The New Mainstream Revisited

By Guy Garcia

Once upon a time in America, the nation was defined and reflected in a culture dominated by Anglo-Saxon assumptions and popular media that re-enforced that perspective. Once upon a time, Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and other minorities were kept mostly on the margins, geographically contained and easily identified and categorized by their skin color, food, music and language. The process of acculturation was a one-way street and the purported goal of every immigrant was to gradually discard their ethnic heritage and disappear, or melt, into the great cultural cauldron of America.

That America, if it ever really existed, is long gone, a historical mirage air brushed by a hazy mist of nostalgia. Still, it is sometimes invoked by some who long for an era when plain vanilla ruled and the ubiquity of Dulce de Leche Häagen-Dazs ice cream and Habanero Guacamole tortilla chips was just a twinkle in a savvy marketer's eye. Even before the 2000 U.S. Census signaled that the United States would become a multicultural majority nation by 2050, salsa was outselling catsup and the signs of unprecedented demographic and cultural change were becoming evident in the nation's most populous metro areas and states.

A decade ago, in my book The New Mainstream, I argued that Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and other once-marginalized groups, along with a growing contingent of young, educated non-Hispanic whites, were collectively forging a new social reality that was redefining American identity and fueling the growth of culturally-diverse U.S. consumer markets. In the ensuing years, that perspecitve gained traction as businesses and organizations of every stripe have awakened to the rising buying power and cultural clout of multicultural consumers.

Today, with the EthniFacts CulturEdgesm IPI Clock set to go off on August 22nd at 7:56 PM EDT, we can for the first time measure the stunning acceleration and breathtaking scope of America's transformation into a post-Melting Pot society. The linear model of acculturation that lies at the root of the Melting Pot myth has been replaced by evolving ethnic identities and an aspirational shift toward pan-cultural fluency. Taco Bell, which once used a Chihuahua to sell its wares, now unabashedly employs a multicultural army of Ronald McDonalds in irreverent ads designed to dethrone its iconic fast-food rival. Even plain vanilla, it turns out, is a blend of many different cultural flavors.

Beyond the Melting Pot

The unfinished pyramid on the Great Seal of the United States, commissioned by the founding fathers in 1776, and put on the one dollar bill by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was created to symbolize the idea that the republic could only be completed by succeeding generations of newcomers and their children, who would contribute their ideas and energy to a perpetually evolving nation. America's ability to absorb new arrivals remains at the core of American social ideals and is an essential component of its cultural richness and economic success. In recent decades, the growing purchasing power and cultural assertiveness of Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and other ethnic groups have upended traditional paradigms of acculturation. For example, there is evidence that both the most- and least-acculturated Hispanics are engaged in an aspirational shift toward an Ambicultural center where traditional cultural values and identity exist alongside more mainstream "American" ones.

As the United States approaches a CulturEdgesm tipping point, and the number and influence of minorities in the U.S. steadily increases, their desire and ability to retain elements of their culture has stirred debate over the pros and cons of an increasingly multicultural society. Specifically, are they following the traditional model of "melting pot" Americanization, or are they, as some recent evidence suggests, forming their own alternative to the homogenizing foundry of acculturation?

The idea of the American "melting pot," as the symbol of a national smelting or fusing of various races and cultures into a national amalgam, dates back as far as 1782 when J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, alluded to the process in his book, Letters from an American Farmer. "What then is the American, this new man? ... He becomes an American by being received into the broad lap of our great alma mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world."

But by the mid-20th century, the concept of the United States as a mono-cultural social soup no longer fit the facts. "The notion that the intense and unprecedented mixture of ethnic and religious groups in American life was soon to blend into a homogenous end product has outlived its usefulness, and also its credibility," wrote Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan in their 1963 book, Beyond the Melting Pot. Glazer and Moynihan concluded that cultural heterogeneity was a dynamic element in the ongoing evolution of U.S. society. "The American nationality is still forming," they concluded. "Its processes are mysterious, and the final form, if there is every to be a final form, is as yet unknown"

Since the 17th and 18th century, when Anglo-European became the dominant cultural paradigm for the United States, influxes of immigrants have been systematically marginalized and categorized as "Others" who exist outside the American social mainstream. Until recently, acculturation by non-Anglos was portrayed as a one-way process leading to a homogenous, Anglo-centric American mainstream. But as Richard Alba and Victor Nee point out in Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration, "The American Mainstream, which originated with the colonial northern European settlers, has evolved through incremental inclusion of ethnic and racial groups that formerly were excluded and accretion of parts of their cultures to the composite culture."

The flaw in the melting pot definition of America is its tacit assumption that acculturation only takes place in one direction, and that the country that newcomers assimilate into is a static, fixed entity. What melting pot metaphorians fail to understand is that the pot, in effect, also melts. Throughout U.S. history, when immigrants have brought the tastes and textures of their homelands into the process of becoming American, the encounter has been mutually beneficial – and mutually transformational.

Amber Waves

During the 1990s, with the percentage of the foreign-born population in U.S. at near record highs, demographic shifts and the implicit possibility of cultural sustainability inspired a new paradigm for American society as a salad bowl or mosaic, where people of different ethnicities and races coexist as distinct but harmonious ingredients in a kind of multicultural potpourri. While validating the concept of Cultural Parity between various racial and ethnic groups, salad bowls and mosaics fall short of capturing the increasingly interactive and contextual nature of American identity between – and across – all groups, including non-Hispanic whites.

The 2010 U.S. Census--which was made available in English, Spanish, simplified Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese and Korean, and promoted through various media in a total of 28 different languages--showed that Hispanics and other multicultural groups are evolving in ways that have nothing in common with pots or salads. The Census revealed a steep rise in the percentage of respondents who selected one or more choices for race or ethnicity, reflecting new variations of American identity that are situational, multidimensional and malleable. "The idea of a single mainstream culture [in the United States] doesn't make sense anymore," observed then U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves.

In an age where social media, instant language translation software and personalized online avatars are melding and blurring the boundaries between race, ethnicity and nationality, people are not so much melting as they are morphing, merging and mashing. Young Americans, who are already majority multicultural by definition, see no contradiction in being many things at once, and they can reinvent themselves at will, instantly and globally.

As Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and other groups have expanded their demographic and cultural presence, and white Americans edge closer to the brink of becoming a numerical minority, a corresponding social evolution has opened the door to new psycho-social paradigms and a lexicon that includes Ambiculturalism, Cultural Sustainability, CulturEdgesm, Interculturism and Transnational Identity. As the IPI CulturEdgesm Clock advances, and more U.S. cities and states join the multicultural majority mainstream, the tangible awareness of a culturally and ethnically diverse America will advance to the center of the national conversation, cultivate civic and commercial engagement and point the way to the nation's collective future.

Guy Garcia is President of New Mainstream Initiatives for EthniFacts and the author ofThe New Mainstream: How the Multicultural Consumer Is Transforming American Business.