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America’s problem of assimilation

Friday, June 8th, 2012

Writing in the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas, Bruce Thornton looks at the American “melting pot” and “salad bowl” metaphors of immigrant assimilation–the former referring to a “fusing process” that, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “transforms the English, the German, the Irish emigrant into an American,” and the latter referring to a mix of different ethnic groups that, instead of assimilating, would “coexist in their separate identities like the ingredients in a salad, bound together only by the ‘dressing’ of law and the market.”

Thornton is frustrated by the reign of an evolved view of the “salad bowl” understanding of multiculturalism:

The idea of the melting pot […] 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.

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 many pluribus.

[…] 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.

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.


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.

Juan Rangel, the CEO of Chicago’s United Neighborhood Organization and a participant at our “Teaching America” event in September, has spoken about the challenges of assimilation before, noting that, for Hispanic immigrants, the central question has become: “Do we want to be the next victimized minority group in America, or do we want to be the next successful immigrant group?” To be the latter, he emphasizes, assimilation must occur “through civic participation and deep investments in family, neighborhoods, and education.” He continues: the United States has “lost sight of what the public schools were intended to do and what we need to do to help students feel that they’re part of a whole. […] We need to get back to what the purpose of a public school was intended to be. That’s to create not just educated and engaged citizens, but educated and engaged American citizens.”