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Till We Melt Again

Does Assimilation Work?

May 21, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 34 • By FRED SIEGEL
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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