Published in Peter Kivisto, ed., Incorporating Diversity: Rethinking Assimilation in a Multicultural Era
(Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2005), pp. 154-173.
The Melting and the Pot:
Assimilation and Variety in American Life1
Rubén G. Rumbaut
“There is a limit to our powers of assimilation and when it is exceeded the country suffers from
something very like indigestion… We know how stubbornly conservative of his dirt and ignorance
is the average immigrant who settles in New York… these wretched beings change their abode,
but not their habits in coming to New York.”
-- Editorial, The New York Times (May 15, 1880)
“New York is of no man and every man: of the Afghan taxi driver who barely speaks English, the
turbaned Sikh, the wok-wielding cook in Chinatown and the singer of Neapolitan songs in the
restaurants of Little Italy. It is of the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans who fill streets with plena,
salsa and merengue; and the Russians, Ukrainians, Kosovars, Andalusians, Greeks, Nigerians,
Irish, Pakistanis, Ethiopians who, as soon as they arrive, are turned into New Yorkers by the
absorbent magic of the city. But there are those who hate this absorbency. The cosmopolitanism
of New York is at the antipodes of every form of fanaticism… [It] is impossible for fanatics of any
species, with their obtuse rectilinear mentality, not to hate the motley variety of this city, a
miniature refraction of humanity's infinite variety, which cannot be assimilated to any single way
of belief, thought or action.”
-- Mario Vargas Llosa, The New York Times (December 11, 2001)
The vivid reference to the “absorbent magic” of New York was penned by a
Peruvian novelist and frequent visitor to the city in the aftermath of the attacks of
September 11, 2001. Vargas Llosa was admiring the cosmopolitan inclusiveness of one
of the world’s great cities— “Out of Many, New York”—while slamming the fanaticism
that led to the atrocities of that day. But the image could have just as aptly been used to
depict the remarkable alchemy by which the United States has absorbed across the course
of its history, like a giant global sponge, millions of people of all classes and cultures
from every continent on earth… the overwhelming majority of them coming and settling
well after The New York Times complained of national indigestion in its 1880 editorial.
The editorial reflected the popular usage of the concept of assimilation on the eve of a
new era of mass immigration, this time largely from Eastern and Southern Europe. But
in Chicago a generation later, with immigration unabated and the large majority of that
city’s residents, like New York’s, consisting of first and second generation immigrants,
Robert Park, the leading sociologist on the subject, could write convincingly that:
1 Revised version of keynote address delivered at the annual meeting of the California Sociological
Association, Riverside, California, October 2002.
In America it has become proverbial that a Pole, Lithuanian, or Norwegian cannot be
distinguished, in the second generation, from an American born of native parents… As a
matter of fact, the ease and rapidity with which aliens, under existing conditions in the
United States, have been able to assimilate themselves to the customs and manners of
American life have enabled this country to swallow and digest every sort of normal
human difference, except the purely external ones, like color of the skin (1914; in Park
and Burgess 1924: 757-758).
“Purely” external ones? “Race,” to be sure, is purely a pigment of our
imagination. But the use of that adverb unwittingly distracts attention away from the
force of the “color line” as the most enduring and tragic (if absurd) boundary in
American history—not only “the problem of the twentieth century,” as W.E.B. DuBois
(1903) had prophesied a hundred years ago, but perhaps, as John Hope Franklin (1997)
recently argued, of the twenty-first as well. What then does it mean for the analysis of
assimilation in American life, and for the master metaphor of the melting pot, if “race”
itself cannot be “swallowed and digested”—or melted—like every other “sort of normal
human difference”? What should one make of the headline in the Seattle Times the
morning after the 2002 Olympics gold medal was awarded in the women’s figure skating
competition to New York native Sarah Hughes, who had edged out Michelle Kwan, a
California native of Chinese ancestry: “Hughes as Good as Gold; American Outshines
Kwan in Skating Surprise”… this from the same newspaper that four years earlier had
taken MSNBC to task for its own “American Beats Kwan” headline in the 1998
Olympics (when Texas native Tara Lipinsky outscored Kwan for the gold)? Or about the
front-page story in The New York Times (Ojito, 2000) about two lifelong Cuban friends,
Joel Ruiz and Achmed Valdés—one black, one white—who had grown up together in
Havana and together crossed the Florida Straits in rickety rafts only to find, within
months of their arrival in Miami, that they had drifted into separate worlds—one black,
one white—and hardly ever saw each other anymore?
Randolph Bourne (1916), writing in The Atlantic not long after Park’s
observations about the assimilation of the European second generation—in an era of
hegemonic Americanization and on the eve of U.S. entry into World War I—was among
the first to question the conditions and outcomes of such “melting” processes: assimilated
into what? He argued forcefully against Anglo-conformity and for a cosmopolitan vision
of what he called a “Trans-National America:”
The time has come to assert a higher ideal than the ‘melting-pot’… We act as if we
wanted Americanization to take place only on our own terms, and not by the consent of
the governed… American shall be what the immigrant will have a hand in making it, and
not what a ruling class…decide that America shall be made... The early colonists did not
come to be assimilated in an American melting-pot [or] adopt the culture of the American
Indian. They came to get freedom to live as they wanted to… to make their fortune in a
new land… What we emphatically do not want is that [the immigrants’] distinctive
qualities should be washed out into a tasteless, colorless fluid of uniformity. The Anglo-
Saxon attempt to fuse will only create enmity and distrust. The crusade against
‘hyphenates’ will only inflame the partial patriotism of transnationals.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? Nine tumultuous decades later,
perennial debates about the incorporation (or excorporation, in some egregious cases) of
immigrants and ethnoracial minorities in American society have not shed their well-worn
feel of familiarity. In sociology, two general perspectives have sought to grapple with
that central theme—and central dilemma—of U.S. history: assimilation and pluralism.
