You are on page 1of 9

Either immigrants bring themselves “up”

to native cultural standards,
or they are doomed to live “out”
of the charmed circle of the national culture.

UP OR OUT
Most Americans, both those who favor and those
who oppose assimilation, believe that for immi-
grants to assimilate, they must abandon their origi-
nal cultural attributes and conform entirely to the
behaviors and customs of the majority of the native-
born population. In the terminology of the armed
forces, this represents a model of “up or out”: Either
immigrants bring themselves “up” to native cultural
standards, or they are doomed to live “out” of the
charmed circle of the national culture.
Here is the example of Israel on that kind of as- Proponents of the Melting Pot policy asserted Today the reaction to this doctrine is ambivalent; And here is also an interesting case of the politics As a result of this denial of citizenship, the Rus-
similation. In the early years of the state of Israel that it applied to all newcomers to Israel equally; some say that it was a necessary measure in the of identity in post-independence Latvia. There has sian community complains of loss of jobs (e.g.,
the term melting pot, also known as “Ingathering specifically, that Eastern European Jews were founding years, while others claim that it amount- been a spectrum of responses to the presence of pharmacists, lawyers, firemen, doctors, police-
of the Exiles”, was not a description of a process, pressured to discard their Yiddish-based culture ed to cultural oppression. Others argue that the Russians in the Newly Independent States of Eur- men and elected politicians are no longer careers
but an official governmental doctrine of assimi- as ruthlessly as Mizrahi Jews were pressured to melting pot policy did not achieve its declared asia, from polite disinterest to seething animos- open to non-citizens regardless of talent or expe-
lating the Jewish immigrants that originally came give up the culture which they developed during target: for example, the persons born in Israel ity. In the Baltics, Estonia and Latvia in particu- rience), complications traveling abroad, attempts
from varying cultures. This was performed on centuries of life in Arab and Muslim countries. are more similar from an economic point of view lar, nationalizing states disenfranchised a large at forcible assimilation and other calculated
several levels, such as educating the younger Critics respond, however, that a cultural change to their parents than to the rest of the population. number of Russians and other non-indigenous policies intended to provoke people into emigrat-
generation, with the parents not having the final effected by a struggle within the Ashkenazi-East The policy is generally not practised today though nationalities. In order to meet the stringent citi- ing. Thus many Russians, who form majorities in
say, and, to mention an anecdotal one, encour- European community, with younger people volun- as there is less need for that - the mass immi- zenship requirements, Russians and other non- many areas of these states (upwards of 95 per-
aging and sometimes forcing the new citizens to tarily discarding their ancestral culture and for- gration waves at Israel’s founding have declined. titulars had to meet historical residency require- cent in some localities), are now stateless people
adopt a Hebrew name. mulating a new one, is not parallel to the subse- Nevertheless, one fifth of current Israel’s Jewish ments (typically requiring an individual or his or without the ability to vote for their leaders or run
quent exporting and imposing of this new culture population have immigrated from former Soviet her forebears to have been living in the state prior for office, and whose guarantee of basic human
on others, who had no part in formulating it. Also, Union in the last two decades; The Jewish popu- to Soviet annexation in 1940), prove language rights within their state of residence remain tenu-
Activists such as the Iraq-born Ella Shohat that
it was asserted that extirpating the Yiddish cul- lation includes other minorities such as Haredi proficiency, make loyalty oaths, and satisfy other ous. Latvia and Estonia defend the actions taken
an elite which developed in the early 20th Cen-
ture had been in itself an act of oppression only Jews; Furthermore, 20% of Israel’s population is benchmarks. Many have been unable or unwilling against their minority communities as an appro-
tury, out of the earlier-arrived Zionist Pioneers of
compounding what was done to the Mizrahi im- Arab. These factors as well as others contribute to meet these metrics (which are not required of priate response to illegal migration conducted
the Second and Third Aliyas, immigration waves,
migrants. to the rise of pluralism as a common principle in titulars). In the case of Estonia, the Law on Aliens under the aegis of the occupying Soviet Army.
and who gained a dominant position in the Yi-
the last years. (1993) went beyond simple disenfranchisement
shuv, pre-state community, since the 1930s, had
formulated a new Hebrew culture, based on the and implied that Russians and other non-citizens
values of Socialist Zionism, and imposed it on all (Jews, Ukrainians, Tatars, etc.) may be subject to
later arrivals, at the cost of suporessing and eras- expulsion in the future.
ing these later immigrants’ original culture.
MELTI NG POT
“Here shall they all unite to build
the Republic of Man and
the Kingdom of God.”
In America, however, assimilation has not meant repudiating immi-
grant culture. Assimilation, American style has always been much
more flexible and accommodating and, consequently, much more
effective in achieving its purpose—to allow the United States to
preserve its “national unity in the face of the influx of hordes of
persons of scores of different nationalities,” in the words of the
sociologist Henry Fairchild.

