Historian Oscar Handlin once wrote, "I thought to write a history of immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history." Indeed, no other country in the world can claim to being a "nation of nations," and to having the same diversity of nationalities and ethnicities.
This diversity has always been a source of national pride but it has been a source of friction as well.
The United States has traditionally been regarded as a "melting pot," where people of various ethnicities and nationalities immigrate and assimilate into the American way of life. However, a growing number of immigrant groups defy these expectations and hold on to many aspects of their traditional values, such as religion and language. Recent policies regarding immigration now embody this trend towards a plurality of cultures, or multiculturalism.
This paper compares the "melting pot" and multiculturalism approach to immigration. The first part of the paper examines early studies regarding the concept of melting pot and its effect on the early immigrants, particularly those from Europe. The second part then studies the experience of the new wave of immigrants who arrived since the 1960s, focusing on people from Asia.
The last part of the paper then examines why the "melting pot" theory has failed to provide a unicultural America, in both instances. Some groups joined the white mainstream American culture in as little as two generations, while others continued to be separate and marginalized. This failure is largely rooted in the variable effects assimilation into American culture has for various ethnic groups.
In their seminal book Beyond the Melting Pot, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan posited that an "assimilating power of American society and culture operate(s) on immigrant groups...to make them...something they had not been."
This is the crux of the melting pot theory, where people of various ethnicities and cultures get swished together into the larger cauldron of American-ness. However, the authors themselves acknowledge that after decades of assimilation, "the point of the melting pot is that it did not happen."
For the authors, assimilation into American society depends largely on economic status. In fact, they posit that a person's ethnicity becomes less important as immigrant groups become middle-class.
As case studies, the authors used the various ethnic groupings in New York City during the late 1950s to the early 1960s. Caucasian ethnic groups, such as the Jews, the Italians and the Irish, used entrepreneurship as a road to becoming middle class. In contrast, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans lagged behind economically, rendering their ethnicity more salient.
Glazer and Moynihan, however, were optimistic that reaching middle-class status would help both groups assimilate better, replacing their race and island ties with a blanket American-ness.
Though their racial backgrounds have made assimilation more difficult, the authors were confident that these groups would eventually join the melting pot in a few more generations.
Forty years later, however, this assimilation is far from a reality. In his later work We Are All Multiculturalists Now, Glazer recognizes that the melting pot theory did not provide people with enough room to assert their autonomy in forming their own ethnic identity. Glazer now argues that because African-Americans were prevented from joining the melting pot, American societies now pay the price of a society polarized by race. The author thus sees multiculturalism not as an ideal, but as the next best option after the failure of assimilation.
In retrospect, the assimilation policy clearly had different impacts on various ethnic groups. Jewish immigrants as well as immigrants from Italy and Ireland were able to use small entrepreneurship as a vehicle for economic and social mobility. Much of this mobility was not due to income. In fact, Glazer and Moynihan note that most Jewish and Italian grocers made less money than skilled workers.
Instead, the importance of small entrepreneurship lay in the possibility of achieving influence and wealth. Unlike workers, shopkeepers "had access to that special world of credit which may give him...greater resources than a job...He learns too about the world of local politics and...he may also learn to influence it." This knowledge and ability makes the shopkeeper a valuable resource to his or her immigrant community.
Immigrant groups saw entrepreneurship as an attractive option for other reasons. First, many groups arrived here with capital, often comprised of life savings from their homelands. Second, many immigrants - particularly Jewish and Italian groups - were marginalized by a lack of English proficiency and an unfamiliarity with American customs. Stores and shops within their immigrant communities were thus often the only business opportunities available to them.
In contrast, African-Americans during the 1950s and the 1960s were already familiar with the prevailing white American culture and they spoke English. However, many did not have access to start-up capital for businesses. Thus, many African-Americans opted to become skilled workers, joining their Caucasian counterparts in blue-collar professions such as factory work.
Because of this, the de-industrialization and globalization in the United States over the past three decades has thus disproportionately affected African-Americans. Jobs that were formerly given to residents in inner cities are being diverted to developing countries with cheaper labor. One of the results is an underclass within African-Americans in the inner city.
In a way, these economic developments support Glazer and Moynihan's thesis that assimilation depends on economic status. Despite the limitations of its analysis regarding the possibility of assimilation, however, Beyond the Melting Pot continues to be relevant for its recognition of the fragmented ways immigrant groups adapt into American society.
Mosaic of Cultures: Immigration since the 1960s
The last three decades have seen a marked change in the face of American immigration, particularly in the rise of immigrants from Asia. Most Korean-Americans trace their roots to the third wave of immigration, a period during which immigrants from Asia outnumbered European immigrants for the first time in American history.
In many ways, immigrant groups mirrored the entrepreneurial experiences of the European immigrants before them. Most of the third wave immigrants from Korea arrived in large family groups. Majority of these immigrants settled in urban areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City.
Like the European immigrants, the progress to economic stability was also uneven among the new immigrant groups. Like the early Jewish immigrants, many Koreans set up businesses. In their version of New York's Lower East Side, 45,000 Korean immigrants settled in Koreatown, a 2-mile stretch along Los Angeles's Olympic Boulevard. The storefronts in this area used to be Jewish and Mexican-run businesses. At present, most of the stores and businesses along this area now have Korean letters on their signs.
Like the Jewish and Italian immigrants before them, researchers posit that many Koreans turned to small business entrepreneurship because difficulties with the English language and a lack of familiarity with American culture made it difficult for immigrants to join the labor market. In addition, close kinship ties and liberal immigration policies allowed many Koreans to pool together the intensive labor often required for start-up businesses.
In contrast, Filipino-Americans who also immigrated to the United States in large numbers during the same time period bypassed the entrepreneur stage. This was partly because among Asian-Americans, Filipinos were more likely to be familiar with the language as well as American cultural practices. Most Filipinos, particularly those with health-related college degrees, were thus able to find employment outside their ethnic communities.
Despite these advantages, however, a study of Filipinos in California found that as a whole, Filipinos remain in a "subordinated" position compared to other Asian immigrants. Aside from doctors, most other Filipinos are clustered in "the secondary labor market, where the pay is low and mobility is limited."
The difference between these Asian-American immigrant groups lends credence to Glazer and Moynihan's theory regarding the economic and social importance of entrepreneurship in the immigrant community. However, their experiences also challenge the implicit assumption of assimilation in many ways.
In writing about assimilation into the melting pot, Glazer and Moynihan posit that economic status would be enough to lead immigrants down the road to full "Americanization" within a few generations.
However, this has clearly not been the case with immigrants from African-Americans and Puerto Ricans who immigrated in the 1950s. It is also doubtful whether this will be the case for the different Asian-American groups who make up the bulk of immigrants today, regardless of their economic status.
In writing about the melting pot, Glazer and Moynihan did not anticipate the deep cleavages caused by race. This leads them to theorize that the easier assimilation by Jews, Italians and the Irish were thus due to economic circumstances alone. However, many Korean-Americans who are achieving middle-class or even upper-class status would dispute that economic wealth would trump their race.
In fact, there are many other indicators regarding the futility of one-way assimilation policies. Many experts caution that forcing groups to abandon their heritage would only serve to further breed racial and ethnic alienation. In Europe, exiled groups often became more introverted and…