Monday, August 16, 2010

On Assimilation and Bigotry

Jamelle Bouie has a great post up this morning about assimilation and immigration, riffing off of Ross Douthat's column.  Douthat's claim is that the America of high-minded ideals is at odds with cultural protectionism, and while the latter is bigoted and small-minded, it also winds up having the virtue of forcing newer immigrants and minorities in general to conform to American cultural norms (including those high-minded ideals).  I think Bouie is a bit harsher than necessary to Douthat, who isn't exactly warm towards those who he says use discrimination and persecution to get their way.  But I also think Bouie is correct: Douthat's claim that it's the nativists who have indirectly encouraged assimilation through intimidation may not be entirely wrong, but it's a somewhat strained reading of history -- the nativists didn't want assimilation, they wanted (and often got) exclusion.  And Bouie is right that Douthat's history ignores that those in Douthat's "first" America (the one with the high-minded ideals) have almost always supported and worked to achieve assimilation. 

But I think both of them are missing the main actors here: the immigrants themselves, who in almost all cases have been pretty desperate to assimilate as quickly as possible.  That was true of the great immigration waves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it's true of the great immigration wave now.  Of course, each group has had various cultural bits and pieces they keep with them (bits and pieces which generally are gobbled up by the larger American culture, so that everyone eats tacos and bagels), and each group has minorities within their minority who resist assimilation, keeping the old language and practices alive (although often radically altered, sometimes without anyone realizing it) even as most of the community drifts -- runs -- towards America. 

Of course, assimilation isn't always benign.  Often, assimilating American ideals means assimilating American bigotry -- see for example Michael Rogin's Blackface, White Noise.  I'll also use the excuse to link to Martin Scorcese's wonderful Gangs of New York, since it covers a lot of the themes in these arguments.


  1. Thanks for the link.

    And admittedly, I let my antipathy toward Douthat get in the way of making a good argument. I blame the passions of youth!

  2. Yes, but have you had the taco bagel, yet?

    I haven't, but I submit that some cultural items should remain un-mixed.


  3. the immigrants themselves, who in almost all cases have been pretty desperate to assimilate as quickly as possible.

    Sort of. There are and were a lot of immigrants who originally came to make some money before going back to the home country, but ended up staying. That used to be more or less the case with Mexican immigration before 1986, where you had 28 million Mexicans come north after the decline of the Bracero program - with 23.5 million of them going home.

  4. All of this misses the point that many of those who attend the Cordoba Mosque won't be immigrants at all, but citizens of long-standing or even of more than one generation. Those who are objecting to the mosque aren't doing so because they are immigrants, they are doing so because they are Muslims.

  5. I found Douthat's treatment of Mormons to be interesting--the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is, of course, a religious faith founded in and based in the United States--and the foremost example of a faith which America exports, rather than imports. Yet Douthat writes as though Mormons were immigrants to our shores, importing things like polygamy from abroad--when that's simply not true. This didn't keep Mormons (like many other domestic groups who flout existing cultural norms) from being treated as outcasts, of course, but if anything--it proves that xenophobia is not restricted to issues of national identity.

    Plus, it's useful to re-iterate the obvious: Were large numbers of Canadians illegally entering the country from the North and assimilating herein, I seriously doubt we'd be seeing the same histrionics from the right wing. At least so long as they didn't try and import healthcare. :)

  6. Anon 2:10 & Scotty --

    Good points; I was moving beyond the current controversy to the larger point about immigration/assimilation, but you're quite right that this case (and the LDS case) aren't actually about immigration primarily, or perhaps at all, and thanks for pointing that out.

    By the way, I think Adam Serwer has been terrific on this from early on, including today:

  7. Well, you don't necessarily exclude someone because you don't want them to assimilate; you might do so because you don't trust them to. It's a tension, innit. Since you're not willing to give up your way of life, the natural suspicion is that neither are they. Then it becomes firsties.

    A lot of the Cordoba center opponents do think it's about immigration, though, convinced as they are that the center's #1 new cheerleader (our president, that is) is an immigrant.

  8. One difference with the past is that immigration was not encouraged with people we were at war with. The US government has recently been bombing and killing Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen. Our close ally Israel has also been killing Muslims in Gaza and Lebanon. Israel has also killed a few Turks recently.

    Americans may believe that most Muslims support what we and Israel have been doing but I think many Muslims hate our actions in these countries. I also think it makes assimilation more difficult for immigrants when the US government is killing people in the immigrant's home country.

  9. This is one for the "history doesn't repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes" category.

    German-Americans were treated badly during both World Wars---including those whose families had been in the US for generations. Someone else here may know more about how Italian-Americans were treated.

  10. "German-Americans were treated badly during both World Wars---"

    Germans were treated badly in the first. I have never heard of any bad treatment of them in the second. Americans' hatred in the second was aimed at Japanese.

  11. You say "Of course, each group has had various cultural bits and pieces they keep with them (bits and pieces which generally are gobbled up by the larger American culture, so that everyone eats tacos and bagels)." I think this issue is more than just food. The difference between today and the 19th century is that then we were mainly taking white Christians and Jews. Today, we are taking people from Asia who reject the very premises America is built on: individualism, individual rights, freedom. Soon we will have multiple Americas, especially if immigrants keep hyphenating their identity.

    Also, this discussion has missed the most pressing issue: illegal immigration. The past immigrants came legally. Many, if not most latinos in the country today are either criminals by definition, or their descendants who should never have been here if due process had been followed.

  12. "the immigrants themselves, who in almost all cases have been pretty desperate to assimilate as quickly as possible."

    Not really, excepting as necessary to earn money. FWIW, back in my ethnic urban neighborhoods where I grew up (and later also in my sociology classes), we completely understood that MOST immigrants were not desirous of assimilation as Americans--they often were resentful and resistant to assimilation, missing home and critical of America's differences. BUT their children were far more willing and eager and successful, and their grandchildren were entirely assimilated.

    Immigration has been a true blessing for America and the desires of immigrants to assimilate is irrelevant to this.


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