A popular way of getting hold of the assimilation idea has been to
use a metaphor, and by far the most popular metaphor has been
that of the “melting pot,” a term introduced in Israel Zangwill’s
1908 play of that name: “There she lies, the great Melting-Pot—
Listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling?...Ah, what a
stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and
Syrian, black and yellow...Jew and Gentile....East and West, and
North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator,
the crescent and the cross—how the great Alchemist melts and
fuses them with his purifying flame! Here shall they all unite to
build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God.”
The term melting pot refers to the idea that societies formed by The history of the melting pot theory can be traced back to 1782 The melting pot reality was limited only to intermixing between Eu- Since the Second World War, the idea of the melting pot has become
immigrant cultures, religions, end ethnic groups, will produce new when J. Hector de Crevecoeur, a French settler in New York, envi- ropeans with a strong emphasis on the Anglo-Saxon culture while racially inclusive in the United States, gradually extending also to
hybrid social and cultural forms. The notion comes from the pot in sioned the United States not only as land of opportunity but as a the input of minority cultures was only minor. Non-white Americans acceptance of marriage between whites and non-whites. This trend
which metals are melted at great heat, melding together into new society where individuals of all nations are melted into a new race were for centuries not regarded by most white Americans as equal towards greater acceptance of ethnic and racial “minorities” by
compound, with great strength and other combined advantages. In of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause changes citizens and suitable marriage partners. “WASPs” (Anglo-Americans and other, mainly Protestant Americans
comparison with assimilation, it implies the ability of new or sub- in the world (Parrillo, 1997). The new nation welcomed virtually all The mixing of whites and blacks, resulting in multiracial children, for of Northern European descent) was first evident in popular culture.
ordinate groups to affect the values of the dominant group. Some- immigrants from Europe in the belief that the United States would which the term “miscegenation” was coined in 1863, was a taboo,
times it is referred to as amalgamation, in the opposition to both become, at least for whites, the “melting pot” of the world. This idea and most whites opposed marriages between whites and blacks. In Since the successes of the American Civil Rights Movement and the
assimilation and pluralism. was adopted by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1893) who many states, marriage between whites and non-whites was even enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which
updated it with the frontier thesis. Turner believed that the chal- prohibited by state law through anti-miscegenation laws. allowed for a massive increase in immigration from Latin America
Although the term melting pot may be applied to many countries in lenge of frontier life was the country´s most crucial force, allowing and Asia, intermarriage between white and non-white Americans
the world, such as Brazil, Bangladesh or even France, mostly refer- Europeans to be “Americanised” by the wilderness (Takaki, 1993). A Did therefore Non-white Americans not fit into melting pot dis- has been increasing. The taboo on marriage between whites and
ring to increased level of mixed race and culture, it is predominantly major influx of immigrants occurred mainly after the 1830s, when courses at all. Intermarriage between Anglo-Americans and white African Americans also appears to be fading. In 2000, the rate of
used with reference to USA and creation of the American nation, as large numbers of British, Irish, and Germans began entering, to be immigrant groups was acceptable as part of the melting pot narra- black-white marriage was greater than the rate of Jewish-Gentile
a distinct “new breed of people” amalgamated from many various joined after the Civil War by streams of Scandinavians and then tive. But when the term was first popularized in the early twentieth marriage (between Jewish Americans and other whites) in 1940.
groups of immigrants. As such it is closely linked to the process of groups from eastern and southern Europe as well as small num- century, most whites did not want to accept non-whites, and espe-
Americanisation. The theory of melting pot has been criticised both bers from the Middle East, China, and Japan. Before the outbreak of cially African-Americans, as equal citizens in America’s melting pot
as unrealistic and racist, because it focused on the Western heri- World War I in 1914, the American public generally took it for grant- society. Native Americans in the United States enrolled in tribes did
tage and excluded non-European immigrants. Also, despite its pro- ed that the constant flow of newcomers from abroad, mainly Eu- not have US citizenship until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, and
claimed “melting” character its results have been assimilationist. rope, brought strength and prosperity to the country. The metaphor were subjected to government policies of enforced cultural assimi-
of the “melting pot” symbolized the mystical potency of the great lation, which was termed “Americanization”.
democracy, whereby people from every corner of the earth were
fused into a harmonious and admirable blend. A decline in immigra-
tion from northwestern Europe and concerns over the problems of
assimilating so many people from other areas prompted the pas-
sage in the 1920s of legislation restricting immigration, one of the
measures reflecting official racism.
BEYOND THE
MELTI NG POT
Critics of the metaphor have spanned the ideological spectrum and
mounted several different lines of attack on it. Empiricists submit-
ted evidence that the melting pot wasn’t working as predicted and
concluded, as did Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan in
Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), “The point about the melting pot...is
that it did not happen.” Other critics rejected the second corollary
of the metaphor—that natives were changed by it, too—and saw no
reason that native Americans should give up any part of their cul-
tural attributes to “melt” into the alloy. If true assimilation were to
occur, the criticism went, immigrants would have to abandon all their
cultural baggage and conform to American ways. It is the immigrant,
said Fairchild, representing the views of many Americans, “who must
undergo the entire transformation; the true member of the American
nationality is not called upon to change in the least.”

