This article belongs to the debate » Cultural Majority Rights
18 February 2016

Why majority cultural preferences should shape, but not determine, immigration policy

Liav Orgad writes convincingly that the issue of cultural rights for majorities has been thrust into view by immigration. No longer can a white French or German person think of her ethnic identity and national identity as one and the same. In the introduction to Rethinking Ethnicity: majority groups and dominant minorities (2004), and again in Political Demography (2012), I argue that migration and differential ethnic birth rates are driving a wedge between the ethnic majority and ‘its’ nation-state.

The changes are dramatic: in the United States, minorities already make up half of all births. Transformation has spread well beyond gateway cities: 22 of the top 100 metropolitan areas (not just their central cities) are currently ‘majority minority’, as are Texas, California, two smaller states and the District of Columbia. In Canada, two of the country’s three largest metro areas, Vancouver and Toronto, are approaching 50 percent non-white and minorities comprise 20 percent of the country’s population, up from 2 percent as recently as 1971.

Demography is the most predictable of the social sciences since today’s babies will be society’s median voters in the 2050s. Immigration levels will also affect the picture, but a great deal of the change is already baked into our ethnic age structures. In western Europe, the share of the population made up of non-Europeans is expected to double or triple by 2050, reaching some 15-20 percent of the total. By the end of the century, those of unmixed ethnic majority background are projected to be in the minority in Britain, giving rise to what David Coleman terms the ‘third demographic transition.’ Other west European states such as France or the Netherlands may get there sooner. Yes, assimilation and ethnic boundary change could alter this picture, but we should expect that demography will exert profound changes on western societies.

Political theory has, as Liav Orgad recognizes, been negligent in addressing the problem of majority rights. The phrase itself seems an oxymoron since liberalism has been centrally concerned with protecting minority rights. However, liberal theory was developed in France, Britain and America, countries with strong ethnic majorities (non-slave America was 98 percent Protestant and 80 percent British in 1776). Individual, not group rights, were the main concern. John Stuart Mill, for instance, took it for granted that minorities such as Bretons or Scots should assimilate to the French and British nations rather than ‘skulk on [their] own rocks, the half savage relic of past times’. Lord Acton (1862) took it as read that Mexico, with its racial diversity, was a weaker society than an ethnically homogeneous one: ‘the races are divided by blood, without being grouped together in different regions. It is, therefore, neither possible to unite them nor to convert them into the elements of an organised State’.

The view that nation-states should not regulate their ethnic composition largely dates from the 1960s. The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand favoured British immigrants, and, second, northwest Europeans, effectively barring nonwhites from their countries until the mid-1960s. Most who spoke about the US as a melting pot – Crevecoeur and Emerson, for instance – were quick to qualify that it was also an Anglo-Saxon Protestant country. Beginning in the early 1900s, small groups of Pluralist intellectuals, radical artists and ecumenical churchmen began to espouse non-discriminatory immigration and a cosmopolitan America. They were always a small minority, and failed to hold back the tide of anti-immigration sentiment that led to the 1924 National Origins quota immigration act that stipulated that the national origins of immigrants must match that of the US population. The Act was only repealed in 1965.

The ideas of Pluralists like John Dewey and Randolph Bourne formed an important current in American intellectual life which was launched into the mainstream by the New York Intellectuals after World War II. These notions subsequently became the elite consensus with the expansion of higher education and the wholesale shifts in American attitudes to race which accompanied the Civil Rights movement for blacks.

Political theory and politicians’ rhetoric matched these developments. Not only were discriminatory immigration laws like the ‘White Australia’ policy or US National Origins scheme repealed, but multiculturalism – the allocation of rights to minority groups – emerged in its wake. Canada enshrined a Multiculturalism Act in 1971, and in the 1980s and 1990s multiculturalism became a battle cry of the New Left.

To an extent these cultural changes were needed, since minorities had suffered discrimination at the hands of majorities. However, obvious liberal advances such as black civil rights were accompanied by murkier assumptions, such as the notion that ethnic majorities should no longer select immigrants on cultural grounds.

In my article, ‘Liberal Ethnicity’ (2000), I make the point that political theorists focus only on the nation-state and minorities, ignoring the ethnic majority. This is partly because those were the concerns of academics when society was more homogeneous, and partly because of the instinctive liberal-egalitarianism of all but a few theorists, such as Yael Tamir, Michael Walzer or David Miller. The idea of majority cultural rights is actually not seriously contested in academic political theory (Jonathan Seglow and Robert Goodin are especially insightful here). Yet it feels uncomfortable so academic theorists don’t trumpet this fact. Thus the message has not filtered through to political elites, who mistakenly assume that majority concerns have no moral foundation and are simply ‘politically incorrect.’