The metaphor of the “melting pot” has typically been used to dramatize and celebrate the
first of these—the acculturation and integration of immigrants and their descendants—
while distracting critical attention away from the actualities and potentialities of the
second. For all of its vaunted “melting,” there has been never been a single American
“melting pot;” that singular image will remain a deeply flawed one—sociologically as
well as ideologically—unless and until it can be applied inclusively, interethnically and
interracially. Nonetheless, as a matter of empirical fact, the possibilities of
interminglings at every level of social and cultural life are today greater than ever in U.S.
history, and thus a critical reconsideration of processes and outcomes of assimilation in
American life is worth undertaking, along with a reevaluation of the master concept
itself. In what follows I explore the evolution and elaboration of the concept in
American social science, and offer some reflections on the ideology, and the sociology,
of the “melting pot” as a master frame, as an idea and as an ideal, evocative of and vying
with other images of the centripetal and centrifugal social forces that forge national union
and diversity, “us” and “them.”
Assimilation and Variety: The Rhetoric of the Unum and the Pluribus
Like conquest and enslavement, immigration is a transformative force, producing
profound and unanticipated social changes in both sending and receiving societies, in
intergroup relations within receiving societies, and among the immigrants themselves and
their descendants. Immigration, under specifiable contexts of exit and reception, is
followed predictably not only by acculturative processes on the part of the immigrants,
but also by varying degrees of nativism and xenophobia about the alien newcomers on
the part of the natives, which in turn shape the immigrants’ own modes of adaptive
response and sense of belonging (see Higham, 1955; Aleinikoff and Rumbaut, 1998; Fry,
2001). And quintessentially, immigration engenders ethnicity—collectivities who
perceive themselves and are perceived by others to differ in language, religion, “race,”
national origin or ancestral homeland, cultural heritage, and memories of a shared
historical past. Their modes of incorporation across generations may take a variety of
forms—some leading to greater homogenization and solidarity within the society (or
within segments of the society), others to greater ethnic differentiation and heterogeneity.
In the United States, at different points in the national experience and even going
back to colonial times, both of these poles of homogeneity and heterogeneity,
assimilation and variety, have been sites of sharp ideological struggles, vying to gain the
upper hand in imposing a dominant group’s version of the nation’s identity and ideals and
of the meaning of the national narrative. None put the matter as early or as frankly as did
Boston-born Benjamin Franklin in 1751, mixing nativism and racism in what would
become a familiar, habitual American blend: “[W]hy should the Palatine Boors be
suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language
and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the
English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us
instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more
than they can acquire our Complexion?” Historically, in times of heightened in-group
consensus (especially during wars, when the premium for national unity is highest), the
debate about assimilation vs. variety in American life has been different than at other
times (especially during periods of peace and prosperity when heightened demands for
foreign labor as a result of an expanding economy have been mollified by the aliens not
being perceived as a threat, whether to the dominant national culture or its putative ethnic
purity). Put differently, both the discourse of the “melting pot” and “assimilation,” and
the rhetorical uses of the synonyms of “variety” and “diversity,” reflect specific contexts
and interests. Thus, for example, “variety” was the term used by Stephen Douglas in his
famous 1858 debates with Abraham Lincoln to argue on behalf of states’ rights and white
supremacy (cf. Bramen, 2000). That usage and defense of diversity would be
inconceivable to a contemporary multiculturalist—or a cosmopolite like Vargas Llosa, as
reflected in his passage in the epigraph.
Sociologically, assimilation is defined as a multidimensional process of boundary
reduction which blurs or dissolves an ethnic distinction and the social and cultural
differences and identities associated with it (Alba and Nee, 1997, 2003; Yinger, 1981).
At its endpoint, formerly distinguishable ethnocultural groups become effectively
blended into one. At the group level, assimilation may involve the absorption of one or
more minority groups into the majority, or the merging of minority groups—such as the
case of second-generation West Indians “becoming black Americans” (Waters, 1999;
Kasinitz et al., 2001). At the individual level, assimilation denotes the cumulative
changes that make individuals of one ethnic group more acculturated, integrated, and
identified with the members of another. Ideologically, the term has been used to justify
selective state-imposed policies aimed at the eradication of minority cultures (a notorious
example—which could be called a “melting plot”—being the campaigns, encouraged by
the Dawes Act of 1887, to Americanize, Christianize and “civilize” American Indian
children by removing them from their families and immediate environments and into
boarding schools like the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania). But in the social
scientific study of immigration and intergroup relations, “assimilation” remains an
indispensable concept. I will turn to a history and exegesis of the concept, and some
aspects of its sociological application, later in this essay.
