Since I mentioned the “post multicultural moment” that we might be existing in right now, I’m going to spend a few blogs in investigating the idea. Glancing at the history, I think maybe I should start by looking at the politics of assimilation. This ideology overlapped the colonial period and was popular in the US from about 1790 to 1920. It was also standard in other Western societies about this same time.

Assimilation is the policy that all of a society should have a uniform set of cultural values and practices that are held in common by its citizens. The process is often called the “melting pot,” as it results in a uniform mixture of cultures. It is blind to diversity, so there are no minorities. Everyone is expected to be an interchangeable cog in the cultural machine.

Generally, education is viewed as the way to accomplish this. The policy of assimilation still pervades our public schools, which is why the courts are willing to curtail Freedom of Speech around minor children. The schools are expected to socialize children with a particular set of skills and behavior patterns that will assist them in being successful when they enter society as independent adults. There are, of course, disagreements about what this set of skills and behavior patterns should be. Also, many parents are unwilling to have their children socialized according to the government plan. Hence the ongoing popularity of private schools and home schooling.

Assimilation as a government policy was applied to immigrants, as well as children in the schools. This meant that immigrants were expected to learn English as soon as possible and to accept the changes that living in the US brought. In general, immigrants were disrespected when they first arrived in the country. Groups as different as Irish, Italians and Asians all experienced discrimination, although people of color were more likely to experience this on a long-term basis. Ironically, during this period African Americans were barred from easy assimilation through laws mandating segregation.

The worst victims of the assimilation policy during this period were native cultures. After the Indian Wars ended in the US, the government outlawed traditional religious practices and sent Native American children to boarding schools where they learned English, Christianity and white culture. This was an attempt to force them to leave tribal customs behind and to destroy the tribal structures.

As a policy, assimilation does have its good points. It provides a uniform work force for industrialization and generally a good opportunity for immigrants who are willing to work hard and take advantage of opportunities. It has the drawbacks of destroying culture, preventing diversity and stamping out differing viewpoints.