The theory that American society is homogenous assumes that people from different ethnic backgrounds will resolve their differences in an environment of freedom and opportunity. The process of “melting” the origins, religions, languages, and traditions of Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Native Americans into a unique American identity is demonstrably incomplete. Whether the melting of various ethnicities into a new whole is a worthy or a possible goal is a source of controversy.
Many immigrants have been unwilling or unable to abandon their past identity for a new one. Strangers in a strange land naturally cling to what is familiar; assimilation has often been slow and difficult. Established groups, in turn, have set up legal, economic, and religious barriers to prevent assimilation of different races. In 1660, eighteen languages were spoken on Manhattan Island. In that heavily populated area in the 1990’s, at least that many are spoken, probably many more. Those who criticize the metaphor of the melting pot point out that the United States has always been and continues to be multiethnic, multilingual, and multicultural, and that therefore the melting pot is more of a misguided ideal than an accurate representation of the acculturation process in the United States. The ideal, critics of the melting pot may argue, often covers morally questionable motives that are based on hatred of difference.
On the other hand, the melting pot metaphor still seems apt for Americans whose ancestors represent multiple ethnic groups, for example, someone with a German-Scotch-Cherokee heritage. To many others, however, the term “multicultural” applies to American society more realistically. Many Americans with distinct ethnicity like to use the metaphor of a bowl of tossed salad, in which each culture is represented as a separate entity.