More popular—and ideologically charged—is the mischievous metaphor of the
“melting pot.” To a self-professed nation of immigrants, that vivid and seductive image
serves to answer the challenges of social justice and diversity posed by immigration—by
offering an inclusionary image of the mechanism by which an unum is forged from the
pluribus—and thus to legitimize the nation as a whole as a beacon to the world, as
symbolized at the entrance to New York harbor by the Statue of Liberty, a Mother of
Exiles (facing, as it happens, toward Europe) with a poem on its pedestal that beckons the
tempest-tost and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free to come toward its lifted
lamp and its golden door. Hard working, English-speaking in due course, loyal, ready to
melt: immigration, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. What is more, the metaphor
is an apt depiction of the deep and difficult transformations that take place among
immigrants who undergo acculturative changes in the heat and pressure of the American
cauldron. Effectively, the focus among students of immigrants’ adaptations to American
society has typically been on their rate of melting, of acculturation and
“Americanization”… indeed, when we apply our math and our methods to the metaphor,
we can even measure their “melting points.” But the Pot is taken for granted; it is just
there, “God’s own fiery Crucible” (as it was called in Israel Zangwill’s play) that will
dissolve ancestral hatreds and attachments and make “Americans” out of a motley crew:
the “fifty barbarian tribes of Europe.” As the character David proclaims n Zangwill’s
“The Melting Pot” (the most popular play on Broadway in 1908, when record numbers of
immigrants were being admitted through Ellis Island, dedicated by its author to President
Theodore Roosevelt, a forceful proponent of “100 percent Americanism” and opponent
of “hyphenation”): “A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen,
Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is
making the American.”
Always at a cost, of course: assimilation is a non-violent, uncoerced, more or less
unconscious form of “ethnic cleansing,” a fading into what Richard Alba (1985) called
“the twilight of ethnicity,” and what Florian Znaniecki much earlier had termed “the
euthanasia of memories,” referring to the way in which Old World origins and identities
were extinguished in the American crucible. The United States has also been accurately
described as a “language graveyard,” underscoring the rapidity with which immigrant
languages are lost and with which the switch to monolingual English takes place—
typically within two to three generations, from the immigrant grandparent to the
thoroughly Americanized grandchild (see Portes and Rumbaut, 1996, 2001). In a way,
assimilation is realized through an unwitting process of seduction. Thus Ari Shavit
(1997) can point to the paradox that as American Jews find acceptance and success, they
become “an endangered species:” “Curiously, it is precisely America’s virtues—its
generosity, freedom and tolerance—that are now softly killing the last of the great
Diasporas. It is because of its very virtues that America is in danger of becoming the
most luxurious burial ground ever of Jewish cultural existence.” It takes two to tango—
and to assimilate.
What is euphemistically called “diversity” today refers less to any remaining
cultural vestiges, such as bilingualism or cuisine or music or forms of dress or worship—
or to what William James (1909) called a “pluralistic universe” in his blueprint for
modern pluralism, or to what his former student Horace Kallen (1915) conceived as a
“democracy of nationalities”—than to more essentialized and ascribed notions of
difference. If “race” is, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., put it (1986), “a trope of ultimate,
irreducible difference”—unmeltable, one might add—then “melting pot” is a trope of
ultimate union, the great dissolver of difference. Long before Zangwill’s play, before the
Constitution itself had been ratified, the first usage of “melting” as a metaphor came from
the pen of a French immigrant, whose name was itself a changed and melted one. J.
Hector St. John Crèvecoeur, in "What Is an American?" (an essay in his Letters From an
American Farmer, published in 1782), put the matter presciently in an oft-cited passage,
although just as often forgotten is the preface to his presage—namely, his emphasis on
the weak bonds that connected the European emigrants to their origins in the first place,
and the “invisible power” of an auspicious new-world reception bound to change their
attachments and sense of belonging and thus produce “this surprising metamorphosis:”
What attachment can a poor European emigrant have for a country where he had nothing?
The knowledge of the language, the love a few kindred as poor as himself, were the only
cords that tied him: his country is now that which gives him land, bread, protection, and
consequence: Ubi panis ibi patria , is the motto of all emigrants. What then is the
American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European,
hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country… He
becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here
individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity
will one day cause great changes in the world… Here the rewards of his industry follow
with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature,
self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement?
Still, as a master trope, there is rhetorical mischief in equating the melting with
the pot: the emphasis is placed on the acculturative processes entailed in “melting” while
distracting attention away from a critical analysis of structural “pots” and socio-historical
conditions (not least fundamental differences in the manner of entry into the society, from
voluntary migrations to enslavement and conquest). Thus half a century after
Crèvecoeur, another French observer of the American scene, Alexis de Tocqueville, had
this to say in Democracy in America (1969 , pp. 316-320) about “the present state
and probable future of the three races that inhabit the territory of the United States”—and
the different effects of the tyranny of the Europeans on the Negroes and the Indians:
Chance has brought them together on the same soil, but they have mixed without
combining, and each follows a separate destiny… In one blow oppression has deprived
the descendants of the Africans of almost all the privileges of humanity. The United
States Negro has lost even the memory of his homeland; he no longer understands the
language his fathers spoke; he has abjured their religion and forgotten their mores.
