What is the future of assimilation in America? By Bruce S. Thornton.
For people in the United States, immigration has particular resonance. We continually hear that we are a nation of immigrants. Many people see the laws that try to control illegal immigration and its social and economic costs as a repudiation of this heritage—an ethnocentric or even racist attempt to impose and monitor an exclusive notion of American identity and culture. Opponents also charge that these laws invite the police to practice discriminatory racial profiling, creating the possibility that legal immigrants and U.S. citizens will be unjustly detained and questioned.
President Obama stated in 2010 that tough immigration-control laws like Arizona’s—which was stripped of several provisions during the most recent Supreme Court term—“threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans.” The greater significance of such laws, however, is the way they touch on deeply held and frequently conflicting beliefs about the role of immigration in American history and national identity. These beliefs have generated two popular metaphors: the melting pot and the salad bowl.
FUSED INTO INCLUSION AND TOLERANCE
The melting pot metaphor arose in the eighteenth century, sometimes appearing as the smelting pot or crucible, and it described the fusion of various religious sects, nationalities, and ethnic groups into one distinct people: E pluribus unum. In 1782, French immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur wrote that in America, “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
A century later, Ralph Waldo Emerson used the melting pot image to describe “the fusing process” that “transforms the English, the German, the Irish emigrant into an American. . . . The individuality of the immigrant, almost even his traits of race and religion, fuse down in the democratic alembic like chips of brass thrown into the melting pot.” The phrase gained wider currency in 1908, during the great wave of Slavic, Jewish, and Italian immigration, when Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot was produced. In it, a character says with enthusiasm, “America is God’s crucible, the great melting-pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!”
This image, then, communicated the historically exceptional notion of American identity as one formed not by the accidents of blood, sect, or race, but by the unifying beliefs and political ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: the notion of individual, inalienable human rights that transcend group identity. Of course, over the centuries this ideal was violated in American history by racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and other ignorant prejudices. But in time laws and social mores changed, making the United States today the most inclusive and tolerant nation in the world, the destination of choice for millions desiring greater freedom and opportunity.
Of course, this process of assimilation also entailed costs and sacrifice. Having voted with his feet for the superiority of America, the immigrant was required to become American: to learn the language, history, political principles, and civic customs that identified one as an American. This demand was necessarily in conflict with the immigrants’ old culture and its values, and, at times, led to a painful loss of old ways and customs. But how immigrants negotiated the conflicts and trade-offs between their new and old identities was up to them. Moreover, they remained free in civil society to celebrate and retain those cultures through fraternal organizations, ethnic festivals, language schools, and religious guilds.
Ultimately, though, they had to make their first loyalty to America and its ideals. If some custom, value, or belief from the old country conflicted with those core American values, then the old way had to be modified or discarded if the immigrant wanted to participate fully in American social, economic, and political life. The immigrant had to adjust. No one expected the majority culture to modify its values to accommodate the immigrant; this would have been impossible, at any rate, because there were so many immigrants from so many lands that it would have fragmented American culture. No matter the costs, assimilation was the only way to forge an unum from so many pluribus.
A TAINTED SALAD
Starting in the 1960s, however, another vision of American pluralism arose, captured in the metaphor of the salad bowl. Rather than assimilating, different ethnic groups now would coexist in their separate identities like the ingredients in a salad, bound together only by the “dressing” of law and the market. This view expresses the ideology of multiculturalism, which goes far beyond the demand that ethnic differences be acknowledged rather than disparaged.
Long before multiculturalism came along, Americans wrestled with the conflicts and clashes that immigrants experienced. A book from the 1940s on “intercultural education” announced its intent “to help our schools to deal constructively with the problem of intercultural and interracial tensions among our people” and to alleviate “the hurtful discrimination against some of the minority groups which compose our people.” One recommendation was to create school curricula that would “help build respect for groups not otherwise sufficiently esteemed.” Modern multiculturalism takes that idea but goes much farther, endorsing a species of identity politics predicated on victimization.
Multiculturalism as we know it is not about respecting or celebrating the salad bowl of cultural or ethnic diversity, but about indicting American civilization for its imperial, colonial, xenophobic, and racist sins. Multiculturalism idealizes immigrant cultures and ignores their various dysfunctional practices and values. At the same time, it relentlessly attacks America as a predatory, soulless, exploitative, warmongering villain responsible for all the world’s ills.
Worse still, the identity politics at the heart of multiculturalism directly contradict the core assumption of our liberal democracy: the principle of individual and inalienable rights that each of us possess no matter what group or sect we belong to. Multiculturalism confines the individual in the box of his race or culture—the latter often simplistically defined in clichés and stereotypes—and then demands rights and considerations for that group, a special treatment usually based on the assumption that the group has been victimized in the past and so deserves some form of reparations. The immigrant “other” (excluding, of course, immigrants from Europe) is now a privileged victim entitled to public acknowledgement of his victim status and the superiority of his native culture.
FOR WANT OF A SHARED DESTINY
And so the common identity shaped by the Constitution, the English language, and the history, mores, and heroes of America gives way to multifarious, increasingly fragmented micro-identities. But without loyalty to the common core values and ideals upon which national identity is founded, without a commitment to the non-negotiable foundational beliefs that transcend special interests, without the sense of a shared destiny and goals, a nation starts to weaken as its people see no goods beyond their own groups’ interests and successes.
Multicultural identity politics worsen the problems of illegal immigration. Many immigrants, legal or otherwise, are now encouraged to celebrate the cultures they have fled and to prefer them to the one that gave them greater freedom and opportunity. Our schools and popular culture reinforce this separatism, encouraging Americans to relate to those outside their identity group not as fellow citizens, but as either rivals for power and influence or oppressors (from whom one is owed reparations in the form of government transfers or preferential policies). The essence of being an American has been reduced to a flabby “tolerance,” which in fact masks a profound intolerance and anti-Americanism because the groups that multiculturalism celebrates are defined in terms of their victimization by a sinful America.
No matter how the laws of Arizona and other states fare, this problem of assimilation will remain. Millions of the illegal immigrants in this country are no doubt striving to become Americans despite the obstacles multiculturalism has put in their path. Many others have not developed that sense of American identity, nor have they been compelled, as immigrants were in the past, to acknowledge the civic demands of America and give her their loyalty. Their relation to this country is merely economic or parasitic. Figuring out how to determine which immigrants are which, and what to do with those who prefer not to be Americans, will be the challenge of the years ahead.
Bruce S. Thornton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received his BA in Latin in 1975 and his PhD in comparative literature–Greek, Latin, and English–in 1983, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. Thornton is currently a professor of classics and humanities at California State University in Fresno, California. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays and reviews on Greek culture and civilization and their influence on Western civilization. His latest book, published in March 2011, is titled The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama's America.
Adapted from Defining Ideas (www.hoover.org/publications/defining-ideas). © 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All rights reserved.