The Magazine

Till We Melt Again

Does Assimilation Work?

May 21, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 34 • By FRED SIEGEL
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THE IDEA THAT LOS ANGELES is the Ellis Island of the late twentieth century was brought home to me a few weeks ago when Antonio Villaraigosa won the first round of voting to become the city's next mayor. Villaraigosa, the son of Mexican immigrants, who has Clinton-like charm and the backing of a left-labor coalition, celebrated his triumph before a largely Latino overflow crowd at Los Angeles's vast Union Station. A gigantic American flag was mounted behind the speakers' podium as the exuberant crowd chanted, "Si se puede, si se puede, si se puede": "Yes we can." The "we" was the Latino unionists who've been organized into a rising political force.

At one point the crowd, which had generally been facing forward toward the American flag, surged to the back of the room where a friend and I were sitting and chatting about the election. Their smiles were suffused with pride and hope as they squeezed around us in an effort to get close to their hero, the movie-star handsome Villaraigosa, who, unbeknownst to us, was being interviewed for Spanish-language television on a low-rise platform just a few inches behind our chairs. Several of the women smiled at us as if to say, "Don't worry, this is just joy," and then they burst into a chant of "He is present, he is present." It was hard not to be overwhelmed by both the quasi-religious overtones of their chant and the historical echoes. Morris Hillquit, a candidate for Congress, had evoked similar sentiments among the Jewish socialists of Manhattan's Lower East Side in the early twentieth century.

A few days earlier, I attended a meeting at the Hotel and Restaurant Workers building to train canvassers for Villaraigosa. When Art Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, asked the 350 or so assembled how many had never taken part in a campaign before, two-thirds of the overwhelmingly immigrant group raised their hands. In the course of creating civic capital, the campaign was incorporating the new arrivals into American political life.

It was a scene that underscored the optimism, if not the entire argument, behind Michael Barone's The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again. Barone is the coauthor of the canonical Almanac of American Politics, and in his new book he draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of politics and culture to assert that "America in the future will be multiracial and multiethnic but it will not -- or should not -- be multicultural in the sense of containing ethnic communities marked off from and adversarial to the larger society." We can succeed at ethnic incorporation, says Barone, because we've done it before. It's a problem for which, unlike the Europeans, we already have a working model of success.

Barone devotes most of this high-level primer to the parallels between earlier twentieth-century immigrants and today's arrivals. The first part of The New Americans compares the Irish and the blacks, the second part examines the Italians and the Latinos, and the third part (in the loosest of the analogies) takes up the Jews and the Asians. So, for instance, Barone notes that Anglo-American law was a liberation for most groups, but the Irish (who took 120 years to make it into the American mainstream) and blacks have been victims of its abuses. Jews and Asians, each endowed with a heritage that prized learning, have been drawn to educational achievement, while Italians and Latinos placed their hopes in supporting their tightknit families through back-breaking labor. "Stupid is he," ran the old Italian proverb, "who makes his children better than himself."

Barone's parallels in The New Americans are suggestive -- but the comparisons could have been put together in other ways. Though he groups the Irish with blacks, he might equally well have put them with the Latinos: When he writes of the Irish that "the steady arrival of newcomers, contact with the homeland through the immigrant press, and frequent lecture tours by nationalists" combined with regular trips home "perpetuated the inherited culture," he could have been referring to Mexican immigrants.

Still, however, he assembles his parallels, Barone puts a compelling thesis in The New Americans: Our history teaches us that the problems we currently have managing immigrants will find a successful conclusion. All we really need to worry about, Barone argues, is the change in American elites. Where once they hastened the process of acculturation, today they retard it with guilt-ridden multicultural theories of group victimization.