Ceasing to belong to Africa, he has acquired no right to the blessings of Europe…
Oppression has weighed as heavily upon the Indian tribes, but with different effects. The
Europeans, having scattered the Indian tribes far into the wilderness, condemned them to
a wandering vagabond life full of inexpressible afflictions… weakened their feeling for
their country, dispersed their families, obscured their traditions, and broke their chain of
memories… The Negro makes a thousand fruitless efforts to insinuate himself into a
society that repulses him; he adapts himself to his oppressor’s tastes, adopting their
opinions and hoping by imitation to join their community… In contrast, the pretended
nobility of his origin fills the whole imagination of the Indian. He lives and dies among
these proud dreams… The Negro would like to mingle with the European and cannot.
The Indian might to some extent succeed in that, but he scorns to attempt it.
It takes more than melting to unum-ize the pluribus. It is a commonplace to
observe that human beings adapt to their environments, but while everyone “melts” to
one degree or another within their own social surrounds, especially children, who are like
palimpsests and chameleons, those social surrounds can differ profoundly. Thus the
“pots” of different castes and segregated ghettoes and institutions in a de facto (and for
much of its history de jure) American apartheid cannot, by definition, conduce to a
common melting, a sense of sharing a common fate and common narrative, an
interpenetration (to use Park’s classic definition of assimilation), let alone intermarriage.
The native-born children of today’s immigrants from Haiti and Mexico and China and
Iran quickly become acculturated to the English language and to a homogenized mall
culture but also simultaneously fitted into an American racial-ethnic hierarchy not of their
parents’ making—literally “put in their place,” in their Procrustean pot, and induced to
melt in it. Or stew in it. “Becoming American” for them may come to mean that they
“assimilate” (acculturate, integrate, and identify, “become similar”) within particular
segments of American society, melting in racialized pan-ethnic crucibles (a black pot, a
white pot, a Latin pot, an Asian pot?), much as the descendants of the Europeans, not so
long ago, mixed within a “triple melting pot” bounded by religion—Protestant, Catholic,
Jewish (see Kennedy, 1944). It remains a pervasive national bad habit—and part of an
interminable, irredeemable process of racialization—to insist on putting people into an
“ethnoracial pentagon” (the phrase is David Hollinger’s ) of one-size-fits-all
categories: “Asians,” “Hispanics/Latinos,” “blacks,” “whites,” “American Indians”).
Indeed, the national motto might more accurately proclaim E Pluribus Quinque!
In intergroup relations, assimilation and oppression don’t mix. On the contrary,
assimilation breeds under conditions of intimacy and mutual acceptance, as indexed by
the warmth of the welcome and ultimately by intermarriage and the adoption of
American self-identities. Thus in Italian or American? (1943), a study of second-
generation Italian immigrants written when the United States was at war with Italy, Irvin
Child saw the likelihood of their assimilation vs. ethnic retentiveness as a function of
inclusionary vs. exclusionary contexts of reception and terms of membership. Against
the background of World War II, he compared two main modes of reaction—the "rebel"
(who assimilated into the American milieu) to the "in-group" type (who retained an
If during the present period, the general American population encourages people of
Italian origin to regard themselves as Americans and really offers them the full rewards
of membership in American society, the rebel reaction should be by far the most frequent,
and adoption of American culture traits should therefore proceed at a tremendous rate.
[But] if during this period of war, the non-Italian members of the population uniformly
suspect Italian-Americans of treasonable activity and do not offer them the full rewards
of membership in American society… the in-group reaction will be very frequent and a
revival of Italian culture will therefore appear. (pp. 196-97)
By contrast, under a regime of ethnoracial oppression, segregation, and
stigmatization, the process boomerangs—not into the euthanasia of memories, but into
what Czeslaw Milosz has called “the memory of wounds” (1980); not into the twilight
but into the high noon of “reactive ethnicity” (Portes and Rumbaut, 1996, 2001); not into
thinned but thickened boundaries and identities, and what W.E.B. DuBois a century ago
(1903) called a “double consciousness” and a “merging” that is not the zero-sum game
that is implied in “melting:”
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s
self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks
on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro;
two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body,
whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the
American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious
manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes
neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has
too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of
white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He
simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without
being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity
closed roughly in his face. [From chapter 1 of The Souls of Black Folk ]
Indeed, no Americans have been so thoroughly left out of the discourse of the
Melting Pot as African Americans. In the narrow narrative of a “nation of immigrants,”
it is often forgotten that in 1915, seven years after Zangwill’s “The Melting Pot” opened
on Broadway and half a century after the end of the American Civil War, D.W. Griffith’s
epic film “The Birth of a Nation” premiered in New York and drew millions
nationwide—an estimated three million tickets were sold in its first 11 months in New
York City alone—becoming the most profitable film ever made (until the late 1930s), as
well as a major recruitment vehicle for the Ku Klux Klan. Based on the play “The
Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan,” it told the tale of the
devastation wrought by the Civil War and Reconstruction, depicting radical Republicans
and empowered blacks as the cause of all postwar social, political, and economic
problems and, in a rousing climax, crediting a glorious Ku Klux Klan for the suppression
of the black threat to white society. The newly created National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other black political groups strenuously
protested the film’s vicious and blatant racism, but could not dent its runaway box-office
success—though it rallied African Americans around a common cause. President
Woodrow Wilson, a former history and political science professor and president of
Princeton University, saw it at a private screening in the White House and was quoted as
saying, "It is like writing history with lightning… my only regret is that it is all so terribly
true." Just two years before, on the 4th of July, 1913, President Wilson had addressed an
extraordinary gathering of Union and Confederate veterans at the site of the nation’s
bloodiest battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where on July 1-3, 1863, over 51,000
had been killed in three days of unremitting carnage. Wilson assured them that “We have
found one another again as brothers… enemies no longer, our battles long past, the
quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion
of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each
others’ eyes. How complete the union has become and how dear to all of us…!” Not a
mention of race, slavery, the cause of the war or the Jim Crow system established in its
wake was made by Wilson in his Gettysburg address. In white supremacist memory, the
reunion at the semicentennial was of the blue and the gray, with the black excluded even
from the commemoration of the defining national tragedy (see Blight, 2001).
