From Melting Pot to Symphony

From Melting Pot to Symphony


Cultural Pluralism and Immigration History Education


Though published nearly two decades ago, Mai M. Ngai’s Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America still holds relevance in understanding the framework surrounding race, citizenship, and culture in the debate on immigration today. The historical perspective and theory of cultural pluralism, which Ngai highlights in Impossible Subjects, should not be lost when evaluating contemporary immigration reform in modern-day education systems.  Throughout the book, Ngai analyzes the different phases of immigration legislation, from the Immigration Act of 1924 to the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. In Chapter Seven of Impossible Subjects, titled “The Liberal Critique and Reform of Immigration Policy,” Ngai evaluates the evolution of immigration legislation in post-World War II America. She argues that the driving force behind immigration reform was influenced by a combination of cultural pluralism and nationalism. Ngai introduces these liberal perspectives towards immigration in the chapter and the consequences it had on immigration policy: she argues they emerged because of the United States’ status as a “world superpower,” as Ngai puts it, and in the historical context of post-war race and class relations. Her argument suggests that the evolution of United States immigration policy during this period was shaped by a complex interplay between ideas of domestic inclusion and the preservation of the nation’s global position, which had material implications for the nature of immigration reform and whom it sought to include and exclude. The first subsection of Chapter Seven specifically focuses on the emergence of cultural pluralism — which she interprets as the liberal alternative to American narratives such as the melting pot, anti-alienism, and pure nationalism.

Ngai begins by situating immigration policy within the historical context of the civil rights movement. As racial politics directly influenced immigration legislation, Ngai explains how both of these social changes reflected not only the state of equal rights in America but also the liberal discourse surrounding these issues. She criticizes the notions of race and citizenship concerning how immigrants were, and continue to be, perceived. Above all, Ngai underscores that the liberals, who placed high value on the idea of citizenship, constructed alienism as citizenship’s opposite—which was ultimately fueled by post-war nationalism. As the US emerged as a dominant global superpower in the aftermath of World War II, many wanted to demonstrate the strength and unity of the nation. This subsequently impacted attitudes toward immigrants and restrictions on immigration as a whole. The contrast between an alien versus a citizen was extremely significant in how immigrants were treated. As our contemporary world deals with humanitarian and refugee crises, it is crucial to understand Ngai’s perspective on the liberal narratives of immigration policy. 

Many Americans can recall learning about American history and its unique demographic composition of immigrants as a “melting pot.” However, cultural pluralism directly contrasts this idea. Cultural pluralism can be defined as the act of minority groups maintaining their individual identities while participating in the culture of the dominant society. This phenomenon is seen both as an ideal and a truth among immigrants in America, as assimilation is often seen as the ultimate goal for many. Ngai introduces the early twentieth-century origins of the pluralist perspective, which can be credited to philosopher Horace Kallen. Kallen rejected the melting pot metaphor and instead compared his view of the U.S. to an orchestra, likening national unity with “the harmony and dissonances and discords” of instruments (representing different ethnic groups) to “make the symphony of civilization.”1 Cultural pluralism is what Ngai describes as an “immigrant intervention”—the term expresses the new immigrant groups’ pride in preserving their heritage while also embracing their American identity. While cultural pluralism was merely a background thought in the late-Progressive-era conversations about race and identity, it gained traction in the 1930s after the New Deal. Although cultural pluralism within the context of immigration notably reflected aspects of race and ethnicity, the Left viewed the issue also as a problem of working-class unity. Additionally, New Deal liberalism emphasized an empathy for cultural diversity, and as a result, many adopted pluralist ideology.2 Despite slight momentum from the New Deal, Ngai explains how cultural pluralism was significantly heightened by both World War II and the Cold War. These eras also reflected pivotal moments for immigration policy. For example, by 1945, over 125,000 Germans, most of whom were Jewish, immigrated to America as Congress had changed immigration quotas to address the crisis of WWII.3 The spread of fascism prompted American liberals to examine immigrant relations and recognize the importance of inclusion and national unity. As Ngai puts it, the “liberals clearly saw the war as an opportunity for advancing cultural pluralism.”4

