Multiculturalism and Citizenship are complements, not opposites

Friday, March 11, 2011

Irene Bloemraad, Berkeley
Guest Contributor

Attacking multiculturalism has become a political cliché.

Last October, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel proclaimed that a multicultural approach had “utterly failed” in Germany, she echoed a commonly-heard sentiment across Europe.  Just last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron indicted his country’s decades-old policy of multiculturalism for failing to promote a sense of common identity, and for encouraging Muslim segregation and radicalization.

In Canada, an editorial last fall in the Globe and Mail called for multiculturalism to be “struck from the national vocabulary” and for Canadians to focus on citizenship instead.  Like fashion mavens looking to the runways of Paris and Milan for ideas, the Globe suggested that we follow Europeans’ lead: out with distracting debates over accommodation, in with trendy language on responsibilities.

The turn to a more assimilationist discourse has become a full-fledged battle cry, driving the political success of anti-immigrant politicians like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and the Sverigedemokraterna party in Sweden. The alternative, for many politicians of the right and left, is stronger integration policies, such as mandatory language classes, and greater normative emphasis on common citizenship.

This juxtaposition – between multiculturalism on one hand and common citizenship on the other – implies that there is a zero-sum trade-off between the two. If governments emphasize recognition of diversity, this necessarily undermines political cohesion.  Conversely, if a nation wants to facilitate immigrants’ political integration, they should avoid multicultural policies. Yet the arguments advanced by political theorists – such as Will Kymlicka, Charles Taylor and Bhikhu Parekh – who articulate and defend a multicultural model posit the exact opposite: by recognizing and accommodating minority cultures, members of those communities will feel increased attachment to and engagement in the broader polity.

So which is it?  Are policies of pluralism and diversity in conflict with integration through common citizenship or a pathway to incorporation?

Astoundingly, while the rhetoric over multiculturalism has generated a lot of heat, there hasn’t been much light.  Empirical social science research – based on data rather than ideology – has been limited. In large part this is because our standard measures of political attitudes and behaviors, especially those collected by public surveys, usually include too few immigrants to draw firm conclusions.  And in the few cases that we have good country-specific studies, the data are not readily comparable across countries.

This situation is rapidly changing.  And almost all of the empirical evidence suggests the opposite of the prevailing political rhetoric. Quite simply, immigrants in countries that adopt multicultural policies are more likely to be citizens and more likely to be part of the political system than nations that do not adopt such policies. Recognition matters.

Social scientists have begun to measure a society’s degree of multiculturalism.  For example, Keith Banting at Queen’s University and his colleagues have constructed a multiculturalism index by assigning, for each of eight policy areas, one point if a country fully adopted and implemented a measure between 1980 and 2000, half a point if it had done so in a token manner, and zero if it had not done so at all. They look for official affirmation of multiculturalism; multiculturalism in the school curriculum; inclusion of ethnic representation/sensitivity in public media and licensing; exemptions from dress codes, Sunday closing legislation, etc. in public laws; allowing dual citizenship; funding of ethnic organizations to support cultural activities; funding of bilingual and mother-tongue instruction; and affirmative action for immigrant groups. The resulting typology is similar to other scholars’ categorization – such as Rudd Koopsman et al in  Contested Citizenship: Immigration and Cultural Diversity in Europe – using alternative policy measures or ideal types.

Such indices show that Germany is not, and has never been, a multicultural society.  If Germans are now concerned about the consequences of immigration, the blame certainly does not lie with multiculturalism.

These indices also group countries such as France and Norway with Germany as the least multicultural; the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States as moderate multicultural countries; and Canada and Australia as the most multicultural.

Have Canada’s past practices and policies hurt attempts to forge common citizenship out of diversity? Absolutely not.  Consider how many immigrants become citizens in these countries. The least multicultural nations count the lowest levels of citizenship; the moderate multicultural countries have somewhat more. In comparison, an overwhelming majority of immigrants take up citizenship in Canada and Australia, the two nations that went furthest in the multicultural experiment.

The positive link between multiculturalism and citizenship is further supported by comparing Canadian policy to our neighbor to the south.  In 1971, Canada’s federal government began promoting a multiculturalism-based integration policy, a stance enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights in 1982, and expanded in 1988, when the Multiculturalism Act became federal law.  Over this same period, the United States enacted no formal immigrant integration program or multiculturalism policy.