For all its appeal, then—indeed, when it is taken at face value as a nationally
inclusive metaphor—the “melting pot” does not, cannot, square with the seamy side of
the country’s history and the detritus left in the collective memory of those who must
locate themselves in a narrative of wounds: from Dred Scott to Plessy v. Ferguson to the
era of lynchings and Jim Crow, from the Trail of Tears to Wounded Knee, from the
Mexican War to the Spanish-American War, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the
Japanese internment, a nation whose founding declaration of freedom was signed by
slaveholders, whose Constitution counted certain members as three-fifths of a human
being, whose territory was taken from indigenous peoples, and which until 1952 excluded
immigrants from naturalization (and others from entry altogether) on the basis of “race.”
Indeed, it took a bloody civil war in one century, and a civil rights revolution in the next,
to end slavery and the legal underpinnings of racial exclusion, but not their bitter legacy.
What’s past is prologue.
The Concept of Assimilation in American Sociology
The concept of assimilation is complex and multidimensional, qualities that over
the years have more often than not been lost in its application in empirical research or
neglected by a penchant for formulaic definitions. As is often the case, it helps to go
back to its original formulations to regain a measure of clarity if not precision for the
term. In what became arguably the most influential text ever published in the history of
American sociology, Robert Park and Ernest Burgess gave the concept of assimilation its
classic definition: “a process of interpenetration and fusion in which persons and groups
acquire the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of other persons and groups, and, by
sharing their experience and history, are incorporated with them in a common cultural
life” (1924: 735). They distinguished systematically between “four great types of
interaction”—competition, conflict, accommodation, and assimilation—which they
related respectively to economic, political, social, and cultural institutions. Competition
and conflict sharpen ethnic boundaries and the consciousness of intergroup difference.
An accommodation (of a conflict, or to a new situation) may take place quickly, and the
person or group is typically a highly conscious protagonist of the process of
accommodating those circumstances. In assimilation, by contrast, the changes are more
subtle and the process is typically unconscious, so that the person is incorporated into the
common life of the group largely unaware of how it happened. Assimilation is very
unlikely to occur among immigrants who arrive as adults. Instead, accommodation most
closely reflects the modal adaptation of first-generation adult immigrants, while
assimilation can become a modal outcome ultimately only for the malleable young and
for the second generation, and then only if and when permitted by structural conditions of
inclusion at the primary group level. Indeed, the research literature on the adaptation of
twentieth century European immigrant groups in the United States suggests that evidence
of assimilation was not manifestly observed at the group level until the third or even
Assimilation takes place most rapidly and completely in primary—intimate and
intense—social contacts, including intermarriage; accommodation may be facilitated
through secondary contacts, but they are too distant and remote to promote assimilation.
Since the nature (especially the interpersonal intimacy, “the great moral solvent”) of the
social contacts is what is decisive, it follows that “a common language is indispensable
for the most intimate associations of the members of the group,” and its absence is “an
insurmountable barrier to assimilation,” since it is through communication that gradual
and unconscious changes of the attitudes and sentiments of the members of the group are
produced. But language and acculturation alone cannot ensure assimilation if a group is
categorically segregated, racially classified, and “regarded as in some sense a stranger, a
representative of an alien race”—which is why, said Park (1930: 282), the English-
speaking Protestant “Negro, during his three hundred years in this country, has not been
assimilated… not because he has preserved in America a foreign culture and an alien
tradition, for with the exception of the Indian…no man in America is so entirely native to
the soil.” Race and place (i.e., racial discrimination and residential segregation) become
critical structural determinants of the degree of assimilation or dissimilation precisely
insofar as they delimit possible forms of primary social contact. Social relations are
inevitably embedded and bounded in space, which is why social distance is typically
indexed by physical distance.
