Posted: June 16, 2005
ssimilation in the United States presents a puzzling picture. First-generation immigrants who have the most to lose in the process are often its most fervent supporters. Yet their children don't find the idea of assimilation particularly compelling. Government programs, popular culture, and multicultural education all reinforce the notion that becoming American is undesirable. Nativists, for their part, emphasize the idea that assimilation is impossible. In Reinventing the Melting Pot, Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has gathered a range of scholars, journalists, and writers to reassure immigrants and Americans that assimilation is both desirable and possible.
Although the contributors disagree on issues from reducing immigration to ending affirmative action, they concur—with the notable exception of the Harvard economist George Borjas—that immigrants are assimilating. Despite multiple difficulties, the children of immigrants are working hard in school and their economic trajectory is upward. While Spanish is more prevalent than ever, by the second generation the shift is clearly toward English dominance—and this in the face of bilingual education programs that seem to teach neither English nor Spanish.
Mexicans, the largest group of immigrants, are strongly patriotic and loyal citizens, according to Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times. Even after Mexico changed its constitution to allow for dual nationality, it found few takers. The very contrast between Mexico and the United States, Rodriguez observes, makes border communities especially eager to emphasize which side of the line they are on.
Jacoby contends that America's success in assimilating immigrants stems from a pattern established at the nation's founding that distinguishes between private and public life. Ethnicity is accepted and even welcomed as part of the left side of the hyphen, which joins subgroup to national identity, e.g. Irish-American. But it carries no weight on the right side, the public sphere of work and politics.
Jacoby acknowledges that this pattern has been challenged by religious and racial discrimination against Catholics, Jews, Chinese, and others. But these have been the exceptions that prove the rule. The requirements for becoming American have been, she says, "minimal but transformative." Simply by adopting a public identity defined by individual freedom and the obligation to work hard, obey the law, and learn English, immigrants come to see Americans not as "them"—those Americans, their Founding Fathers, their principles—but as "us"—our nation, our fathers, our principles.
But most of the volume's contributors do identify challenges to this pattern. Some emphasize the decline in manufacturing and low wage jobs, the expansion of the welfare state, and the predominance of a single ethnic group, Mexicans. Others criticize Americans for failing to fulfill their part of the assimilation bargain by under-funding schools, blocking access to social support, and discriminating against newcomers. Still others stress that the replacement of a strong assimilationist ethos with a system of group-based preferences and the proliferation of dual citizenship reduces the incentives to assimilate.
A number of the contributors are especially concerned that immigrants are assimilating in the wrong way. They worry about "downward" or "segmented" assimilation in which immigrants in poor areas adapt to urban pathologies. The nightmare vision is of a rainbow underclass in which immigrants develop "oppositional" identities in response to being discriminated against and the peer pressure they feel not to "act white."
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Jacoby criticizes ethnic activists who stoke a politics of grievance to keep themselves in business, government policies based on group membership, and corporate marketers who reinforce ethnic stereotypes. But she wants this volume to move the debate beyond what's wrong with these policies and turn our attention to the role that ethnic loyalties can play in making for a more effective assimilation process.
So, yes, the children of immigrants need to learn unaccented English and develop American cultural skills, says the sociologist Alejandro Portes. But they also need to retain enough of their parental language and ethnic culture to protect themselves against the most dysfunctional aspects of American culture. Rather than a threat to assimilation, robust ethnic enclaves can be the best conduit for it. The children of immigrants who become truly bilingual are more likely to bridge the gap between home and society.
Ultimately, the goal is to relieve any anxiety that immigrants have to make a choice between their ethnic and their American identity. Rodriguez argues that ethnic pride makes assimilation and national coherence easier, precisely because immigrants don't have to choose on which side of the hyphen to live. Paradoxically, the stronger one's ethnic identity the more likely one is to accept a new American identity. For Rodriguez, Mexican-Americans point the way toward a more unified American nation because they are entirely comfortable with the notion of being culturally Mexican and politically American.
The confident, pragmatic approach that characterizes this volume is refreshing. The realistic assessment of how group politics has often promoted assimilation is especially welcome. The history of the Irish in America, for instance, is one in which ethnically-based political machines drew newcomers out of their parochial identities into the wider world of American public life. Group recognition and benefits based on that kind of political bargaining and accommodation among competing interests are thoroughly American. And the transitional role played by mediating institutions like political machines, unions, and churches contrasts well with policies based on entitlements and rights, which are promoted as fundamental requirements of justice that are permanently necessary.
