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.

This is true, as far as it goes. But like all primers -- and this book should be read by every college student in America -- it necessarily leaves out a lot. Acculturation hasn't always been a natural process. Take the question of what was once called Germania. Barone notes that 40 percent of revolutionary-era Pennsylvania was German-speaking. But he never again takes up the topic. The Germans were so insular that Ben Franklin despaired of their integration; 140 years later Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were speaking German to each other in the Yankee dugout. The vast German-speaking islands of the Midwest were deeply hostile to American foreign policy in the first half of the twentieth century. It's common today to dismiss Franklin's fear, but in fact (as UPI analyst Jim Chapin notes) it took two world wars in which we fought against Germany and considerable cultural repression to Americanize the Germanias of the American Midwest.

If, as is often suggested, China is the new Germany, the rising nationalist power of the twenty-first century, might that not put Chinese immigrants with deep ties to their homeland into difficult binds? Some of my mainland Chinese students, although deeply attracted to America, bridle at criticisms of their homeland. The Wen Ho Lee saga may be only the first of many dramas of conflicted loyalty.

And then there are the unprecedented situations produced by recent waves of immigration. Barone is right to be generally upbeat about immigrants' upward mobility, but there are important counter-examples -- like the downward mobility of Nicaraguans in South Florida. In New York, the Second-Generation Study being done for the Russell Sage Foundation finds that there are troubling signs of downward mobility among second-generation Jamaicans and Dominicans, two of the city's largest immigrant groups. In the case of the Dominicans, the problem is compounded by a rising rate of welfare dependancy in the midst of welfare reform. What's worrisome is that this decline has come in a period of economic boom. What will a slowdown bring?

The case of Latino immigrants in Southern California is also unprecedented. Barone argues that Italians and Latinos have generally chosen an apolitical and non-union path to economic and social success. But the Villaraigosa campaign, in what is surely the most important election held this year, suggests that something new is happening. Even if his left-labor-Latino coalition doesn't win in the runoff round of the city election, it has reshaped Los Angeles's politics and is likely to triumph in the near future. None of the earlier arrivals came in such massive and concentrated numbers (Latinos are already a numerical majority in Los Angeles), or in a continuous immigration; nor did they, as Latinos have, take up residence in an area close to their native country and live on land they could claim was once rightfully theirs. As Mexican-Americans are allowed to vote in Mexican elections, we are going to conduct an experiment in dual citizenship on an unprecedented scale. In the era of free trade and increasingly open borders, there is already an extraordinary direct relationship between Mexican presidents and California governors, which suggests that what's emerging doesn't fit the old patterns. For better or worse, Southern California may be evolving into a new hybrid in which Americanness will be permanently inflected with a Mexican accent.

In the end, there is a reasonable chance that Southern California will succeed at being different from most of the United States -- without, in Michael Barone's formulation, ending up "separate" or "adversarial." But even that is not quite what The New Americans promised when it suggested that history teaches us not to worry about the Americanizing of our latest waves of immigrants. Barone may well be right that the United States should continue welcoming new immigration, but the full consequences remain to be seen.

Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, is the author of The Future Once Happened Here: NY, DC, LA and the Fate of America's Big Cities, recently issued in paperback by Encounter Books.

May 21, 2001; Volume 6, Number 34