Ironically, despite his wide-ranging writings on the subject, Park may be best
known for the formulaic notion that assimilation is the final stage of a natural,
progressive, inevitable and irreversible “race relations cycle.” As the idea of the cycle
became reified and popularized, assimilation was posited as the final stage of a four-step
process in international and race relations. But in a prolific career, Park only wrote about
a “race relations cycle” twice: first in a sentence near the end of a 1926 article, “Our
Racial Frontier in the Pacific,” then a decade later in a brief introduction to a book on
interracial marriage in Hawaii written by one of his former students. In the first instance
he was arguing against the likelihood that a “racial barrier”—which the passage of
exclusionary laws sought to establish by barring Asian migration to the U.S.—could be
much of a match against global economic, political and cultural forces that have brought
about “an existing interpenetration of peoples…so vast and irresistible that the resulting
changes assume the character of a cosmic process” (Park 1926: 141, 149). And in his
1937 introduction, he explicitly rebutted any notion of a unilinear assimilative outcome to
race conflict and change (“what are popularly referred to as race relations”), arguing
instead that when stabilization is finally achieved, race relations would assume one of
three configurations: “They will take the form of a caste system, as in India; they will
terminate in complete assimilation, as in China; or the unassimilated race will constitute a
permanent racial minority within the limits of a national state, as in the case of the Jews
in Europe… All three types of change are involved…in what we may describe as the
‘race relations cycle’” (Park 1937: xiii).
Tellingly, the "melting pot" metaphor had been dismissed by Park and Burgess as
a “‘magic crucible’ notion of assimilation” where “the ideal of assimilation was
conceived to be that of feeling, thinking, and acting alike” (1924: 735). The end result of
assimilation is not “like-mindedness,” they wrote, but rather “a unity of experience and
orientation, out of which may develop a community of purpose and action… The extent
and importance of the kind of homogeneity and 'like-mindedness' that individuals of the
same nationality exhibit has been greatly exaggerated. Like-mindedness...contributes
little or nothing to national solidarity" (1914; reproduced in Park and Burgess, 1924:
759). Park and Burgess would have advised a different approach (1924: 739-40):
Not by the suppression of old memories, but by their incorporation in his new life is
assimilation achieved... Assimilation cannot be promoted directly, but only indirectly,
that is, by supplying the conditions that make for participation. There is no process but
life itself that can effectually wipe out the immigrant's memory of his past. The inclusion
of the immigrant in our common life may perhaps best be reached, therefore, in
cooperation that looks not so much to the past as to the future. The second generation of
the immigrant may share fully in our memories, but practically all that we can ask of the
foreign-born is participation in our ideals, our wishes, and our common enterprises.
In The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups, a definitive statement on the
subject near mid-century, W. Lloyd Warner and Leo Srole (1945) described the
progressive advance of eight European-origin immigrant groups in the major status
hierarchies of “Yankee City” in Massachusetts, explicitly linking upward social mobility
to assimilation, which they saw as determined largely by the degree of ethnocultural
(religion and language) and above all racial difference from the dominant group. While
racial groups were subordinated and excluded through caste restrictions on residential,
occupational, associational, and marital choice, the clash of ethnic groups with the
dominant institutions of the host society was not much of a contest, particularly among
the young. The industrial economy, the polity, the public school, popular culture, and the
American family system all undercut and absorbed [melted] ethnicity in various ways, so
that even when “the ethnic parent tries to orient the child to an ethnic past… the child
often insists on being more American than Americans” (1945: 284). And for the
upwardly mobile, with socioeconomic success came intermarriage and the further
dilution of ethnicity.
That general view of assimilation as linear progress, with sociocultural similarity
and socioeconomic success marching in lock step, was not so much challenged as refined
by Milton Gordon in Assimilation in American Life (1964), published ironically on the
eve of the beginning of the latest era of mass immigration to the United States—and of
the denouement of the concept itself in the wake of the 1960s. He broke down the
assimilation sequence into seven stages, of which “identificational assimilation”—a self-
image as an unhyphenated American—was the end point of a process that began with
cultural assimilation, proceeded through structural assimilation and intermarriage, and
was accompanied by an absence of prejudice and discrimination in the “core society.”
Once structural assimilation had occurred (that is, extensive primary-level interaction
with members of the “core group”), either in tandem with or subsequent to acculturation,
“the remaining types of assimilation have all taken place like a row of tenpins bowled
over in rapid succession by a well placed strike” (1964: 81). For the children of white
European immigrants, in fact, the acculturation process was so “overwhelmingly
triumphant” that the greater risk consisted in alienation from family ties and in role
reversals of the generations that could subvert parent-child relationships. Still, what it
was that one was assimilating to remained largely taken for granted.
Gordon was aware of the ways in which the ideal and the ideological get wrapped
up in the idea of assimilation, and saw “Anglo-conformity” as the most prevalent
ideology of assimilation in American history, but he did not focus on the historical
contexts—especially wars, from King Phillip’s War to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars,
to the Mexican and Spanish-American Wars, both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam—
that have shaped the ideas and ideals and ingrained prejudices embodied in the notion of
assimilation, and of the melting pot. Historians have seen the apogee of the concept in
the 1950s and early 1960s as reflecting the need generated by World War II for national
unity and the postwar tendency to see American history as a narrative of consensus rather
than conflict; and the political and social upheavals of the 1960s as shattering the
“consensus school” and the rationale for studying assimilation, bringing back instead a
focus on the ethnic group and ethnic resilience, and more inclusive conceptions of
American society. What was it that immigrants were fitting into? As the notion of an
Anglo-American core was delegitimized amid the conflicts and ethnic revivals of the
1960s, assimilation lost its allure (Kazal, 1995). But by the 1990s, once more well into a
new era of mass immigration, a systematic reevaluation of the concept of assimilation
emerged, with applications in contemporary scholarship seeking to contrast differences
and similarities between the old and the new immigration.
