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Philip Gleason

Melting Pot Redux

Someone is supposed to have said that the British acquired their empire in a fit of absent-mindedness. A bit of whimsy, to be sure, but not without a certain relevance to the present situation of the United States vis-a-vis immigration. For without consciously intending any such result—or even fully grasping how it came about—the country finds itself dealing once again with immigration on a massive scale.

True, Congress did quite consciously change the law in 1965, getting rid of the odious "national-origins quotas" for Europeans and opening the door to Asian immigrants on the same basis as anyone else. At the time, however, no one expected these changes to make a significant difference in the overall level of immigration. But did they ever! And their effect was reinforced by several major refugee flows and by an upsurge of illegal immigration, much of which was brought about by the termination in 1964 of the bracero program, a temporary guest-worker arrangement with Mexico that had been in place since World War II.

The upshot is that between 1971 and 1994, over 16 million immigrants entered the country legally—along with an unknown, but quite substantial, number of illegals. In numerical volume, this rivals the great flood of immigrants of the early 1900s, al though the foreign-born constituted a much larger percentage of the total population in those days (14.7 percent in 1910; 7.9 percent in 1990).

Well, one might say, so what? We're supposed to be a nation of immigrants, aren't we? Why can't we deal with this latest wave on the basis of our rich historic experience?

These are rhetorical questions, of course, but legitimate ones. The problem in answering them is that history's lessons are (as usual) subject to very different interpretations.

First of all, when the latest round began, we hadn't really been a nation of immigrants for a long time. Immigration had been so effectively cut off in the 1920s that it seemed a purely "historical" phenomenon. In deed, its remoteness in time no doubt contributed to the mistaken assumption that changing the law in 1965 wouldn't have any great practical effect. By the time people realized what was happening, the earlier epoch of large-scale immigration lay beyond the reach of living memory. Indeed, the only thing about it firmly fixed in the national consciousness—not so much by actual memory as by the consensus of scholarly opinion—was the conviction that a virulently racist form of nativism was the driving force be hind the laws that ended immigration after World War I.

That conviction played a key role in the sixties, when the reform of a racist immigration policy seemed a fitting complement to civil rights for African Americans. More over, the association of freer immigration with antiracism persists to the present, a fact that constitutes a major problem for those who think we ought to reduce current levels of entry. For such criticism invites the charge that it is inspired by racist nativism—or at least gives aid and comfort to those who are.

Racial thinking has, of course, been revolutionized since the 1920s; in fact, it has changed greatly since 1965! But that points up the fundamental problem: How can our historic experience guide us when everything is so different now from what it was when last we dealt with massive immigration? Sorting out the answer to that question is not made easier by ritualistic appeals to history that serve as polemical weapons in today's controversies—"Immigration is what made us a great nation!" versus "Our ancestors didn't have all these special programs; they made it on their own!"

Leaving aside frankly partisan usages, one finds a general disposition among advocates for recent immigrants to emphasize the uniqueness of the present and downplay similarities with the past. The same tendency operates among social scientists, whose disciplinary focus is on contemporary, rather than historical, phenomena. Historians, on the other hand, are more sensitive to similarities and continuities. But so much "revisionist" work has appeared in the past quarter-century that the overall historiographic picture has become somewhat blurred.

Take the question of assimilation. From the middle sixties into the early eighties, revisionism all but completely discredited the traditional interpretation, which held that old-world heritages faded away as immigrants, and especially their children and grandchildren, were gradually "Americanized." That did not happen, according to the revisionists; besides, the ideal itself—often equated with "Anglo-conformity"—was narrowly chauvinistic. Over the past 15 years, however, assimilation has be gun to make a comeback. The connotations of the term are still predominantly negative, but a number of scholars now argue that something legitimately called assimilation really did take place.

These historiographic modulations run parallel to, were influenced by, and no doubt exerted some slight influence upon a far more profound reorientation of American thought and culture that was set in motion by the conjunction in the 1960s of the racial crisis and the Vietnam War, and reinforced by New Left radicalism, the counterculture, feminism, and other movements of the day. Among the positive results of that cultural earthquake, the most relevant here is that it legitimated racial/ethnic consciousness and group assertiveness on the part of minorities—Black Power, Brown Power, Red Power, and so on—and nourished a new appreciation for pluralism and diversity in society as a whole.

But the same great upheaval had a dialectically opposite negative effect—it delegitimated the kind of universalistic Americanism that had dominated the cultural landscape since World War II. This came about because the radical critics of the sixties portrayed "America's democratic faith" as nothing but hypocritical pretense, pure sham, an ideological smokescreen behind which racism, imperialism, sexual oppression, and economic exploitation raged unchecked.

The radical unmasking of the national ideology, of course, discredited assimilation as an ideal, for what self-respecting immigrant or ethnic would want to identify him- or herself with so depraved a national culture? And they hadn't really, according to Michael Novak, who argued that assimilation was largely a myth because ethnicity was, in fact, "unmeltable." Although some of the revisionists were uncomfortable with Novak's tendency to rhapsodize, they agreed with him on the basics: the melting pot "never happened," but it was a hateful symbol for a reprehensible ideal. And the more ideologically committed among them linked their "pluralistic" interpretation of immigration history with more radical movements for "social change" that aspired to reorder American society closer to the heart's desire.