Ethnic majorities and their concerns are absolutely central to understanding nationalism and ethnic conflict. Just as minorities have a right to defend their culture subject to respecting others’ rights, it follows that majorities may do so as well. I argue that while treating other ethnic groups as inferior, or discriminating against ethnic minorities within the state, is clearly illiberal, migration policies legitimated on cultural grounds are not. Indeed, many liberals accept that Native Indians are justified in restricting band membership to those who can prove a certain ‘quantum’ of Indian ancestry. The aim is not only to defend Indian culture, but also to limit shocks to the existential (‘who am I’) security of band members.

Ethnic majorities should be permitted to do likewise with the proviso that their ethnicity is liberal. As I define liberal ethnicity, this means the ethnic group is open to accepting outsiders through intermarriage. Those who marry in, or adopt the group’s culture (and thus place themselves on a trajectory whereby their descendants will probably marry in), should be accepted. Immigrants from Christian countries are more likely to assimilate into European ethnic majorities than others, but it is worth noting that some largely non-Christian groups, such as East Asians, have high intermarriage rates. Some Muslim groups, such as Iranians in Germany or Berbers in France, also do. In Britain, Muslims intermarry with whites at higher rates than Sikhs, and only somewhat less than Hindus. So I don’t believe there is a specifically Muslim issue.

Nation-states must reflect the wishes of all their members, so the ethnic majority must not solely determine migration policy. Economic and political concerns of states: for more young workers, or to meet international refugee obligations, should weigh in the balance. Yet from a liberal-communitarian point of view, ethnic majorities are perfectly justified in lobbying for reduced migration, or for a preference for migrants who are more likely to assimilate into the ethnic majority – thus maintaining the ethnic balance. The presumption, though, should be that all groups are assimilable unless social scientific evidence from similar countries suggests otherwise. Moreover, if, over time, groups exhibit an assimilationist trajectory, the cultural criteria must immediately adjust to relax selectivity. This view holds that immigration criteria should not be explicitly ethnic, but can allow for temporary cultural preferences with a view toward phasing them out based on evidence of assimilation. Assimilation must be fully voluntary, not coerced, as minority groups have a right to remain apart if they so desire.

Naturally, as Liav notes, some majority groups may have concerns that justify more ethnically-selective admission. A history of anti-Semitism means that Israel has a Law of Return which favours Jews. The same is true for ‘returning’ co-ethnics in much of Eastern Europe. I would not reject this out of hand, but would urge the insecure ‘minoritized’ ethnic majorities that Liad mentions to continually question their fears and open themselves up to the possibility that the world has become less threatening. I believe Liad is right that majorities have a right to protect their culture and that this is an omission in political theory. My only plea is that ethnic majorities adopt permeable ethnic boundaries which accept assimilation. In this sense, Slovakia and Hungary are justified in preferring Syrian Christians, but are not justified in barring Muslims entirely. They should accept some Muslims and honestly see how they integrate, bearing in mind that inequality and discrimination will retard this process. If integration is successful, and a portion assimilate and intermarry as in France and Germany, criteria should be relaxed. Laws should be based on objective social scientific indicators rather than popular fears.

In Quebec, for instance, the French-only laws should only have been permitted on the basis of solid evidence that French was losing ground and that the number of speakers was falling beneath measurable thresholds such as, say, a 7:1 French to English mother tongue ratio.

Overall, Liad Orgad has written a timely and necessary book for an age in which the West’s majorities can no longer take their dominance for granted.

SUGGESTED CITATION  Kaufmann, Eric: Why majority cultural preferences should shape, but not determine, immigration policy, VerfBlog, 2016/2/18,, DOI: 10.17176/20160218-095657.


  1. Roger Hicks Mon 22 Feb 2016 at 21:54 - Reply

    “Assimilation must be fully voluntary, not coerced, as minority groups have a right to remain apart if they so desire. . . My only plea is that ethnic majorities adopt permeable ethnic boundaries which accept assimilation.”

    That sounds to me like one rule for minorities and another rule for the majority.

    The ethnic majority also has a right to resist assimilation. Those who want to belong to a melting pot should be seen as belonging to an ethnic group of their own.

