America’s Problem of Assimilation

by Bruce S. Thornton

Defining Ideas

The current Supreme Court term has been dominated by the Constitutional challenge to the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare legislation better known as Obamacare. But the Court has recently heard another case, this one concerning the controversial Arizona immigration law passed in 2010. Though five other states have passed similar laws, Arizona’s is the toughest one to date that attempts to get control of illegal immigration and its social and economic costs. The problems surrounding illegal immigration that this bill attempts to solve involve not just practical policies, but the very meaning of American identity and history.

For Americans, these issues have particular resonance; as we continually hear, we are a “nation of immigrants.” Many see the laws targeting immigrants as a repudiation of this heritage, an ethnocentric or even racist attempt to impose and monitor an exclusive notion of American identity and culture. Additionally, opponents claim that these laws invite the police to practice discriminatory “racial profiling,” creating the possibility that legal immigrants and US citizens are unjustly detained and questioned.

As President Obama said in April 2010, laws like Arizona’s “threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans.” The greater significance of this case, however, is the way it touches 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.

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: Ex 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 enthuses, “America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!”

The idea of the melting pot, 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, this ideal was violated in American history over the centuries by racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and other ignorant prejudices. But over time, changes in law and social mores have taken place, making the United States today the most inclusive and tolerant nation in the world, the destination of choice for those millions desiring more freedom and opportunity.

In the melting pot metaphor, inalienable human rights transcend group identity.

Of course, this process of assimilation also entailed costs and painful sacrifices. 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 an American as American. This demand was necessarily in conflict with the immigrants’ old culture and its values, and, at times, it led to the painful loss of the old ways and customs. But how immigrants negotiated the conflicts and trade-offs between their new and old identities was up to them, and they were free in civil society to celebrate and retain those cultures through fraternal organizations, ethnic festivals, language schools, and religious guilds.

Still, they had to make their first loyalty to America and its ideals. If some custom, value, or belief of the old country conflicted with those core American values, then that old way had to be modified or discarded if the immigrant wanted to participate fully in American social, economic, and political life. The immigrant was the one who had to adjust; no one expected the majority culture to modify its values to accommodate the immigrant. After all, there were too many immigrants to do this without fragmenting American culture. No matter the costs, assimilation was the only way to forge an unum from so manypluribus.

Starting in the Sixties, however, another vision of American pluralism arose, captured in the metaphor of the salad bowl. Rather than assimilating, now different ethnic groups 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 ever existed, Americans wrestled with the conflicts and clashes immigrants experienced in their lives. A book from the Forties 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 by endorsing a species of identity politics predicated on victimization.

In the Sixties, another vision of American pluralism arose: the salad bowl.

And that, in fact, is what multiculturalism is really about — not respecting or celebrating the “salad bowl” of cultural or ethnic diversity, but indicting American civilization for its imperial, colonial, xenophobic, and racist sins. Multiculturalism idealizes immigrant cultures and ignores their various dysfunctional practices and values. But at the same time, it relentlessly attacks America as a predatory, soulless, exploitative, war-mongering villain responsible for all the world’s ills.

Worse still, the identity politics at the heart of multiculturalism directly contradicts 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 terms of 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 obeisance to the superiority of his native culture, equally a victim of American historical malfeasance.

The common identity shaped by the Constitution, the English language, and the history, mores, and heroes of America has been replaced by multifarious, increasingly fragmented micro-identities. But without this 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.

The problems of illegal immigration are worsened by multicultural identity politics. Many immigrants, legal or otherwise, are now encouraged to celebrate and prefer the cultures they have fled to the one that has given them greater freedom and opportunity. Our schools and popular culture reinforce this separatism, encouraging Americans to relate to others outside our own identity group not as fellow citizens, but either as rivals for power or influence, or as 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” that in fact masks a profound intolerance and anti-Americanism, for the groups multiculturalism celebrates are all defined in terms of their victimization by a sinful America.

No matter how the Supreme Court rules on the Arizona law, this problem of assimilation will remain. There will still be 11 million illegal immigrants whose fate must be decided. Millions of them no doubt are 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 goodness and superiority of America and give her their loyalty. Their relation to this country is merely economic or parasitic. Developing some way of determining which immigrants are which, and figuring out what to do with those who prefer not to be Americans, will be a difficult challenge in the years after the current case is adjudicated.

©2012 Bruce S. Thornton

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