02/08/2013 04:34 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

Is Multiculturalism Dead?

According to many U.S. newspapers, Europe has seen the death of multiculturalism, the socio-political initiative that would change the face and social fiber of nations for the good of all. Were this true, it would mean that multicultural-centric public policies in Europe have failed: After decades of trying, countries have been unable to integrate immigrants while their goal of respecting or even praising cultures did not contribute to any effective degree of social integration. Those who feared it argued that multiculturalism would create separate communities and promote the emergence of internal enemies from within.

Given such dire proclamations, American neoconservatives have looked to Europe with a renewed hope and enthusiasm, rejoicing in recent political judgments set down by heads of state Angela Merkel, David Cameron and former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. In 2010, German Chancellor Merkel declared to a meeting of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party that multiculturalism had "utterly failed," a remark that was greeted with a standing ovation. One year later, Prime Minister Cameron defined Britain's long-standing state-sponsored policy of multiculturalism as an "abysmal failure." France's Sarkozy espoused more or less the same tone: French public policies were too concentrated on the culture of those who arrived and not enough on the host culture.

Upon closer inspection, however, these obituaries are the result of neo-conservative and populist tendencies, which have been prevalent in a Europe concerned with growing migrations, a fear of Islam, and a historical tolerance that has been annihilated by a withering and unrelenting economic crisis. Still, beyond this superficial debate there are other, more sound criticisms of multiculturalism that need to be considered.

Normative multiculturalism, or strong multiculturalism, born in the 1970s and further developed over the 1980s, is rooted in a rigid conception of cultures as objective, immutable, and reified. This perspective freezes differences and imprisons its members within rigid collective identities. It assumes that cultures can be univocally defined and its members have identical forms of belonging within them; such multiculturalism has been used by conservatives to highlight a civilization clash and to emphasize the need to protect national cultures from a dangerous tainting caused by incoming migrant cultures. In the public sphere, this multiculturalism entails concessions, grants, and privileges to safeguard minority cultures in various sectors (health, religion, welfare, political representation, etc.), and to protect traditional languages, religious habits and customs. It is an institutional multiculturalism, requiring political initiative based on a cultural interpretation of the public sphere.

However, what is important to remember is that what is happening now is a most serious backlash to multiculturalism in the European Union, and if one were to consider some of the most strident cases of anti-multicultural public policies -- such as Arizona's anti-immigrant law -- then the same can be said about the United States.

Multiculturalism is the struggle to incorporate diversity that emerged as a response to conflicts within 20th century inter-group relations and addressed the challenges of integration. It is fully ingrained in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, as well as the New Civil Right Movement of the 21st Century.

As exemplified in the debates about protection of the U.S. borders and recent arguments about Arizona's and Alabama's draconian anti-immigration measures, the issue of multiculturalism overall has been conflated with the issue of the "invasion" of undocumented immigrants and, according to neoconservatives, therefore approximates the European Union's situation.

Added to the argument against multiculturalism is a distinction in the way citizenship is granted in the U.S. versus how it is granted in Europe. The different articulation of the jus sanguinis (born from parents who hold the host country's nationality) and the jus solis (born in a foreign territory) policies, has prompted conservative sectors in the U.S., following the example of most European countries, to hesitate around granting citizenship to the children of immigrants who are born in their country.

We are currently in the midst of the largest wave of migration ever seen worldwide and global cities today are more diverse than ever before. Diversity, the heart of multiculturalism, defines the world economy and social fabric of cities around the globe, and most certainly characterizes the populations of the United States as well as European nations and will for generations to come.

After carefully considering the debates around multiculturalism and current world demographics, we must ask: what kind of multiculturalism is dead? The discourse about multiculturalism cannot be characterized as homogeneous and coherent. On the contrary, ideas, policies, and practices implemented under the umbrella of multiculturalism are too heterogeneous and diverse to be considered a monolithic model.

Multiculturalism is far from dead; it is our current world and our future. We must focus our efforts on building a social-justice-oriented multicultural education system in order to overcome the contradictory implementation of current policies and practices or the creation of a 'straw man' theory that is easily pulled apart, particularly by the neoconservatives in this country and abroad.

The politics of anti-multiculturalism -- anger and hate -- predicated by those who still live in the Stone Age, are not the way to move forward. Nor are policies advocated by those who preach for an English-only nation, or who reject the need for comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S., one that includes a path for citizenship, or for an open racism defending privileges of a society long gone. While multiculturalism policies point to the importance of diversity and the need to create racial equality we should be reminded that there is a growing class inequality in the U.S. where the 300,000 Americans at the top of the income distribution make as much money as the bottom 150 million combined. We should get to work to eliminate these racial and class inequalities, and education has a major role to play.