  2. Frans Alexander Tue 29 Mar 2016 at 22:50 - Reply

    At first sight, Eric Kauffman seems to be the one author here who not only sympathizes with Orgad’s theory, but goes beyond in using the term “ethnic” to denote the majority group, mentioning an article he published back in 2000. He even makes reference to Desmond Coleman’s politically incorrect “third demographic transition” and cites numbers to the effect that by the end of this century non-Europeans are expected to be the majority in many European nations.

    But those of us who really care about the protection of European ethnics will not have a hard time detecting Kauffman’s mainstream liberal position, which does not question the premises of mass immigration and diversification, does not ask why diversification became the central ideology of the West, and why liberals have been pushing this ideology for decades.

    He says that “the idea of majority cultural rights is actually not seriously contested in academic political theory”, and mentions two authors in this vein.

    But in the next sentence he says that academics, including the same ones who have initiated it, have felt “uncomfortable” with this idea and so “the message has not filtered through to political elites.”

    Clearly, if this idea makes academics uncomfortable, to the point that few know about it, and it would be wrong to say that only politicians have failed to learn about it, since academia is where political correctness reigns supreme (and Kaufmann admits that liberals have directed almost all their efforts at developing theories of minority rights), how can one say that the theory of majority rights is “not seriously contested” in academia?

    What is even more telling is that this theory of majority rights, as I have indicated in prior comments above, is quite politically correct, and should be seen as an attempt by liberals to co-opt the growing discontent against diversification, relative to the evidential failure of multiculturalism and mass immigration.

    Kaufmann is no less a member of the diversification establishment except that he is a right wing liberal, or middle-of-the-road liberal, rather than a left liberal multiculturalist.

    This is obvious in his expression that ethnicity should be defined in liberal terms, which is to say that European ethnics, as he defines liberalism, have no right to oppose their eventual eventual marginalization. He says that “discriminating against ethnic minorities within the state, is clearly illiberal.”

    But what if it can be shown that the ethnic minorities (which are now reducing Europeans to majority-minority status, as he notices in the case of Vancouver and Toronto, among many other cities in the West), came to European lands through the undemocratic actions of elites employing deceptive arguments about cultural enrichment and the economic benefits of mass immigration, without ever putting this radical policies to a democratic vote, but instead threatening the population with charges of “racism” for voicing dissenting views, loss of their jobs, no promotions, and overall totalitarian-illiberal controls to sustain the diversification process? Look for the headline: “TONY Blair betrayed Britain for his own political ends by overseeing a massive conspiracy to flood the country with millions of migrants, an explosive book has claimed.”

    Kaufmann, like every other author here, acts as if mass immigration just happened, as if the diversification of European lands, and only European lands, not Israel, which, as he acknowledges, is an Ethno-State, was itself a liberally initiated process blessed by theories of minority rights, rather than a undemocratic process initiated behind the backs of the population by elites that can only be identified as traitorous.

    He even says that since the ever growing ethnic minorities of Europe are now part of the nation, their wishes on issues of immigration must be taken into account, and the ethnic European majority “must not solely determine migration policy.”

    So, in the end, Kaufmann accepts almost in toto the current illiberal regime of immigration. He says “young workers” should be allowed to meet economic needs, never mind that most of these workers have been a massive burden on the welfare states paid for and created by native Europeans, and never mind that Europe has high unemployment, and that robots are soon to perform many white collar jobs.

    “Refugee obligations” should also “weigh in the balance.” I take it then that Germany was right and humanitarian in accepting over a 1 million in 2015, even though it has produced rape epidemics, hundreds of thousands of crimes, terrorist infiltration, etc, etc.

    He also says that even though the cultural majority has a right to show preference for immigrants closer to their cultural traditions, all ethnic groups should be presumed to be capable of assimilation “unless social scientific evidence from similar countries suggests otherwise.”

    How about scientific evidence ignored by everyone in this debate for humans to have a preference for their own ethnic groups, and evidence showing that non-Europeans are collectivist and engage in ethnic nepotism, whereas Europeans are uniquely a trust-oriented people, and liberalism is uniquely European and there is no evidence that large groups of non-Europeans endorse these values except insofar as these values can be exploited to advance their ethnic-group interests?

    Kaufmann indeed reveals his true cultural Marxist perspective when he writes: “Assimilation must be fully voluntary, not coerced, as minority groups have a right to remain apart if they so desire.”

    Did you read that: non-European groups have a right to remain apart and not assimilate and maintain their cultural and ethnic integrity; only Whiteys have a moral obligation to open themselves to other ethnic groups, allow these groups to take over their homelands, spend billions in assimilation programs, while never affirming their ethnic integrity, for to do so is illiberal.

    I rest my case.

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