However, while cultural pluralism gave immigrants a place to retain their ethnic identity, it is essential to note that the liberal conception of the ideology also harbored a nationalistic motive to redefine America as a culturally diverse and inclusive nation. Ngai explores the American notion of “greatness,” whose definition moved from the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race to the evolving pluralist ethos. As the United States developed from ideas of nativism and assimilation to pluralism, immigration policy and other monumental democratic reform movements followed the path toward national unity. These measures included the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces and major league baseball. Additionally, Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, although this action was more reflective of America’s rebranding rather than the government’s genuine commitment to combating anti-immigrant sentiment.5 In understanding the significance of the U.S.’s shift towards cultural pluralism, Ngai highlights the value of anti-racism in this approach. The melting pot ideology fails to recognize cultural differences and also insinuates that all Americans get along perfectly well—therefore undermining and invalidating the experiences of immigrants who faced, and even continue to face, persecution and discriminatory laws. On the other hand, the “orchestra” approach was celebrated by Black civil rights leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois due to its acceptance of diverse perspectives. Ngai demonstrates that cultural pluralism reflects the values of liberation, diversity, and anti-colonialism through the freedom it gave immigrants. As our world today pushes to represent diverse histories, understanding America and its history through a pluralistic lens is vital. 

As Ngai explains in Impossible Subjects, many liberals embraced cultural pluralism for it promoted national unity while simultaneously recognizing the multifaceted identity of the American immigrant. However, her framework also both explicitly and implicitly suggests that the pluralist sentiment could be expanded through the lens of education. Ngai evaluates how the ideology has historically been adopted at a national level. For example, the U.S. Department of Education endorsed a 1938 radio broadcast, “Americans All, Immigrants All,” to acknowledge the ever-increasing immigrant presence as European fascism spread during the war.6 In response to World War II, American liberals believed in the promotion of unity and inclusivity with immigrants to counter fascism. While the melting pot lens is still taught today in schools, there was a strong pluralist presence with the motivation to portray America as what writer Louis Adamic called a “nation of nations” where immigrants had “the freedom to be different.”7 These attitudes toward immigrants, diversity, and inclusion became even more popular following WWII. However, regardless of this radical vision for the U.S. to be seen as a place where ethnic and cultural diversity thrived, education systems did not, and still do not, reflect this idea. Ngai illustrates this by examining how cultural pluralism evolved in the Cold War along with accompanying rising American nationalism, likening the phenomenon to identity politics. She argues that Cold War liberalism reduced the emphasis on the cultural aspect of cultural pluralism in order to encourage political participation. Cold War pluralism transformed into a manifestation of American nationalism, placing a focus on national unity, and thus embodied the melting pot model rather than the symphony.

Ngai concludes the chapter with the landmark Immigration Act of 1965. The most notable parts of the law all aligned with the pluralist perspective that Ngai introduces. For example, it eliminated race and national origins-based quotas, emphasized reuniting immigrant families, and attracted skill-based labor. Instead, these quotas were replaced with a twenty thousand immigrant limit per country of the Eastern Hemisphere, including Africa, Asia, and Europe.8 Nevertheless, the act had major restrictions that ultimately harmed non-European immigrant communities despite the fact that liberals depicted it as inclusionary and liberating. In particular, the numerical caps severely restricted migration from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America, creating a spike in undocumented immigration.9 Ngai explains the increased usage of the racist term “illegal alien” in targeting Mexicans as a result of the 1965 Act. This framing perpetuated the misconception that a majority of “illegal aliens” were Mexican while also amplifying anti-immigrant sentiment. Despite the exclusionary aspects of the Hart–Celler Act, Ngai points out that many historians see the legislation as a pivotal event in advancing cultural pluralism.

While Ngai critiques the negative aspects of the 1965 Act, she also brings up how many minority groups’ lack of agency within the immigration reform movement inspired them to create ones of their own. The birth of Asian American, Chicano, and Latino Studies in the 1980s and 1990s was inspired by the Black liberation and civil rights movement. They aimed to challenge American nationalism and its standards of assimilation by redefining immigrant and ethnic history with a focus on race and decolonization. This caused pedagogy to expand and challenge the common liberal conceptions of pluralism, universal citizenship, and assimilation.10 While cultural studies has emerged across public schools in America, history is still very much taught with a Eurocentric lens, a phenomenon that Ngai attributes to liberal nationalism. As we envision a pedagogical model that shifts away from depicting America as a melting pot and instead to the metaphor of a pluralist orchestra, we can celebrate histories that have frequently been overlooked or inaccurately narrated. Impossible Subjects can be recognized as an example of cultural and ethnic studies in the twenty-first century: Ngai investigates specific case studies of untold histories in order to both preserve and authentically share the perspective of marginalized communities, contributing to a richer comprehension of the complex American identity. By doing so, she redefines the prevailing Western narrative of immigration history while advocating for the pluralist narrative.