“The point about the
“The point about the melting pot...
A third strain of criticism was first voiced by sociologist Horace Kal-

melting pot...is that
len in the early part of this century. Among the most prolific American
scholars of ethnicity, Kallen argued that it was not only unrealistic

is that it did not happen.”
but cruel and harmful to force new immigrants to shed their famil-

it did not happen.”
iar, lifelong cultural attributes as the price of admission to American
society. In place of the melting pot, he called for “cultural pluralism.”
In Kallen’s words, national policy should “seek to provide conditions
under which each [group] might attain the cultural perfection that is
proper to its kind.”
CULTURAL
PLURA L I SM
Cultural pluralism rejects melting-pot assimilationism not on em-
pirical grounds, but on ideological ones. Kallen and his followers
believed that immigrants to the United States should not “melt”
into a common national ethnic alloy but, rather, should steadfastly
hang on to their cultural ethnicity and band together for social and
political purposes even after generations of residence in the United
States. As such, cultural pluralism is not an alternative theory of
assimilation; it is a theory opposed to assimilation.

Cultural pluralism is, in fact, the philosophical antecedent of mod-
ern multiculturalism—what I call “ethnic federalism”: official rec-
ognition of distinct, essentially fixed ethnic groups and the doling
out of resources based on membership in an ethnic group. Ethnic
federalism explicitly rejects the notion of a transcendent American
identity, the old idea that out of ethnic diversity there would emerge
a single, culturally unified people. Instead, the United States is to

BEYOND THE
be viewed as a vast ethnic federation—Canada’s Anglo-French
arrangement, raised to the nth power. Viewing ethnic Americans
as members of a federation rather than a union, ethnic federal-
ism, a.k.a. multiculturalism, asserts that ethnic Americans have
the right to proportional representation in matters of power and
privilege, the right to demand that their “native” culture and puta-
tive ethnic ancestors be accorded recognition and respect, and the
right to function in their “native” language (even if it is not the lan-
guage of their birth or they never learned to speak it), not just at
home but in the public realm.

Ethnic federalism is at all times an ideology of ethnic grievance and
inevitably leads to and justifies ethnic conflict. All the nations that
have ever embraced it, from Yugoslavia to Lebanon, from Belgium
to Canada, have had to live with perpetual ethnic discord.

Kallen’s views, however, stop significantly short of contemporary
multiculturalism in their demands on the larger “native” American
society. For Kallen, cultural pluralism was a defensive strategy for
“unassimilable” immigrant ethnic groups that required no accom-
modation by the larger society. Contemporary multiculturalists, on
the other hand, by making cultural pluralism the basis of ethnic fed-
eralism, demand certain ethnic rights and concessions. By empha-
sizing the failure of assimilation, multiculturalists hope to provide
intellectual and political support for their policies.

Immigrants to the United
States should not
“melt” into a com-
mon national ethnic alloy.
RA INBOW
COA LI TI ON
“We are more than a melting pot;
we are a kaleidoscope.”
The multiculturalists’ rejection of the melting pot idea is seen in
the metaphors they propose in its place. Civil rights activist Jesse
Jackson suggested that Americans are members of a “rainbow co-
alition.” Former New York Mayor David Dinkins saw his constituents
constituting a “gorgeous mosaic.” Former Congresswoman Shirley
Chisholm characterized America’s ethnic groups as being like ingre-
dients in a “salad bowl.” Barbara Jordan, recent chairperson of the
U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, said: “We are more than a
melting-pot; we are a kaleidoscope.”

