An excerpt from Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk [link to book]:
The lives of migrants to the United States came under special scrutiny from those who fashioned themselves as guardians of its cultural inheritance. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, was struck by the entry of Germans into his “Anglo-Saxon” domain, so much so that he worried that they would “soon so outnumber us that [despite] the advantages we have, we will, in my opinion, not be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.” Anything less than total assimilation to the core of “Anglo-Saxon” culture was tantamount to treason. Since “assimilate” means to “make similar,” there is an expectation among some U.S. residents that those who are different may be transformed into those who are similar, or, indeed, identical. There are some who cannot become even similar (let alone identical), so the attempt to assimilate is futile for them.
This is indeed the tenor of Thomas Jefferson’s remarks about blacks in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) and, notably, in a letter Jefferson wrote to James Monroe in 1801:
“It is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws; nor can we contemplate with satisfaction either blot or mixture on that surface.”
Without “blot and mixture,” the United States was to be a homogenous realm for the free enterprise of the “Anglo-Saxon.” Of course, the United States was never homogenous, given that the early Republic already contained within it Amerindians, blacks, and Catholics—all “blots” on the surface of the white, Protestant Republic….
The problem with U.S. multiculturalism as it stands is that it pretends to be the solution to chauvinism rather than the means for a struggle against white supremacy. Whereas assimilation demands that each inhabitant of the United States be transformed into the norm, U.S. multiculturalism asks that each immigrant group preserve its own heritage (as long as it speaks English). The heritage, or “culture,” is not treated as a living set of social relations but as a timeless trait. “As an Asian or African,” an Iranian intellectual complained, “I am supposed to preserve my manners, culture, music, religion, and so forth untouched, like an unearthed relic, so that the gentlemen can find and excavate them, so they can display them in a museum and say, ‘Yes, another example of primitive life.’ ” Desi schoolchildren encounter this “encyclopedic” notion of culture, as an inert set of artifacts that can be saved and preserved, when their teachers ask them to wear “Indian clothes” to school as part of show-and-tell. Consumerism seems to be the main drive for this kind of multiculturalism, with all that is seen as “fun” adopted while all that is deemed to be “fundamentalist” is abjured. The hijab and falafel are welcome, but the “Arab-type” is to be feared. “There is difference and there is power,” June Jordan noted, “and who holds the power shall decide the meaning of difference.”