Heavy immigration has been the rule in American history, not the exception, and the minority groups of 2000 in many ways repeats of the major immigrant groups of 1900: Blacks, Latinos and Asians resemble the Irish, Italians and Jews of our past. We are not in a wholly new place in history. Many people will argue that in this day and age, America is a place that encourages diversity and therefore new immigrants are in no way forced to assimilate. Instead, the influx of new and old cultures merely blend to create and new and better final result. It is from these views that the famous "melting pot" metaphor has stemmed.
However, this is not the case. Although cultural assimilation in America has changed forms over the last century, it is still just as much a part of this nation today as it was one hundred years ago.
Cultural assimilation is defined as the "cultural absorption of a minority group into the main cultural group"(Webster). In the United States, this absorption is a major social force that reshapes an individual’s beliefs and traditions.
Even within gateway cities that give the outward appearance of being multicultural, there are sharp lines of ethnic segregation. When describing the ethnic diversity of a heavily immigrated mega-city, such as Los Angeles, many residents speak praise of the great mosaic of many peoples. But the social scientists who look at the hard census data see something more complex: that "while Los Angeles, as seen from an airplane, is a tremendously mixed society, on the ground, racial homogeneity and segregation are common" (Hayes-Bautista).
This is not a new phenomenon; there have always been immigrant neighborhoods. But the persistence of ethnic enclaves and identification does not appear to be going away, and may not in a country that is now home to not a few distinct ethnic groups, but to dozens. The census tracts show that Hispanics in Los Angeles, are more segregated residentially in 1990 than they were 10 or 20 years ago (Grieve). Moreover, it is possible that what mixing of groups that does occur is only a temporary phenomenon as one ethnic group supplants another in the neighborhood.
This deep-seated ethnic segregation clearly extends to the American workplace. In many cities, researchers find sustained "ethnic niches" in the labor market that are enduring and remarkably resistant to outsiders. For the affluent, which includes a disproportionate number of whites, the large labor pool provides them with a ready supply of gardeners, maids and nannies. For businesses in need of cheap manpower, the same is true. Yet there are fewer "transitional" jobs – the blue-collar work that helped Italian and Irish immigrants move up the economic ladder – to help newcomers or their children on their way to the jobs requiring advanced technical or professional skills that now dominate the upper tier of the economy. (Hall)
It is a particularly American phenomenon, to label citizens by their ethnicity. (Grieve) When a person lived in El Salvador, for example, he or she saw themselves as a nationality. When they arrive in the United States, they become Hispanic or Latino. So too with Asians. Koreans and Cambodians find little in common, but when they arrive here they become "Asian," and are counted and courted, encouraged or discriminated against as such.
Many immigrant parents say that while they want their children to advance economically in their new country - they do not want them to become "too American." One study of the children of immigrants suggests the parents are not alone in their concerns. Asked by researchers how they identified themselves, most children chose categories of hyphenated Americans. Few choose "American" as their identity. And when they were asked if they believe the United States in the best country in the world, most of the youngsters answered: no. (Castells)
During our earlier immigration wave one-century back, we had self-confident patriotic elites in politics, education, business, religion, and civic associations who insisted that new immigrants Americanize. Now, we have diffident and divided elites who are either actively promoting anti-Americanization policies such as "multiculturalism" or doing little to encourage assimilation. In 1915, Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Republican Theodore Roosevelt explicitly and forcefully called for the "Americanization" of new immigrants. In 2000, Democrats and Republicans alike talk mostly of "diversity," rarely if ever of "assimilation" or "Americanization." (Duignan) Despite this, assimilation is still a reality today.
In today's United States, the statement "…blood only means what you let it (Sayles)" is not very controversial. Groups which advocate for the cultural assimilation of America's immigrant groups into an acceptable and singular "American" culture surely operate from the premise that people can choose how they access their blood heritage. On the opposite end of the spectrum, groups advocating for the development of an ethnically conscious and proud politic share the belief in human agency when they rally people to try to more specifically utilize their cultural heritage. Even those who operate within the vast region between assimilation and cultural nationalism agree with the notion that humans have the power to choose the manner in which they access their own histories.
In the last two decades, culture has become inundated with messages of self-help. This philosophy has expanded, as Americans increasingly believe that all they have to do is to will it hard enough and they can be set free from the confines of their past, their genetics, or their memory (Islas). The "it" of which they hope is the very basis for the idea of the "American Dream."
