Considering the Tower of Babel: Correlates of Assimilation and Multiculturalism among Ethnic Minority and Majority Groups in the United States

Survey data collected from multiethnic samples of geographically dispersed college students and a national probability sample of US adults were utilized to examine the correlates of support for multiculturalism and assimilation—two competing interethnic ideologies, or ideals for how an ethnically diverse society should optimally function. Endorsement of multiculturalism and assimilation was related to perceived ethnic group differences, intergroup bias, and voting behavior on a number of public policies, but in opposite directions. Relative to white participants, ethnic minority participants endorsed multiculturalism to a greater extent, reported higher levels of group identification, and were more likely to support pro-diversity public policies. Discussion focuses on explanations for the variety of observed differences between ethnic minority and majority respondents, on the meaning of assimilation and multiculturalism, and on the argument that harmony between ethnic groups and dissimilarity between ethnic groups need not be thought of as mutually exclusive.

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Notes

  1. 1.

     Our previous experimental research also included a colorblind condition in which participants were encouraged to think about the importance of looking beyond group differences and judging one another as unique individuals. Relative to a control condition, participants in the colorblind condition responded with less evaluative bias (Wolsko et al., 2000). This finding does not directly inform predictions for the present study because we consider the colorblind perspective primed in the previous research to be conceptually distinct from the assimilation ideology assessed here. As we have operationalized it, the colorblind perspective primarily emphasizes the importance of judging one another as individuals. In contrast, the assimilation ideology emphasizes the sanctity of mainstream American values and the need for all people, especially ethnic minorities, to conform to these values (see scale items for assimilation in the Appendix).

  2. 2.

     We extend our sincere appreciation to Robert Bartsch at the University of Texas (Permian Basin), Joe Messina at San Francisco State University, and Eric Vanman at Georgia State University for their truly generous assistance with data collection for Study 1.

  3. 3.

     In analyses examining the relationship between assimilation and opinions about English-speaking public policy, item #2 from the assimilation scale (see Appendix) was omitted from the computation of each participant’s assimilation score, due to conceptual redundancy.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health MH45049 to Bernadette Park and Charles Judd. Study 1 was conducted as part of Christopher Wolsko’s dissertation thesis. We thank the University of Colorado Stereotyping and Prejudice Laboratory group for numerous helpful conversations regarding the research.

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Appendix

Appendix

Interethnic Ideology Items (Study 1)

Multiculturalism
1. We must appreciate the unique characteristics of different ethnic groups in order to have a cooperative society.
2. Learning about the ways that different ethnic groups resolve conflict will help us develop a more harmonious society.
3. In order to live in a cooperative society, everyone must learn the unique histories and cultural experiences of different ethnic groups.
4. When interacting with a member of an ethnic group that is different from your own, it is very important to take into account the history and cultural traditions of that person’s ethnic group.
5. If we want to help create a harmonious society, we must recognize that each ethnic group has the right to maintain its own unique traditions.
6. I would like my children to be exposed to the language and cultural traditions of different ethnic groups.
Assimilation
1. People from all ethnic backgrounds should embrace the American dream of hard work and success.
2. We should have a single unified language in this country—Standard English.
3. The established system of government in this country can serve all the people well, so long as minority group members are willing to work within its structure.
4. In order to have a smoothly functioning society, members of ethnic minorities must better adapt to the ways of mainstream American culture.
5. Children from all ethnic groups should be taught to adopt mainstream American values from an early age.
6. Members of ethnic minority groups should try harder to learn about western capitalism to help them succeed in corporate America.

Group Perception Items: Category Differentiation and Evaluative Bias (Study 1)

Category Differentiation
1. Different ethnic groups often have very different approaches to life.
2. Belonging to one ethnic group versus another profoundly shapes what your life is like.
3. Because people come from different ethnic backgrounds, they often behave very differently.
4. I want my children to learn that all people are basically the same—even though the color of their skin may be different.*R
5. The various ethnic groups within the United States (White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American) are more similar to one another than they are different.*R
6. People should realize that racial and ethnic categories carry very little real meaning—we are all equals.R
Evaluative Bias
1. I would be completely comfortable in a social setting (such as a dance club or bar) where there were very few people from my ethnic group.R
2. I would be completely comfortable dating someone from a different ethnic group (if I was single).R
3. It would bother me if my child married someone from a different ethnic background.
4. I would prefer to live in a neighborhood with people of my same ethnic origin.
5. If I were living with others in a house or an apartment, I would be more comfortable if my roommates were from my same ethnic background.
6. I would rather work alongside people of my same ethnic origin.
  1. Note: *Denotes an item deleted from the final version of the scale, see Results section.
  2. RIndicates item was reverse scored.

Item used in the General Social Survey (2002), Study 2

(Multiculturalism) If we want to help create a harmonious society, we must recognize that each ethnic group has the right to maintain its own unique traditions.
(Assimilation) In order to have a smoothly functioning society, members of ethnic minorities must better adapt to the ways of mainstream American culture.
(Warmth Thermometer) In general, how warm or cool do you feel towards African Americans/Asian Americans/Hispanics/White or Caucasian Americans?
(Category Differentiation) Ethnic minority groups in the US are very distinct and very different from one another.
(Importance) When you think about yourself, how important is your ethnic group membership to your sense of who you are?

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Wolsko, C., Park, B. & Judd, C.M. Considering the Tower of Babel: Correlates of Assimilation and Multiculturalism among Ethnic Minority and Majority Groups in the United States. Soc Just Res 19, 277–306 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11211-006-0014-8

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Keywords

  • multiculturalism
  • assimilation
  • racial and ethnic differences
  • racial and ethnic attitudes
  • public policy