These counter-metaphors all share a common premise: that ethnic
groups in the United States may live side by side harmoniously, but
on two conditions that overturn both assumptions of the melting-
pot metaphor. First, immigrants (and black Americans) should never
have to (or maybe should not even want to) give up any of their origi-
nal cultural attributes. And second, there never can or will be a single
unified national identity that all Americans can relate to. These two
principles are the foundations of cultural pluralism, the antithesis of
assimilationism.
While all these metaphors—including the melting pot—are

A CRO SS THE
colorful ways of representing assimilation, they don’t go far
in giving one an accurate understanding of what assimila-
tion is really about. For example, across the ideological
spectrum, they all invoke some external, impersonal as-
similating agent. Who, exactly, is the “great alchemist” of the
melting pot? What force tosses the salad or pieces together
the mosaic? By picturing assimilation as an impersonal, au-

IDEOLOGI CAL
tomatic process and thus placing it beyond analysis, the
metaphors fail to illuminate its most important secrets. As-
similation, if it is to succeed, must be a voluntary process,
by both the assimilating immigrants and the assimilated-to
natives. Assimilation is a human accommodation, not a me-
chanical production.

The metaphors also mislead as to the purposes of assimi-

SPECTRUM
lation. The melting pot is supposed to turn out an undif-
ferentiated alloy—a uniform, ethnically neutral, American
protoperson. Critics have long pointed out that this idea is
far-fetched. But is it even desirable? And if it is desirable,
does it really foster a shared national identity? The greatest
failing of the melting-pot metaphor is that it overreaches.
It exaggerates the degree to which immigrants’ ethnicity is

By being too compelling,
likely to be extinguished by exposure to American society
and it exaggerates the need to extinguish ethnicity. By being
too compelling, too idealistic, the melting-pot idea has inad-

too idealistic,
vertently helped to discredit the very assimilation paradigm
it was meant to celebrate.

the melting-pot idea has inadvertently On the other hand, behind their unexceptionable blandness,
the antithetical cultural pluralist metaphors are profoundly

helped to discredit the very assimilation
insidious. By suggesting that the product of assimilation is
mere ethnic coexistence without integration, they under-
mine the objectives of assimilation, even if they appear more

paradigm it was meant to celebrate.
realistic. Is assimilation only about diverse ethnic groups
sharing the same national space? That much can be said
for any multiethnic society. If the ethnic greens of the salad
or the fragments of the mosaic do not interact and identify
with each other, no meaningful assimilation is taking place.
NOT A SINGLE EVENT
EVENT BUT
A PROCESS
Perhaps a new assimilation metaphor should be introduced—
one that depends not on a mechanical process like the melting
pot but on human dynamics. Assimilation might be viewed as
more akin to religious conversion than anything else. In the terms
of this metaphor, the immigrant is the convert, American society
is the religious order being joined, and assimilation is the process
by which the conversion takes place. Just as there are many mo-
tives for people to immigrate, so are there many motives for them
to change their religion: spiritual, practical (marrying a person
of another faith), and materialistic (joining some churches can

“long-term processes that have whittled away
lead to jobs or subsidized housing). But whatever the motivation,
conversion usually involves the consistent application of certain
principles. Conversion is a mutual decision requiring affirma-
tion by both the convert and the religious order he or she wishes
to join. Converts are expected in most (but not all) cases to re- at the social foundations of
ethnic distinctions.”
nounce their old religions. But converts do not have to change
their behavior in any respects other than those that relate to the
new religion. They are expected only to believe in its theological
principles, observe its rituals and holidays, and live by its moral
precepts. Beyond that, they can be rich or poor, practice any
trade, pursue any avocational interests, and have any racial or
other personal attributes. Once they undergo conversion, they
are eagerly welcomed into the fellowship of believers. They have
become part of “us” rather than “them.” This is undoubtedly what
writer G.K. Chesterton had in mind when he said: “America is a
nation with the soul of a church.”

In the end, however, no metaphor can do justice to the achieve-
ments and principles of assimilation, American style. As numer-
ous 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 di-
verse 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 de-
fined assimilation as “long-term processes that have whittled
away at the social foundations of ethnic distinctions.” But as-
similation is more complex than that because it is a process of
numerous dimensions. Not all immigrants and ethnic groups as-
similate in exactly the same way or at the same speed.