A contemporary case of integrating cultural narratives, specifically from a pluralist standpoint, is the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in K-12 schools. While CRT, which emerged as early as the 1970s, mainly focuses on ideas such as viewing race as a social construct or examining American history from the lens of systemic racism and slavery, it also expands to subjects like immigration and citizenship history.11 This expansion is grounded in the historical connections between race and immigration. As Ngai puts it, “cultural pluralism is at the foundation of anti-racism and cultural relativism.”12 However, CRT today is highly controversial, especially since it reframes U.S. history entirely differently than how many Americans have learned it. Critics argue that CRT is divisive and creates an “us versus them” theory. As a result, four states in the U.S. placed legal limits on how teachers can discuss race in the classroom, which explicitly targets CRT.13 Those who challenge CRT have a mentality similar to the melting pot teaching model: they believe that celebrating differences causes polarization and political divisiveness among students. Conservative media outlets such as Fox News and Republican politicians such as former President Donald Trump have argued against CRT on claims that it is “ripping apart society.”14 Additionally, Chris Rufo, researcher of Discovery Institute, a politically conservative think tank, spoke out against CRT, stating, “[CRT] divides Americans by race and traffics in the pernicious concepts of race essentialism, racial stereotyping, and race-based segregation—all under a false pursuit of ‘social justice.’”15

The current opposition to CRT can be compared to the historical efforts of educators pushing for the Americanization of education over several decades. Ellwood P. Cubberley, an American educator and researcher who supported the melting pot theory as well as eugenics, said in the early twentieth century, “Our task is to break up these groups or settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate these people as a part of our American race, and to implant in their children… the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness.”16 Both approaches toward education are rooted in assimilation and hostility toward the intersection of immigrant communities and racial minorities. The opposition of CRT is the modern-day version of Americanization and the melting pot metaphor in education—they both neglect diversity and deprive people of color and immigrants of their identities. As Ngai pushes for a more pluralist pedagogy by advocating for cultural and ethnic studies, we can apply CRT to immigrant history as well. CRT acknowledges many modern issues of race relations that are connected to immigration reform as well. For example, CRT addresses issues such as anti‐immigration sentiment, increased militarization of the US-Mexico border, and a significant rise in the number of immigrant fatalities along the border.17 By connecting CRT with cultural pluralism in contemporary education systems, we can think about racial difference as an integral part of the American experience in order to represent all histories. Just as Ngai emphasizes in Impossible Subjects, the integration of cultural studies not only limits racism by expanding our knowledge and cultural understandings of each other but also promotes both national and racial inclusivity. 

Understanding Ngai’s stance on cultural pluralism in Impossible Subjects is fundamental to our perceptions of immigrant history and how we can continue redefining nationalistic and Western narratives today in American public education systems. The pluralist and multi-cultural view Ngai offers should be taught in public schools for students to learn a complete and comprehensive American immigrant history rather than the Western lens, which many are too familiar with. As we abandon the melting pot theory, we can also abandon the standards of assimilation toward which many immigrants and people of color feel pressured to conform, therefore, create a space in education for everyone to belong.

  1. Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton University Press, 2014), 231.
  2. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 232.
  3. “Immigration to the United States 1933–1941.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Holocaust Encyclopedia.
  4. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 233.
  5. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 233.
  6. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 232.
  7. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 232.
  8. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 258.
  9. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 261.
  10. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 263.
  11. Stephen Sawchuk, “What Is Critical Race Theory, and Why Is It Under Attack?” Education Week, Mar. 24, 2023,
  12. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 231.
  13. Sarah Schwartz, “Four States Have Placed Legal Limits on How Teachers Can Discuss Race. More May Follow,” Education Week, June 18, 2021,
  14. Sam Dorman, “What Is Critical Race Theory?” Fox News, May 14, 2021,
  15. Sam Dorman, “Legal Coalition Forming to Stop Critical Race Theory Training Around the Country.” Fox News, 20 Jan. 2021,
  16. Raymond A. Mohl, “Cultural Pluralism in Immigrant Education: The International Institutes of Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, 1920-1940,” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 1, no. 2 (1982): 236, JSTOR,
  17. Mary Romero, “Crossing the immigration and race border: A critical race theory approach to immigration studies,” Contemporary Justice Review 11, no. 1 (2008): 23-37, DOI: 10.1080/10282580701850371.
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