America is known as "The Melting Pot." This title refers to the promise that all immigrants can be transformed into Americans, a new alloy forged in a crucible of democracy, freedom and civic responsibility. In the early 1900's, the United States was in the middle of absorbing the largest influx of immigrants in its history – Irish and Germans, followed by Italians and East Europeans, Catholics and Jews – some 18 million new citizens between 1890 and 1920. (Hall)
Today, the United States is experiencing its second great wave of immigration, a movement of people that has profound implications for a society that by tradition pays homage to its immigrant roots at the same time it confronts complex and deeply ingrained ethnic and racial divisions. The immigrants of today come not from Europe but overwhelmingly from the still developing world of Asia and Latin America. The are influencing a demographic change so rapid that within the lifetimes of today's teenagers, no one ethnic group – including whites of European descent – will comprise a majority of the nation's population. (Teahan)
This shift will severely test the premise of the fabled melting pot, the idea, so central to national identity, that this country can transform people of every color and background into "one America." It is quite possible that the nation will continue to fracture into many separate, disconnected communities with no shared sense of commonality or purpose (Mukherjee). However, with our modern technological and marketing advancements, most immigrants come to America pre-indoctrinated with American culture. In the deepest regions of Africa, the indigenous tribes are well aware of who Michael Jordan is. No other culture on the planet has such a worldwide influence.
While the melting pot metaphor is a are colorful ways of representing assimilation, it does not go far in giving anyone an accurate understanding of what assimilation is really about. It brings to mind some external, impersonal assimilating agent. But this metaphor does not tell you who exactly is the "great melte"r of the melting pot.
By picturing assimilation as an impersonal, automatic process and thus placing it beyond analysis, the metaphor fails to illuminate its most important aspects. Assimilation, if it is to succeed, must be a voluntary process, by both the assimilating immigrants and the assimilated natives. Assimilation is a human accommodation, not a mechanical production. (Islas)
The metaphor also misleads as to the purposes of assimilation. The melting pot is supposed to turn out a uniform, ethnically neutral, American society. Critics have long pointed out that this idea is far-fetched. The greatest failing of the melting-pot metaphor is that it exaggerates. It suggests that the product of assimilation is mere ethnic coexistence without integration. That much can be said for any multiethnic society. If the individual elements of the society do not interact and identify with each other, no meaningful assimilation is taking place. (Castells)
In the end, however, no metaphor can do justice to the achievements and principles of assimilation, American style. As numerous sociologists have shown, assimilation is not a single event, but a process. In 1930 Robert Park observed, "Assimilation is the name given to the process or processes by which peoples of diverse racial origins and different cultural heritages, occupying a common territory, achieve a cultural solidarity sufficient at least to sustain a national existence." More recently, Richard Alba defined assimilation as "long-term processes that have whittled away at the social foundations of ethnic distinctions." Both of them were correct in their observations.
For most immigrants, assimilation is a long and painful process. However it is necessary to the very fiber of any multi-ethnic society. America today could not function as a whole if all of the units that make it up remain dissimilar. This has been true since the turn of the century.
New technologies and cultural awarenesses have changed the specifics of the process, but the basic realities behind it remain the same. Many people have come to this country in search of the "American dream" whether they heard of it was one hundred years ago in a letter or saw it today in a movie. Without the assimilation process, their would be no America, only a bunch of people living in close physical proximity to one another. Whatever intangible thing it is that makes this country America, and that makes it the thing of dreams, is due to the continual mixing of different things into something new.
"Assimilation: Then and Now." University of Sydney Forum.
Castells, M. "The Power of Identity."
Duignan, Peter. "Bilingual Education: A Critique."
"Ethnic Customs, Assimilation, and American Law."
Grieve, Paul. "Multiculturalism or Cultural Assimilation."
Hayes-Bautista, David E. "Cultural Assimilation Is Bad for Your Health."
Hall, S. "Old and new identities, old and new ethnicities."
Islas, Arturo. "Migrant Souls."
Mukherjee, Bharati. "Two Ways to Belong in America."
Sayles, John. "Lone Star."
Teahan, John. "One Nation Out of Many Nations."
"The Process of Cultural Assimilation." http://www.ethnicharvest.org/links/assimilation.htm
Webster’s New World Dictionary, 3rd edition. David B. Guralnik and Victoria Neufeldt, eds.