Out of the Melting Pot, Into the Fire - Encounter Books

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Out of the Melting Pot, Into the Fire

Multiculturalism in the World's Past and America's Future

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Publication Details

Hardcover / 288 pages
ISBN: 9781641773195
AVAILABLE: 4/11/2023

Out of the Melting Pot, Into the Fire
Multiculturalism in the World's Past and America's Future

The melting pot has been the prevailing ideal for integrating new citizens through most of America’s history, yet contemporary elites often reject it as antiquated and racist. Instead, they advocate multiculturalism, which promotes ethnic boundaries and distinct group identities. Both models have precedents across the centuries, as Jens Heycke demonstrates in a contribution to the debate that incorporates an international, historical perspective.

Heycke surveys multiethnic polities in history, focusing on societies that have shifted between the melting pot and multicultural models. Beginning with ancient Rome, he demonstrates the appeal of a unifying, syncretic identity that diverse individuals can join, regardless of their ethnic or racial origins. He details how early Islam, with its ideal of an inclusive ummah, integrated diverse groups, and even different faiths, into a cohesive and flourishing society. Both civilizations eventually abandoned their integrative ideals in favor of a multicultural paradigm. The consequences of that paradigm shift are instructive for societies that seek to emulate it.

In the modern era, many nations have implemented multicultural policies like group preferences to compensate for past injustices or current disparities. Heycke examines some notable examples: Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka. These nations were on a rough trajectory toward ethnic tolerance and comity, a trajectory that multicultural policies altered dramatically. They contrast with Botswana, a country that opposes group distinctions so resolutely that it prohibits the collection of racial and ethnic statistics.

Since World War II, ethnic conflicts have killed over ten million people. But the consequences of ethnic division go far beyond that. Heycke analyzes those consequences in an international statistical survey of ethnic fractionalization. This survey, combined with the extensive historical record of multiethnic societies, illustrates the staggering costs of accentuating group differences and the benefits of a unifying identity that transcends those differences.

About the Author

JENS KURT HEYCKE was educated in Economics and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago, the London School of Economics, and Princeton University.

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The United States is unlikely to devolve into another Bosnia or Rwanda overnight. However, the history of other multiethnic countries is instructive: ethnic tension can degenerate into ethnic strife, violence, or outright genocide with ferocious speed. At the end of World War II, Sri Lanka was celebrated as a land of ethnic harmony and rosy prospects. A few years later, divisive affirmative action policies sparked a violent conflict that lasted over forty years, killing hundreds of thousands and condemning a once-prosperous island to poverty. Although the United States might not be on quite the same trajectory, that is no cause for insouciance. Group conflict and ethnically-motivated attacks have mounted precipitously in recent years. While most Americans conceive of ethnic conflict in white-black terms, it has become increasingly multilateral, involving other groups. The negative consequences of ethnic division also go beyond overt hate crimes and violence. As the social statistics in this book show, ethnically divided societies that simmer in communal tension suffer dire social and economic costs even when that tension is nonviolent.

While the number of immigrants has soared and ethnic tensions have risen, the philosophy for integrating diverse groups into American society has shifted. For most of US history, the “melting pot” was the prevailing ideal, even if it was imperfectly followed much of the time. Beginning in the 1970s, some mainstream leaders suggested abandoning the melting pot and the goal of a shared national identity. This thinking gained popularity while its focus evolved from tolerating or appreciating the cultural differences and distinctions of diverse ethnic groups to actively fostering and promoting them. The underlying philosophy, known as multiculturalism, also promoted programs and institutions that distinguish individuals based on inherited characteristics, such as race and ethnic origins, and grant preferences to them on that basis.

Although America’s swing from a melting pot to a multicultural model has been vigorously debated, uninformed American exceptionalism has prevailed in this debate. Like my Bosniak van driver, many Americans think their country’s challenges are unique. They are oblivious to the fact that countless other societies in history and around the world have grappled with managing diverse ethnicities. For example, Time magazine’s special issue on American multiculturalism was subtitled: “How Immigrants Are Shaping the World’s First Multicultural Society.” Apparently, Time’s writers were unaware of the existence of the Roman, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian Empires, as well as a long succession of other multicultural societies that punctuate fifty centuries of history all the way back to pre-dynastic Egypt. This myopia is ironic in the case of multiculturalism’s proponents: while they emphasize celebrating other cultures from around the world, they manifest stunning ignorance of these cultures’ histories.

Thus, as the United States has veered from melting pot to multiculturalism, there has been little serious discussion about how similar course changes have worked out in other countries. The reality is that both the melting pot and multiculturalist models have been tried many times in history. In some cases, societies have shifted from one to the other. It’s worth examining how it has worked out for them; perhaps we can distill some useful lessons from their experiences. That is what this book endeavors to accomplish.

We will begin with a brief introduction to the melting pot concept. Then we will survey examples of societies that have adopted the melting pot or multicultural models. Finally, we will analyze cross-national statistical data to evaluate the social and economic consequences of multiculturalism.

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