History of Cultural Diversity in the United States

Instructor: Angelica Goldman

Angelica has taught college and high school history and social sciences, has a master's degree in history, and is a licensed FL teacher.

What do you think of when you hear the word diversity? In America, a diverse population has impacted history in the United States from the very start. Let's explore the history and role of cultural diversity in the United States.

America has always been a diverse place. Different groups have mixed with one another to shape our history, and given us the society we have today. Despite growing pains with diversity that have led, at times, to immigration restrictions and nativist attitudes America, on the whole, has found itself better for its diverse population. Let's discover the diversity that has made America great!


Immigrants approaching the Statue of Liberty

Diversity from Day One

Of all the nations in the world, America has been diverse from the start. There were numerous Native American tribes, and each interacted with the settlers differently. The earliest settlers and colonists came from more than one European country of origin. There were the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, and the English, all vying for control of the new continent and leaving their marks. A vast swath of African cultures, by way of the slave trade, made their way over to the new world early on. The foundations of the first settlements were already immensely diverse.

Diversity In American History

From the earliest explorers and settlers to the modern day, America has been a nation of immigrants. Different waves of immigrants have washed ashore in the United States at various junctures, helping to shape and build America in critical ways. Let's examine a few of the notable groups who have impacted American history.

Initial forays, and then later settlements, were orchestrated by the colonial empires of the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch. They coexisted with Native Americans and those of the enslaved African peoples they brought over. There were three other major waves of migration, closely linked to crucial periods in the growth of America.

Irish, German, Scottish, Scandinavian were the most notable groups among that came next. With the opening of the West to the relentless march of American expansion, these people would be the backbone of settling the Western frontier, as well as providing cheap labor on the eastern seaboard. They also were frequently the ones starting new settlements and states out on the Western frontier.

Italians, Eastern Europeans, and the Chinese came next, as the industrial revolution came into full swing. These groups would be the ones who bore the brunt of the massive industrialization that transformed American society. The Chinese, in particular, would make a considerable contribution to the growth of the country, as they were responsible for much of the backbreaking work of building the railroads that would connect the East and West for the first time.

Lastly, since World War II, Mexican, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and South Eastern Asian peoples have immigrated in great numbers. Today, many of these people open businesses and have been, in large part, responsible for the construction boom in America's ever-growing economy.

In response to each of these waves, nativist political movements have had a tendency to crop up. Ironically, they tend to decry the latest immigrants as anti-American and have difficulty accepting new peoples, despite America's long history of diversity. Each time, however, the groups in question have become part and parcel of American life.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island

The Melting Pot Effect

Diversity hasn't just shaped America and it's history. America has also impacted the cultural groups that have had a lasting impact on America. America has basically been a never-ending hamster wheel of groups coming in and affecting American society and one another over and over. Or, as another popular metaphor has put it, America has become a giant melting pot. We import all the good foodstuff and we all end up blended together, changing both the nature of the food themselves, as well as that of the whole soup.

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