Today, of course, the machines are gone and churches and unions play a different and, generally, more attenuated role. Moreover, as political scientist Peter Skerry points out, our sense of political time has quickened since the last major wave of immigration. It took Italians more than four generations to become fully assimilated. In today's rights-based culture, activists grow impatient when the minority share of the population is not reflected in college admission rates, even when that share includes recent immigrants. In these circumstances, are there ways to recognize group identity that are compatible with a robust national identity?
Portes suggests that the Jewish community offers a good example of the kind of attention to ethnic identity—"selective acculturation" he calls it—that we should apply to Latinos and other more recent groups of immigrants. Jews who arrived over 100 years ago built self-sufficient communities that enabled them to succeed despite fears that they, too, could not assimilate. The difference, of course, is that Jews did not demand public support for their private cultural and religious practices.
The obvious risk of public policies that formally recognize group identity is that these end up hardening those identities and fomenting civil strife. A more subtle risk is that the state co-opts an ethnic community by taking over some of its responsibilities. Still, despite the damage done by zealous advocates for bilingual and bicultural education, the notion that assimilation is best served by practical programs that link home and school is well worth considering.
In fact, the distinction between private ethnicity and public citizenship can obscure as much as it illuminates: it doesn't capture the extent to which incorporating immigrants requires building a bridge between the two realms. In the era of machine politics, poor uneducated immigrants had to be enticed into the public sphere by appealing to their pressing private concerns. At Hull House in Chicago, Jane Addams likewise recognized that genuine attention to the needs of immigrant communities was critical to fostering in newcomers an understanding of American ideals and allegiance to the American nation. She believed they had to develop the habits and skills to cope with living in an open society.
In other words, aversion to identity politics is not enough. The task of incorporating immigrants requires a more positive program. As Skerry has observed, from charter schools to faith-based social services, some of the most prominent policy ideas today depend on the existence of robust group ties. Yet I would argue that critics of identity politics have been so preoccupied with multiculturalist excesses that they have missed opportunities to ally with ethnic leaders who are willing to balance minority and mainstream concerns, and with emerging immigrant leaders whose values and interests diverge from the established civil rights groups.
The "assimilation bargain" has often seemed to immigrants more like a "brutal bargain." As Norman Podhoretz pointed out in 1967, cultural loss is often the price of making it in America. This transformation may not have been officially demanded, but immigrants have found it to be the real terms by which they gain acceptance. To be credible, any attempt to link private ethnicity and public citizenship needs to be grounded in this reality.
This is not to say that strenuous programs of assimilation have been welcomed by immigrants. As a number of contributors to this volume point out, the reaction of many immigrants to formal Americanization campaigns has been hostile. Yet immigrant groups have also taken positive steps to meet the Americanizers' demands. Even as the Catholic Church pressed for separate, parochial schools to protect its members from Protestantism, it insisted on English as the exclusive language in those schools. Jewish philanthropists created a range of programs to Americanize their co-religionists from eastern Europe. Indeed, it may be that the successful absorption of earlier waves of immigrants depended on Americans' unique combination of commitment and coercion. Americanizers lobbied for legislation to protect immigrants from unscrupulous landlords and tyrannical employers. They established outreach programs to encourage and prepare immigrants to become citizens, in the process improving the naturalization system and developing the first formal program in adult education. At the same time, leading Americanizers like Teddy Roosevelt thundered that there was no room in this country for "hyphenated Americans," while welcoming Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants who submitted to a rigorous process of Americanization. As historian Gary Gerstle has suggested, it may well be because Teddy Roosevelt limited immigration and pressured newcomers to assimilate that Franklin Roosevelt could build his New Deal on the foundation of one American people.
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Can this combination of commitment and coercion work again today? In modern rights-oriented America, it seems less likely that policymakers or citizens are willing to limit immigration significantly and pressure newcomers to assimilate. The unwillingness to make such demands may represent an important gain for tolerance and individual freedom. But at the same time, it's hard to imagine that such mild nationalism can accomplish the same assimilation and nation-building as T.R.'s "New Nationalism."
Hence the fundamental paradoxes that Americans face in reinventing the melting pot. A rich ethnic identity and robust immigrant institutions can facilitate assimilation. But assimilation can make it difficult for immigrants to maintain their ethnic identity and institutions. Assimilation best happens slowly and as a natural result of individual choices. "Assimilation," sociologists Richard Alba and Victor Nee observe, "is something that frequently happens to people while they are making other plans." Yet a unified nation that embraces newcomers requires making demands of immigrants and of Americans. Striking the right balance between ethnicity and assimilation, between the private and the public, and between openness and nationhood—these remain the great tasks in making Americans.