Cultural, Structural, and Psychological Processes in Assimilation
Assimilation, as shown by this brief overview of the evolution of the concept,
involves a series of interrelated cultural (acculturation), structural (integration), and
psychological (identification) processes. This triptych of incorporation processes may be
elaborated further, with some additional consideration of contextual and group factors
shaping each of these dimensions – either by promoting or precluding assimilative
outcomes (Cornell and Hartmann, 1998; Yinger, 1981).
Acculturation, which comes closest to the common sense notion of “melting,”
involves complex processes of cultural diffusion and changes producing greater linguistic
and cultural similarity between two or more groups. Its homogenizing influences are
generally more extensive among members of smaller and weaker groups, and particularly
(voluntary) immigrant groups. Nonetheless, acculturation is never exclusively one-sided;
dominant groups too are culturally influenced by their contacts with other ethnocultural
groups in the society, from cuisine and music to language and religion. In the American
experience, language shifts have been overwhelmingly one-sided, with the switch to
monolingual English typically being accomplished by the third generation.
At the individual level, a key distinction to make is that between subtractive (or
substitutive) acculturation and additive acculturation. The first is essentially a zero-sum
game that involves giving up some elements of a cultural repertoire (such as language
and memory itself) while replacing them from another; the second does not involve
losing so much as gaining to form and sustain a more complex repertoire (bilingualism
and biculturalism). Available research has yet to examine systematically the multiplicity
of conditions and contexts yielding subtractive vs. additive acculturative outcomes,
although in the United States at least it has proved exceedingly difficult to sustain fluent
bilingualism beyond the second generation.
The degree of acculturation, as noted previously, is by itself not a sufficient
condition for assimilation. Structural integration was the crux of the matter for Gordon
(1964), although he focused on the entrance of the minority group into “the social
cliques, clubs, and institutions of the core society at the primary group level.” Given the
many different institutions involved here—and the fact that integration into the economy,
the polity, and the community at the secondary group level tends to be ignored by that
formulation—a conceptual distinction can be made between two levels of structural
assimilation: primary and secondary. The latter refers to a wide range of key integrative
processes within secondary groups, including socioeconomic and spatial (residential)
assimilation, and the acquisition of legal citizenship as a full-fledged member of the
polity. The former—extensive interaction within personal networks and primary
relationships, and intermarriage—is unlikely to take place under conditions of status
inequality. While it is clear that all of these dimensions are interdependent—
acculturation, integration, intermarriage—the linkages between them are historically
contingent and will vary depending on a number of factors, particularly the context of
reception within which different immigrant groups are incorporated.
Conventional accounts of ethnic identity shifts among the descendants of
European immigrants, conceived as part of a linear process of assimilation, have pointed
to the “thinning” of their ethnic self-identities in the United States. For their descendants,
at least, one outcome of widespread acculturation, social mobility and intermarriage with
the native population is that ethnic identity became an optional, leisure-time form of
“symbolic” ethnicity (Gans, 1979; Waters, 1990). As the boundaries of those identities
become fuzzier and less salient, less relevant to everyday social life, the sense of
belonging and connection to an ancestral past faded. This mode of ethnic identity
formation, however, was never solely a simple linear function of socioeconomic status
and the degree of acculturation—that is, of the development of linguistic and other
cultural similarities with the dominant group—but hinged also on the context of reception
and the degree of discrimination experienced by the subordinate group.
Identity shifts, like acculturative changes, tend to be from lower to higher status
groups. But where social mobility is blocked and hindered by prejudice and
discrimination, members of lower status groups may react by reaffirming their shared
identity. This process of forging a reactive ethnicity in the face of perceived threats,
persecution, discrimination and exclusion is not uncommon. On the contrary, it is
another mode of ethnic identity formation, accounting for the “thickening” rather than the
dilution of ethnicity. At the extreme, as reflected in the African American experience,
the result can be the sense of “double consciousness” of which DuBois wrote eloquently.
However, compared to language loyalty and language shift, generational shifts in
ethnic self-identification are far more conflictual and complex. Paradoxically, despite the
rapid acculturation of European immigrants in the United States, as reflected in the
abandonment of the parental language and other ethnic patterns of behavior, the second
generation remained more conscious of their ethnic identity than were their immigrant
parents. The parents’ ethnic identity was so much taken for granted that they were
scarcely explicitly aware of it, but the marginality of their children made them acutely
self-conscious and sensitive to their ethnicity, especially when passing through
adolescence. Moreover, as parents and children acculturated at different rates, a
generational gap grew so that by the time the children reached adolescence “the
immigrant family had become transformed into two linguistic sub-groups segregated
along generational lines.” Finally, by the third generation “the grandsons became
literally outsiders to their ancestral heritage,” and their ethnic past an object of symbolic
curiosity more than anything else (Nahirny and Fishman, 1965).
