How Assimilation Figures in a Post-Melting-Pot America
In today's multicultural climate, in which the celebration of diversity has made "assimilation" almost a dirty word, the old image of America as a melting pot can seem quaint at best. So it's hard to imagine that the antiquated metaphor was actually once a liberal, cosmopolitan ideal. Taken from the title of a 1908 play by London-born Israel Zangwill, the melting pot was originally a romantic vision of e pluribus unum, epitomized by the play's happy union of two ethnically, religiously different people who'd have been enemies in the Old World.
But World War I, as wars have a way of doing, called on Americans to take a clear side—and prove their loyalty by conforming to the prevailing Anglo culture. The nativists behind this movement appropriated the melting pot term for their own nationalist goals, giving it its current unfashionable meaning.
It's a story we read in about five different versions in "Reinventing the Melting Pot," an essay collection edited by journalist Tamar Jacoby, whose even-handed introduction gives way to a somewhat right-leaning scholarly assessment of some of the major questions in the assimilation debate. Does the melting pot work? Do today's immigrants differ from their predecessors enough to warrant concern about their ability to assimilate? And do we need a new image for the process by which immigrants become American?
By and large, the essayists' answers to these questions are "Yes," "No" and "Maybe." The conventional measures of assimilation—intermarriage rates, U.S. citizenship, English proficiency, economic prosperity and the movement out of ethnic enclaves and traditional occupations—suggest that, throughout most of the past two centuries, the melting pot was happily bubbling away. But the past 40 years are another story: Since the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated ethnic quotas, the huddled masses have hailed not from Europe but mainly from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, their skin color raising the potential for racism. And the United States itself is now a different place: transformed by the civil rights movement and globalization, open to dual citizenship and favoring knowledge workers over the shopkeepers and factory workers who, in an earlier era, could pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
But while acknowledging these differences, most of the essayists remain cautiously optimistic. After all, earlier waves of immigrants seemed unassimilable, too. As Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey writes, in 1910 it would have been inconceivable that last names such as De Niro, Rostenkowski and Seinfeld would be accepted as American. So while some metaphors may now work better than the melting pot—novelist Gary Shteyngart offers "fusion cuisine," sociologist Herbert Gans proffers a kaleidoscope (always in flux), and writer Pete Hamill favors the image of the alloy (tougher than each of its parts, at least among brassy New Yorkers)—the general consensus is that recent waves of arrivals will, in time, become just as American as did the Irish, the Germans and the Jews. Only Harvard economist George Borjas seriously questions whether today's immigrants will achieve economic success in this land of opportunity, pointing out, for example, that the wage gap between them and the native-born is actually growing for the newer arrivals.
Editor Jacoby's role as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute undoubtedly explains the book's tenor. The conservative think tank backed this project, so it's safe to say that if the book has an agenda, vigorously rocking the boat on current economic policy isn't part of it. Sociologists routinely explore the ways schools, neighborhoods and other institutions perpetuate social inequalities. Thus, the children of well-educated, middle-class Asian engineers are likely to attend good schools and prosper as adults, whereas—on the other end of the immigrant hourglass—poor, low- skilled Latin American laborers settle in impoverished ghettoes and risk losing children to drugs, crime and a street culture that denigrates the work ethic. But such "downward assimilation" doesn't worry most of this book's 20-some contributors. In fact, political scientist Peter Salins says that bilingual education and racial preferences in college admissions are more a problem than a solution to the challenges of assimilation, arguing that they erode our national unity.
Regardless of the merit of Salins' position, his argument shows the trouble with lumping together acculturation and upward mobility into one word. By adopting such a broad definition of assimilation, the book subtly implies that to realize the American dream, immigrants and their offspring must forsake everything from the Old Country but grandma's ragout recipe. But it's not at all certain that shedding your original national identity is necessary to flourish in the United States today, since strong family and community bonds can either trap immigrants in ethnic enclaves or offer a warm embrace in a strange new land. UCLA sociologist Min Zhou—inexplicably, the only female contributor besides Jacoby herself—illustrates how tricky a concept assimilation really is. "Immigrants who have prospered in America do not necessarily feel the most American," she writes, "and even those who succeed on both counts aren't always accepted as American by the mainstream." It's a nuanced outlook on a complex subject; given the intellectual caliber of all the contributors to this anthology, it's also a surprisingly rare one.
COPYRIGHT 2004 © Marina Krakovsky. All Rights Reserved.