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Pastora San Juan Cafferty

Our Diverse Society

Race and Ethnicity—Implications for 21st Century American Society

Our Diverse Society is the result of a group of scholars coming together to analyze issues raised by the role that race, ethnicity, and class play in American society at the beginning of the 21st century, as well as the questions that these three factors raise about poverty and inequality in an increasingly prosperous but divided country. The book does so in the context of identifying and discussing public policy issues and their implications for social policy and social work practice.

Thirty years ago, a small study group was created at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago to attempt to come to terms with race and ethnicity as a social phenomenon, and to understand the implication of that phenomenon for the teaching and practice of social work. The papers presented in those meetings were eventually edited into a volume: The Diverse Society: Implications for Social Policy, which I edited with Leon Chestang and was published by NASW in l976. Similarly, chapters edited for this book by David Engstrom and Lissette Piedra were first presented in a symposium, “Race and Ethnicity in American Life: Diversity and Society,” held at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago in the spring of 2005.

Much has changed in the past three decades. Thirty years ago, we were all reading Ellison’s Invisible Man (1947), discussing Nathan Glazer’s and Pat Moynihan’s Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), and debating the merits of Michael Novak’s Unmeltable Ethnics (1972). Joseph Fitzgerald, the wonderful Jesuit sociologist who joined our group, was writing about the Puerto Ricans—“the newcomers” who a worried Oscar Handlin believed would never become Americans (1971); never mind that they were, in fact, American citizens. It was a time, following the heady 1960s, a time of celebrating racial pride and ethnic differences. The l965 amendments to the immigration laws had repudiated racial and ethnic preferences as racist and exclusionary. It was a time in which scholars argued that to be considered American, immigrants need not shed their culture and that cultural pluralism was the complex reality of the immigrant experience. We had not yet learned to fear the racial and ethnic diversity brought about by the new migration that was to ensue.

Today, we are in an era of renewed—and I would say dangerous—nativism in the United States. Scholars as well as politicians voice an apparently widespread fear that “our Anglo-Protestant culture” is threatened. These fears echo the concerns expressed by the Dillingham Commission (1909–1910), a blue-ribbon commission established to recommend immigration reform, that the “new immigrants” (at that time, the Poles and the Italians) could not assimilate into American society and thus would change all we value about the nation forever.1 Today, of course, it is the assimilated Poles and Italians, along with the rest of us, who worry that the “new immigrants”—the Mexicans, the Iraqis, the Thais, the Sudanese—cannot become American. Editorials in newspapers and the ubiquitous talk-show hosts on 24-hour cable channels voice fears that resonate with many Americans.

The blatant racism of the Dillingham Commission is not acceptable today. However, fear of, distrust of, and antipathy toward those who are “not like us” echo loudly throughout U.S. history. Our present-day fear that newcomers will change American culture and the complexion of American society are remarkably congruent with the perceived threat to the nation expressed by those learned and august individuals who sat on the Dillingham Commission, and of the scholars who documented their prejudices.

The fear of newcomers is, then, a leitmotif in the history of this nation: a nation of immigrants that not only welcomed, but often recruited, immigrants yet always feared the change each successive migration would bring to American society. It seems to me, however, that in the years at the turn of each of the centuries since the British colonies became an American nation, we have experienced pronounced nativism. It may be a coincidence, or it may be that new centuries, which call for national introspection, bring to the surface a national anxiety about who we are as a people. Certainly the events at the beginning of this 21st century have brought about great anxiety.

This fear of newcomers has been shared by such distinguished Americans as Henry Adams and Frederick Jackson Turner. Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1952), worried that immigrants from nations governed by absolute monarchs would “bring with them the principles of government they leave” and “transmit these principles, with their language . . . to their children.” As the government then being established by the new nation was unique in the political experience of the day, Jefferson was, in fact, describing all newcomers, although one must conclude that those who spoke English somehow would better understand the democratic principles of the Enlightenment. This fear of those “who came after” by those “who came before” resonates from the earliest days of the settlers. Those who came to establish freedom of religion for themselves seldom wanted to grant it to others. This may be inevitable in a nation of successive waves of newcomers. Those who came established themselves and their society at great cost; they were not about to let those who came after threaten their way of life.

However, they let them come; in fact, they recruited immigrants. Crevecoeur, in his Letters of an American Farmer (1997), asked a particularly salient question: “What is an American?” His answer was neither a political document nor a patriotic tract defining an American: It was written to recruit new immigrants from Europe. The new nation needed workers to build roads and dig canals; later to lay railroad tracks, mine coal, smelt iron, and forge steel; and then, much later, to build automobiles and airplanes.