Although the cultural upheaval had profound effects, the utopian hopes of the radicals were never realized. As the atmosphere of crisis receded in the seventies, the revival of "white ethnicity" hailed by Novak fizzled out; and during the doldrums of the Reagan presidency, Rudolph J. Vecoli, a pioneer among revisionists, confessed to disillusionment, observing gloomily that the melting pot had been retrieved from the junkheap of history and was being refurbished anew. Within a few years, however, Vecoli had recovered the high spirits befitting "a militant ethnic historian" (as an Italian scholar called him), a recovery that coincided with the reaction against Reaganism and especially with the sudden breakthrough to national visibility of "multiculturalism," a new and highly militant version of pluralism. But multiculturalist excesses in turn aroused sharp opposition from respectably liberal quarters, and since 1990 the tide of debate has swung back and forth.

Which brings us to the books under consideration here.

Peter D. Salins's Assimilation, American Style takes its place in the debate as the most forthright and systematic reaffirmation of the reality of assimilation as a social process and worthiness as a social goal that has yet appeared. The author is a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University who knows the immigrant scene of that city first hand. He is also of immigrant background himself and is a stout de fender of immigration as a positive good for the country. Salins links assimilation with the need for national unity, and he rightly insists that the mistaken perception that present-day immigrants are unwilling to assimilate is a powerful weapon in the hands of nativists. His own view is that, if al lowed to operate as it did historically, assimilation will make the newest immigrants into good Americans just as effectively as it did in the case of earlier immigrants. Unfortunately, the working of the process has become problematic because antiassimilationist bias has dominated social thought and distorted social policy.

Although aware that this bias is a product of the sixties, Salins does not trace its genealogy in detail. He is, how ever, highly critical of what it has produced—an "ethnic federalism" that "demonizes" traditional Americanism, fosters race consciousness, nurtures group grievances, and breeds social ill will. Although he acknowledges the reality of nativist hostility toward immigrants, past and present, Salins denies that assimilation, rightly understood, entails the kind of cultural oppression today's multiculturalists claim to be reacting against. Rather, he argues that "assimilation, American style," affords generous leeway for the preservation of group heritages, including languages other than English.

Although Salins says assimilation deals with national unity, not cultural conformity, he includes acceptance of the English language and the Protestant ethic, along with adherence to America's civic ideology, as the main elements of the traditional "assimilation contract." This sets up an undeniable tension in his interpretation. It is mitigated, al though not entirely resolved, by the obvious priority Salins gives to the civic dimension—that is, the need for immigrants to identify themselves with the nation and its "liberal democratic and egalitarian principles." As for English, what he is thinking of is its acceptance as "the national language"; and he interprets adherence to the Protestant ethic simply as willingness "to be self-reliant, hardworking, and morally upright."

Salins develops his interpretation cogently, and outlines an immigration policy in line with it. But what he recommends above all is reversal of the prevailing antiassimilationist ideology. "Assimilation," he writes, "should once again become a good word—right up there with words like liberty and justice." In this he echoes the 1995 report of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by the late Barbara Jordan, which calls for purging the word Americanization of all negative connotation and making it stand for "the inclusion of all who wish to embrace the civic culture which holds our nation together."

Salins's primary focus is upon assimilation as it relates to immigrants, but he includes a chapter on African Americans that begins by conceding that their situation constitutes "the great exception to … [the nation's] assimilation paradigm." The blame for that falls squarely on white Americans, who betrayed our civic ideals by denying blacks their rights and rejecting them as equal members of society. As a result of the wrongs they suffered, many African Americans were unwilling to accept assimilation (i.e., integration) when the nation finally committed itself to that goal in the 1960s. But while he understands the source of black bitterness and the corresponding appeal of black cultural separatism, Salins stands by assimilation as the proper goal. Whites must work harder to make equality between the races a genuine reality, and blacks must recognize that they cannot repudiate assimilation without at the same time undermining the "American idea," whose "universalist, antiethnocentric principles" provide the surest grounding for their claims.

A movement inspired and sustained by a deep repugnance for "racism" has produced an intellectual climate in which racial thinking is more salient than at any time since the 1920's.

Nathan Glazer shares many of Salins's convictions. He too believes that "assimilation, properly understood, is neither a dead hope nor a de meaning concept," and he agrees that the exclusion of African Americans from its operation is "the one great failure" that did more than anything else to make the concept disreputable. The chief difference between them has to do with where they think the issue stands at present.

Salins, the unabashed champion of assimilation, wants to restore it to a place of honor and make it work equally well for all races. Although aware that multiculturalism also assumes blander forms, he generally equates it with the kind of "ethnic federalism" that "promotes an agenda of ethnic grievances, and the deligitimation of the prevailing national culture"—all of which he rejects as diametrically opposed to assimilation.

