collapses under the weight of its own contradictions when the examples of Indian American and Asian Americans are considered more closely.4 Proponents of a multicultural America instead seek a way to resolve the central paradox in American history and politics: A nation that claims in its founding documents that “all men are created equal” has nevertheless always pursued discriminatory policies against nonwhites.5 Thus the movement toward greater inclusion involves pointing out the social, political, and economic structures of bias and oppression in an attempt to dismantle the racial logic of white supremacy.

Multiculturalism is not merely about enriching the United States either culturally (with more diverse holidays or foods, for example) or economically (imagining immigrants to be an engine of capitalism). Instead, to embrace multiculturalism is to believe wholeheartedly that all people are truly equal without insisting that any one person be measured by the standards of another. Multiculturalism insists upon the equality of individuals. Recognizing that out of one can come many thus liberates us all.6

1 For a comprehensive account of the role of settler constitutionalism in American life, see Aziz Rana, The Two Faces of American Freedom (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010). See also Natsu Taylor Saito, “Tales of Color and Colonialism: Settler Colonial Theory,” Florida A & M University Law Review 10, no. 1 (2014): 3-108.

2 See Kevin Johnson, “The End of Civil Rights as We Know It? Immigration and Civil Rights in the New Millennium,” U.C.L.A. Law Review 49 (2002): 1481–1512.

3 Fears of Mexican immigration have a long history. On “illegal” immigration in particular, see Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

4 Both Indian Americans and Asian Americans have often been considered “model minorities” based on educational and economic attainment, yet both groups face continued political discrimination.

5 And, of course, white supremacy is co-constituted with the cis-heteronormative patriarchy. See Darren Lenard Hutchinson, “Ignoring the Sexualization of Race: Heteronormativity, Critical Race Theory and Anti-Racist Politics,” Buffalo Law Review 47 (1999), available at http://scholarship.law.ufl.edu/facultypub/417.

6 On individual agency as opposed to “culture,” with special attention to the reaction against “radical” Islam and notions that multiculturalism and feminism are somehow incompatible, see Anne Phillips, Multiculturalism Without Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).