Back in 1970, in both Canada and the United States, about 60 per cent of foreign-born residents had acquired citizenship. By 2006, the American Community Survey estimated that of the 37.5 million foreign-born people living in the United States, only 15.7 million, or 42 per cent, were naturalized citizens.

In the same year, 73 per cent of immigrants to Canada had acquired citizenship. For citizenship levels in the United States to mirror those in Canada, more than 11 million people would need to acquire U.S. citizenship overnight. There are, of course, many possible explanations for this statistical gulf, but here are some factors that do not explain away the difference: dissimilar immigrant streams; the large undocumented population in the United States; different costs and benefits of citizenship; easier or faster processing in Canada.

My research points to multiculturalism as a key factor driving Canada’s success at citizenship integration. It legitimates diversity, provides a sense of inclusion, and through the multitude of oft-maligned government grants given to community-based organizations – not only for multiculturalism but also for a host of integration programs – it provides the support structures necessary to help newcomers join the nation as full citizens.

At an instrumental level, integrative multiculturalism builds a dense and vibrant civil society among immigrant groups that facilitates inclusion.  At a symbolic level, multiculturalism tells these immigrants that their participation is legitimate and that they are full members of the society, even if they look different, speak other languages, follow a different religion or were born in another country.

Canadians certainly can, and should, have thoughtful debates about recognizing and accommodating diversity – like we debate health care policy, taxes or which team will win the Stanley Cup.

And, like health care and hockey, multiculturalism has become a symbol of what defines Canada among nations.  In poll after poll, Canadians see multiculturalism as one of the top three defining features of the country. What’s more, they are proud of it.

They should be. Over four decades, incredibly rapid demographic change has transformed Canada, especially its largest cities. In Europe, similar change has resulted in riots and cultural tensions that have tarnished the concept of multiculturalism. But in Canada, these changes, despite many challenges, happened peacefully, productively and positively.  Canadian multicultural policy over the past 40 years reflects a genius in how societies can combine diversity with a unifying citizenship anchored in rights and responsibilities. This is a legacy to be embraced and built upon, not to be discarded like last year’s passé fashions.

Irene Bloemraad is the author of Becoming a Citizen: Incorporating Immigrants and Refugees in the United States and Canada, and an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and a Scholar of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.


Equity Matters


Interculturalism and pluralism


Great comments, and an interesting set of questions about the nature of groups, as well as what might distinguish Canada from the UK (and Europe more generally - I don't know as much about Australia).

I think a key to the success of Canadian multiculturalism is that it has always had a strong integrationist edge. Thus, while critics in Canada worry about separate societies or parallel communities, it is clear that government policy and public opinion favor recognition and accommodation within a general framework of integration. The meanings of multiculturalism in Europe don't underscore the integrative side as much.

As importantly, (Anglo) Canadian multiculturalism has been largely embraced because it served to help craft a new, unique *Canadian* identity that was not British and not American. The rapid embrace of multiculturalism in the 1970s and 1980s lies in no small part in the way this idea set Canada apart from (and in the minds of many, better than) other countries.

Because Quebec, especially Francophones, have a distinct national identity, multiculturalism has never played the same role there, as the post about interculturalism makes clear.

Perhaps the unique contours of British nationalism can also explain why the UK -- and especially government officials -- dislike multiculturalism so much today?

Irene Bloemraad

Thank you, Irene, for such eloquent and intelligent analysis of multiculturalism and citizenship! As a cross-cultural trainer, working with cultural diversity in Sydney, Australia, I see the same thing so clearly here on the ground:

The more society and majority population signals "I hear you" , through the cultural differences in our communication, and "I see you", regardless of what you look like, the more immigrants feel like they belong. Which starts this virtuous circle of wanting to integrate and contribute. Which of course is totally different to assimilate, when you cut of your "cultural arm" to fit in so that you can survive. But that's another topic.

By developing Cultural Intelligence, I help people "hear" and "see" each other clearly through cultural difference. In the process, that difference becomes interesting rather than threatening. My experience on this micro, person-to-person level in the training room has been that it contributed to a thriving multicultural society. You have just given me the macro-picture which validates that notion. Thank you so much!

Best wishes,

Charlotta Oberg
Cross-Cultural Consultant
Sydney, Australia