The problem with melting pots is that the scum usually rises to the top while those on the bottom get burned. This happens because the melting pot paradigm reinforces oppressive structures presently existing within society while blaming the victims of those structures for their own oppression.
In effect, those with power and privilege are able to impose a system that protects their lifestyle from the criticism of those living on the margins of society. Therefore liberation from oppression can only occur when those struggling for a voice cease trying to assimilate into something that they are not.
Probably the greatest lie of the melting pot paradigm is that if we simply assimilate, we will be accepted. Believing this lie, I changed my name from Miguel to Mike. I even styled my hair in order to melt into the dominant culture.
No matter how hard I tried, the society demanding my assimilation did not let me forget that I was still a Latino. When I tried to get a job to feed my children, the only employment I could find was the stereotypical janitor job at a church, even though I was an ordained minister, former pastor and former business owner. Few of my Euroamerican seminary classmates had to mop floors. They, with no experience or training, were able to immediately find church positions as ministers.
The melting pot masks the fact that being white has its privileges. In a recent study, unskilled, unemployed whites in Detroit, (representing the rest of the nation’s major cities), were able to generate a job offer in approximately 91 hours. It took unskilled, unemployed blacks 167 hours to obtain a similar offer. Social forces such as these produce opportunities for one segment of society and deny them to another.
Whiteness also protects violators of the law from being punished as severely as nonwhites. A report released by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights found justice and skin pigmentation continue to remain linked. The report found that Latino/as are likely to be released in only 26 percent of their legal cases, while non-Hispanics are released before trial 66 percent of the time; and blacks who kill whites were sentenced to death 22 times more frequently than blacks who kill blacks, and seven times more frequently than whites who kill blacks. Additionally, black youths are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white youths, even when charged with similar crimes and when neither has a prior record.
So, it’s not that we are trying to see ourselves as victims, or wallow in self-pity; rather, statistics such as these continue to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that being non-white means less access to opportunities, regardless of how much we attempt to assimilate.
Simply ask yourself a question: Has thumping the melting pot model during the last half-century healed the festering wound of racism? Of course not. The fallacy of the melting pot theory is that we are all supposed to melt into something akin to a Euroamerican. Yet, America needs to accept me for what I am, as I learn to accept and celebrate other groups for what they are.
I am a Latino man named Miguel, not Mike. Learn to deal with it. I am proud of the heritage and accomplishments of my people. I am also shamed by the atrocities my people have committed. Both the good and bad of my culture make me who I am today. No matter how hard I try I will never be Anglo, nor will I be accepted as Anglo, nor should I be. There is much that my culture has to offer others, just as there is much I need to learn from my Asian, black and Euroamerican friends.
Like a salad, we are all distinct. For the salad is not one element, but many. Unlike the melting pot paradigm, a truer American cultural salad retains the differing flavors of its diverse roots while enriching all other elements. The lettuce cannot say to the tomato, Why aren’t you lettuce? Nor can the broccoli tell the pickle, You must assimilate and become like broccoli. Each separate element is distinctively celebrated, while together becoming something greater than the sum of its parts. What a great concept: A richly diverse and talented multicultural America!
Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.