Diversity or Equality? Multiculturalism and Postmodernity in the Assessment of a ‘Nation of Immigrants’

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Diversity or Equality? Multiculturalism and Postmodernity in the Assessment of a

Nation of Immigrants’

Federico Sor

In his "Hyphen Nation: The Politics of Diversity in ‘a Nation of Immigrants’, 1965-2000,"1 Matthew Frye Jacobson analyzes the influence of immigration on the construction of American nationhood. He concentrates on "post-1965 nativism," the revival of the cultural European background of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. (This was the reversal of the previous abandonment of immigrants’ original backgrounds on behalf of an ‘American’ identity.) In this way, people stopped calling themselves ‘Americans’ to become ‘Jewish-Americans’, ‘Italian-Americans’, etc.: identifications began to be, indeed, "hyphened." Frye Jacobson challenges the idea of the ‘melting pot’ (a homogeneous society in which particular ethnic backgrounds give place to an all-encompassing identity), as he claims that, far from being homogeneous, North American society is composed of particular and differentiated ethnic groups that preserve their original cultural backgrounds.

Post-1965 nativism, in Frye Jacobson’s view, adopted the language and imagery of the Civil Rights movement. African-Americans had begun to take pride in their cultural background and claimed equality on the grounds that they were as much a part of America as whites were. The descendants of European immigrants adopted the language of the Civil Rights movement to assert their own ethnicity and, in the process, expressed their resentment at the increasing equality of blacks. As a result, European ethnic revival has played an important role in affirmative action debates, as post-1965 nativists have opposed their own claims to acceptance in U.S. society to those of blacks.

Frye Jacobson argues that the multiculturalist approach of post-1965 nativism has shaped the rhetoric of both the Left and the Right in discussions of U.S. immigration policy and affirmative action. Claiming that the United States is naturally an immigrant society, the Left has supported increased immigration quotas. On the other hand, the Right, arguing that the United States emerged as a society composed mainly of European immigrants, has sought to curtail immigration from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Regarding affirmative action and diversity, the Left has adopted the multiculturalist approach to promote equal opportunity and representation in employment, culture, etc., while the Right, adopting the same approach but with a Eurocentric twist, has favored the equal representation of the many different European ethnicities in those same areas.

In this way Frye Jacobson argues that both the Left and the Right embrace the multiculturalist discourse to project their take on diversity politics. Indeed, nationhood is a malleable (and amorphous) concept that can be shaped by any ideology or political objective.

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