Though he writes here more as analyst than as advocate, Glazer has been actively involved in the debate much longer than Salins. The experience has convinced him that multiculturalism is here to stay; the only real question now is what kind of multiculturalism we will have. But his ironic title—which self-consciously echoes a Victorian statesman's "We are all socialists now" and Richard Nixon's more recent "We are all Keynesians now"—suggests that Glazer is far from being an enthusiastic convert. Rather, he seems to regard multiculturalism as a kind of punishment, saying it is the price we must pay for having failed to assimilate African Americans in the same way other groups have been assimilated.

Since it is already deeply entrenched in the schools, Glazer devotes much of his attention to multiculturalism in education. He provides a thoughtful analysis of four concerns raised by its influence there: to wit, whether it does or does not distort truth, imperil national unity, and undermine social harmony, and whether it affects students' learning positively or negatively. He also gives us something of an insider's view of the curricular and textbook wars in New York and California, and of the controversy over "national standards" in history. Glazer is quite sensitive to the danger that the "strongest" versions of multiculturalism could "undermine what is still, on balance, a success in world history, a diverse society that continues to welcome further diversity, with a distinctive and common culture of some merit." But he does not think this will happen, because what the multiculturalists are really demanding is not separatism, but inclusion under terms of equality.

In Glazer's view, the newest immigration played a relatively minor role in the rise of multiculturalism. On that account, and because African Americans were the really crucial players, his discussion of assimilation centers on its failure to include them. The chapter he devotes to this topic, though brief and sketchy, includes the fullest review available of the absence of blacks from the copious literature on assimilation and Americanization produced from the late 1890s through the middle 1920s. Glazer remarks that this is all the more surprising since in those days ethnic groups were called "races," but the "race" we now think of as the paradigmatic example of the category was entirely overlooked.

He does not speculate on the reasons for this puzzling omission, found among liberals of the day as well as conservatives. Of course, it reflected racism. But we have long known that this was the heyday of "scientific racism," and that blacks were ranked lowest in the then-accepted hierarchy of races. A less often noted factor is that African Americans were still so concentrated in the South that, de spite the recent formation of the NAACP and other indications of an awakening concern, the "Negro Question" seemed a problem distinctive to a region that was itself marginal to the national consciousness.

In 1910, for example, African Americans constituted an almost invisible 2 percent of the population in New York, Chicago, and Boston, and an even smaller percentage in Buffalo (0.4 percent), Cleveland (1.5 percent), and Detroit (1.2 percent). At the same time, first and second generation immigrants (i.e., the foreign-born and their children) made up anywhere from 71 to 79 percent of the urban masses in the same cities. These figures make it more understandable that writers on assimilation, who were concentrated in the urban North, focused their attention on immigrants. In fact, students of intergroup relations did not begin to give priority to African Americans until after overseas immigration had ended and the black migration northward made the black/ white race issue a national problem.

But no matter why it happened, the fact that earlier commentators ignored African Americans is not only significant in itself, it also points up a major difference between past and present. To us, their omission seems both intellectually perplexing and morally obtuse—earlier writers should have included blacks because their situation was the real problem. Among the factors that enter into this reaction, one is the merging, or blurring together, of the study of immigration, on the one hand, and "race relations" or black history, on the other. These fields—along with the study of Native Americans—which were formerly thought of as distinct, are now being blended together as "ethnic and racial studies."

This tendency in scholarship and cultural commentary no doubt evolved from the previously mentioned legitimation of ethnicity in the 1960s. When that process began, "race" was still so disreputable (intellectually as well as morally) that "ethnicity" had to do the theoretical heavy lifting in making it possible to give voice to particularistic group consciousness. Over time, how ever, "race" reasserted itself, a development in which the emergence of affirmative action was the crucial factor. Why? Because the "minorities" eligible for the benefits of affirmative action—African Americans, Native Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics—are all generally identifiable by physical characteristics popularly thought of as racial. An arrangement that provides special treatment for "racial minorities" but not for "ethnic minorities" inevitably drove home the point that race is something a lot more real, and more important, than ethnicity. Most recently, the multitude of older immigrant-derived ethnic groups—which were themselves thought of as separate "races" into the 1930s, and as "minorities" from World War II into the 1980s—have been lumped together as "Euro-Americans," and classed with the oppressive white racial majority.

The ironic result is that a movement inspired and sustained by a deep repugnance for "racism" has produced an intellectual climate in which racial thinking is more salient, and exerts a greater influence on social policy, than at any time since the 1920s.

Glazer is correct, I believe, in saying that race as it affects African Americans is the central element in multiculturalism. But perhaps immigration deserves more attention than he gives it here. In view of the new racialism described above, the heavily racial (in its terms) character of post-1965 immigrants, and the tendency noted by David Hollinger to conflate race with culture, immigration figures in multiculturalism in more complex ways than Glazer can cover in this short book. How the new racialism impinges on thinking about immigration as such, and upon assimilation as traditionally understood, are questions not yet clearly posed and investigated, much less answered.

Philip Gleason is professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and president of the Immigration History Society.

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