If we were reluctant to admit new immigrants, we nevertheless eventually welcomed them as fellow citizens. The Founding Fathers defined citizenship in the sense of the Enlightenment, in that no one was to be denied—with the shameful exclusions of African slaves (a compromise to appease the South and satisfy the economic needs of the North that would return to haunt the new nation) and American Indians, whose lands were being taken to satisfy the thirst for land of the “settlers” and those who followed. The writings of the Founding Fathers and early naturalization laws made clear that citizenship would be granted to those committed to the political principles in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

In principle, it was clear: Anyone who pledged allegiance to the principles in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution could become an American. In practice, there were exclusions. Africans and their descendants and American Indians were not given an opportunity to become citizens, nor were women allowed to establish citizenship except through their husbands. Asians were admitted and then they were excluded. Eastern and Southern Europeans came by the millions until they too were deemed “inferior” and a “danger to the republic,” and largely excluded based on the quota system recommended by the Dillingham Commission. Those who were admitted and could become citizens without giving up their language and culture nevertheless largely did so: names were changed, accents hidden, and cultural pasts mostly forgotten. It was the price to be paid to be considered an American, to have full participation in this promised land. Today, America is more restrictive in granting citizenship: Literacy is required, as is knowledge of United States history and political institutions for all but the very young and the very old.

At the turn of the 21st century, there are calls for a recommitment to a primarily Christian country as well as to Anglo-Protestant values—a focus on religion that mirrors the religious revivals at the turn of the last century. There are fears that Americans will not continue to speak English and maintain the country’s European cultural heritage. Some express a yearning to return to an America with a homogeneous identity, as eulogized in patriotic tracts and the Thomas Nast cartoons of the Gilded Age. The new nativism expresses fear of a loss of English as the American language, of the realities and myths that define American culture, and of society defined by the Christianity brought by early settlers.

Certainly, the common historical past is important in the definition of a nation, as is the mythology that arises when a national identity is formed. Such common bonds forge national pride, important to creating common goals and values in a society where such common values make for a strong political and (one could argue) economic identity. One can argue that English became the language that made it possible for successive generations of immigrants to participate in the national dialogue that has defined and redefined the nation. Although the first Congress debated the wisdom of a “bilingual nation” and of conducting official business in English and French, English became the common language, the lingua franca, of commerce and increasingly of science and politics throughout the world, not because of an ideology but because of economics. Although Benjamin Franklin and, later, William McKinley, fretted that democratic principles were best stated and understood in English, it was economics rather than ideology or politics that made English preeminent. It has been and it continues to be the language of the American nation. Present-day immigrants, by the second generation, are overwhelmingly English-language dominant; many are English-monolingual in a nation where foreign languages are valued only when taught as a second language to native English speakers. Like the other immigrants and settlers who preceded them, today’s immigrants lose their languages and their customs in order to become American.

The fact is that this land was never homogeneous and Americans were never all “Anglo-Protestant.” When the first census was taken in 1790, those of African descent outnumbered those of British descent. Even in those original 13 states that hugged the eastern seaboard, though the English language was dominant, different cultures were coming together to define the new nation. And while the English, Germans, and Dutch were “settling” the East Coast, the Spanish were settling the South and the West, all territory that was to become the United States.

However, the past 30 years have seen dramatic increases in the heterogeneity that is these United States. This diversity resulted from the 1965 Immigration Act, the effects of which were becoming readily apparent by the 1980 Census. The demographic changes occasioned by the immigration resulting from the 1965 amendments (and subsequent immigration reforms) have been augmented by a global migration, reflecting the will of those living in impoverished and often war-torn nations to go to safer, more developed countries to find work and security for themselves and their families. The 2000 Census showed that the non-Hispanic white population has grown older: Hispanics, African Americans, and Asian and Pacific Islanders make up 40 percent of the 18.6 million children under five years of age in the country. Those children are now in our public schools and are being joined by others whose parents continue to come to what is seen as a land of opportunity.

All these demographic changes are taking place while issues of race and color continue to plague U.S. society. Poverty, overcrowding of schools, the inaccessibility of health care, an ever-growing demand for highly skilled and educated workers; growing religious diversity, and questions of language loyalty must be addressed in the context of an increasingly diverse nation. The historic definition of race as Black or White is challenged not only by a growing multiracial population, but also by those who come from countries where race and class have definitions differing from those that have traditionally ordered U.S. society.

The fact is that America has once again dramatically become a nation of immigrants. One in 10 Americans is an immigrant: one-half of these are Hispanic and one-fourth Asian American. Questions of national allegiance and of inclusion loom large at the beginning of the 21st century. In the 20th century, religious inclusion led to a definition of this country as a “Judeo-Christian” nation, but that inclusion is being tested by the unprecedented growth in those identifying as Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu.

These changing demographics—the unprecedented diversity of the population—is the leitmotif that runs through any discussion of American society in the 21st century. Those who would create social policies that result in a better society for all must understand and address questions raised by race, ethnicity, and poverty: characteristics that continue to be aligned in any serious discussion of social policy and social work practice.

End Note

1. The complete Dillingham Commission reports may be found at depts/dlp/ebrary/dillingham/body.shtml [Return]


Cafferty, P. S. J., & Chestang, L. (1976). The diverse society: Implications for social policy. Washington, DC: NASW.

Crevecoeur, J. H. St. John de. (1997). Letters from an American farmer. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ellison, R. W. (1947). Invisible man. New York: Random House.

Glazer, N., & Moynihan, D. P. (1963). Beyond the melting pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Handlin, O. (1971). The newcomer: Negroes and Puerto Ricans in a changing metropolis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jefferson, T. (1952). Notes on the State of Virginia. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. (Original work published 1743–1826)

Novak, M. (1972). The rise of the unmeltable ethnics. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press.