In law and policy, however, it is a catchall term describing both attempts to ensure more equal economic outcomes between different ethnic groups, such as affirmative action preferences, and programs to preserve the cultural identity of such groups such as official bilingualism.
Paradoxically, the future of such programs is threatened by their expansion.
Multiculturalism began, in effect, as "biracialism." For generations, government had treated whites far better than blacks. From roughly 1948 to 1977, a reversal took place. Government policy paused briefly at equal treatment, or "color-blind" policies. By the early seventies, however, it was mandating an array of compensatory preferences for blacks in the name of "affirmative action."
But legislators, bureaucrats, the courts, and activists for other groups -- such as women, the disabled, other ethnic minorities and certain immigrant groups -- soon expanded the programs to cover these other presumed victims of discrimination who became known as "protected classes." Thus, compensatory preferences for the descendents of slaves quickly mutated into a generalized system of ethnic preferences, taking from some groups and giving to others.
But is multiculturalism (aka "diversity") a stable system?
Two main factors determine popular support for it.
First, programs that on average simply redistribute resources within families (such as quotas for women and the disabled) tend to generate less resentment than those that take from one set of families (such as white families) and give to another (such as Hispanic families). In the first case, we feel we are giving to ourselves; in the second to other people -- especially when government policy is emphasizing not the common nationhood of all Americans but their cultural and ethnic separateness.
For example, wheelchair ramps are highly popular, in part because they are an insurance system that may someday benefit somebody in one's own household. Similarly, job quotas for women take from men and give to their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. So although there is some resentment among the white males thus disadvantaged, the net effect on families as a whole is not all that great.
Second, and more important, the ratio of those who receive to those who must pay under affirmative action is critical. Blacks were a sizable minority when affirmative action preferences begin in 1969. On the other hand, with whites outnumbering blacks almost six to one, the cost to the typical white family was not large enough to persuade whites to oppose the programs strongly.
For the same reason, very few people objected (or even noticed) in the early 1970s when preferences were quietly extended to new immigrant groups such as Hispanics -- and even to illegal aliens. The price paid then by the average non-Hispanic white family still looked to be trivial because there had been so little immigration since the cutoff in 1924. The political elite did not understand that the 1965 Immigration Act was about to radically change the ethnic balance of America.
Today Hispanics outnumber African-Americans, and, owing to both immigration and relatively high birth rates, they are expected to continue growing rapidly in numbers. President Clinton publicly looked forward to whites becoming a minority by mid-century. And this rising number of non-black minority voters encourages politicians to grant them more special preferences, such as President Bush's proposed amnesty for Mexican "undocumented workers."
At the same time, as the number of members of "protected classes" -- including legally favored immigrant groups -- increases, the cost to those not enjoying preferential status, mainly white males, rises proportionately. And this is likely to stimulate opposition to such preferences. Mass immigration is thus making the future of multiculturalism radically unstable. This long-term process has ominous implications for national unity and ethnic harmony.
Whether the upsurge of national unity provoked by Sept. 11 will change matters is an open question. It has certainly altered the psychological balance between the common national identity of all Americans and their separate ethnic or sexual identities --emphasizing the former and downplaying the latter. Some feminists, for instance, have publicly worried that almost all the heroes at the World Trade Center were male and that the media failed to seek out some female role models. It might be possible in these circumstances to gain general public support for re-ordering official policies to compensate people along lines of actual individual need rather than presumed group discrimination. It would certainly be prudent in the light of immigration and America's changing demographics.
But the ethnic pressure groups and government agencies that favor the current system of preferences have not disbanded -- and they see multiculturalism not as an antidote to patriotism but as the patriotism of an America that is just around the corner.
(Steve Sailer is UPI's National Correspondent, based in Los Angeles.)