Coming up with an absolute definition of multiculturalism is akin to describing an abstract painting.

For Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who roiled Maryland's political waters when he dubbed the concept "bunk" and "crap," multiculturalism means isolation, separation, a failure to embrace American culture.

"The goal here is assimilation, the goal here is to strengthen the melting pot that is American, not to separate ourselves out," Ehrlich (R) said in an impromptu call to WTOP Radio yesterday morning.

But leaders from African American, Latino and American Indian groups -- pointing out that the term was developed by black college professors to celebrate all cultures -- say the word has come to mean, simply, respect.

Multiculturalism, said Ron Lessard, executive director of the Baltimore American Indian Center, is making sure to "honor and treat people with dignity, regardless of their differences."

Multiculturalism, said Kevin Slayton, a civil rights advocate at the Public Justice Center, is figuring out the answer to: "How do we accept differences? How do we accept different people?"

Multiculturalism, said Kim Propeack, a lawyer for the Latino advocacy group CASA of Maryland, "means a commitment to integration and a recognition of all diverse communities that make up our community, Maryland."

She said Ehrlich's words, coming as they did after recent General Assembly battles over immigration legislation and a scuffle between Republican lawmakers and Latino advocates, were "part of a timeline in public figures attacking this community."

Ehrlich's initial comments came last week in defense of state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), who had announced he would no longer eat at McDonald's because of an encounter with a Spanish-speaking cashier. On a WBAL-AM radio show, Ehrlich said: "I reject the idea of multiculturalism. Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, you run into a problem. With respect to this culture, English is the language."

A week into the controversy, Ehrlich said he "didn't mean to offend anyone" and blamed criticism on "the politically correct crowd."

"I really believe the incredible support my statement has received all around the state reflects the view of the state," he added.

The governor drew a distinction between multiculturalism and celebrating a family's ethnic heritage.

"I've been German of the year, I go to the annual German festival, I go to the annual German dinner, I'm proud of my German heritage," Ehrlich said on WTOP. "But for my common cultural values, obviously I look to America."

When Ehrlich's ancestors first came to Baltimore, the city couldn't break them of their ties to Deutschland, said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor.

For many years, the Baltimore school system was bilingual, with classes taught in both German and English, Crenson noted. Before World War I, there was a large contingent of German immigrants in Baltimore and, as a result, an extensive German subculture, and "it took generations for the assimilation the governor talks about to occur."

"What was okay for the Germans," Crenson said, "is something he seems unwilling to concede to other new immigrants."

At a news conference yesterday at the Baltimore American Indian Center -- a few blocks from another old-time Baltimore immigrant community, Little Italy -- immigrant and African American advocates agreed with at least one of Ehrlich's remarks.

"It's very, very important that you learn the language," said Angelo Solera, a Latino activist in Baltimore. " . . . But people have to understand that it takes time to learn English."

All of this is typical for conversations about multiculturalism, noted Robert Fullinwider, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland's Philosophy and Public Policy Institute.

"Most multiculturalists are willing to accept the idea that people need to master English to get along," Fullinwider said. The real problem is "they fling around this idea that differences are what made America great. But that's a vague idea. Immigrants come over with all kinds of differences," such as if their favorite sport back home was dogfighting or cockfighting -- sports that are illegal in the United States. "Or it may be common back home . . . to bribe people. Well, we expect them to adhere to our law," Fullinwider said.

Fullinwider, who edited a book on multiculturalism, traces its rise to the end of segregated schools, when the academic gap between black and white students was made suddenly clear. Sociologists and teachers began explaining it as being a result of "deprivations" in the black students' backgrounds. Civil rights leaders countered that children of color were simply different, not deficient. That reasoning has evolved into a theory that society should honor differences rather than stress assimilation.

Fullinwider doubts, though, that the current political debate has much to do with academic dogma.

"You can't figure Schaefer out anymore -- he's just an old curmudgeon," he said. "But why Ehrlich stepped into this, I don't know."

Kim Propeack, a lawyer for the Latino advocacy group CASA of Maryland, sees multiculturalism as "a commitment to integration and a recognition of all diverse communities that make up our community."For Gov. Ehrlich, multiculturalism means a failure to embrace American culture. "The goal here is assimilation," he said yesterday.