By the end of the twentieth century a new era of mass immigration, now
overwhelmingly non-European in composition, again raised familiar doubts about the
assimilability of the newcomers and alarms that many of them might become consigned
to a vast multiethnic “underclass,” on the other side of a new color line. It also raised
questions about the applicability of explanatory models developed in connection with the
experience of European ethnics—including the metaphor of the melting pot itself—
despite the fact that contemporary immigrants were being incorporated in a more
complex, post-civil-rights context characterized more by ethnic revivals and identity
politics than by forced Americanization campaigns. While assimilation may still
represent the master process in the study of today's immigrants, it is subject to too many
contingencies and affected by too many variables to render the image of a relatively
uniform and straightforward path convincing. Instead, the present second generation of
children of immigrants has been seen as undergoing a process of “segmented
assimilation” (Portes and Zhou, 1993) where outcomes vary across immigrant minorities,
and where rapid integration and acceptance into the American mainstream represent just
one possible alternative. Why this is so hinges on a number of factors: internal
characteristics, including the immigrants’ level of human capital and the structure and
cohesiveness of their families, interact in complex but patterned ways with external
contexts of reception—government policies and programs, the state of the economy in
the areas where they settle, employer preferences in local labor markets, the extent of
racial discrimination and nativist hostility, the strength of existing ethnic communities—
to form the conditions within which immigrants and their children adapt to different
segments of American society. In any case, as suggested earlier, segmented assimilation
processes—i.e., adaptations that take place within specifiable opportunity structures and
through the influence of differential associations, reference groups, experiences and
attachments, especially in primary social relationships stratified by race, religion, region,
and class—are not new in the American experience.
Immigration and the Challenges of American Pluralism
Immigration to the United States today—and the pluralization of American
ethnicity—can be understood as a dialectical consequence of the expansion of the nation
to its post-World War II position of global hegemony. As the United States has become
more deeply involved in the world, the world has become more deeply involved in
America—indeed, in diverse ways, it has come to America. One implication of this is
that the challenges of (and to) American pluralism today are not and cannot be construed
as simply internal matters, of purely domestic concern, of old minorities and new
immigrants; they are also fundamentally international and transnational in nature and
scope, and reflect the U.S. role in the world.
Today, the rapid growth of this emerging population of foreign birth or
parentage—unprecedented in its diversity of color, class, and cultural origin, and already
by the year 2000 surpassing 60 million persons—is changing fundamentally the ethnic
and racial composition and stratification of the American population, and also the social
meanings of race and ethnicity, and of American identity. Who knows what the long-
term national consequences will be? As these newest members “become American” in
their own plural ways, what kinds of narratives will they tell, and on what terms of
belonging? Will their children and grandchildren—who constitute the most consequential
legacy of this new era of mass immigration—“repeat” the history and experience of
previous waves of European immigrants? If we can learn something from that checkered
past, it may be to harbor few illusions about the value of gazing into crystal balls. And in
a world changing faster than we seem to learn about it, it may be a fool’s errand to
extrapolate naively and myopically from the present in order to divine the distant future.
Still, in the context of today’s debates about the one and the many, about
multiculturalism and the “disuniting of America,” about the contested meaning of race,
the rise of ethnic consciousness and the politics of identity, it might help to gain some
distance from the objects of contention and listen for a moment to a different voice, less
ethnocentric, more cosmopolitan. In The Buried Mirror (1992), his quincentennial
reflections on Spain and the New World, the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, himself a
progeny of that original encounter between the Old World and the New, put the matter
History begs the question, How to live with the Other? How to understand that I am what
I am only because another person sees me and completes me? This question, which
arises every time that white and black, East and West, predecessor and immigrant, meet
in our times…became the central question of conquest and colonization in the Americas.
Writing before the passage of Propositions 187, 209 and 227, Fuentes saw “the
universal question of the coming century” posed most forcefully in California, especially
in Los Angeles, the world’s premier immigrant metropolis and a gateway to both Asia
and Latin America. “How do we deal with the Other,” he asks, and seeks his answer in
his hybrid origins: “We [Hispanics] are Indian, Black, European, but above all mixed,
mestizo. We are Iberian and Greek, Roman and Jewish, Arab, Gothic and Gypsy.” Thus,
for instance, after nearly 800 years of Arab rule in Spain, lasting until the triumph of the
reconquista with the fall of the last Moorish kingdom in 1492, the Arab cultural influence
was pervasive, so that today fully a quarter of all Spanish words are of Arab origin (even
in the bullfight, the olé salute to the matador comes from an Arab word). For Fuentes the
answer lies in forging
centers of incorporation, not of exclusion. When we exclude, we betray ourselves. When
we include, we find ourselves… People and their cultures perish in isolation, but they are
born or reborn in contact with other men and women, with men and women of another
culture, another creed, another race. If we do not recognize our humanity in others, we
shall not recognize it in ourselves. Often we have failed to meet this challenge. But we
have finally seen ourselves whole in the unburied mirror of identity, only when
accompanied—ourselves with others (pp. 348, 353).
Who and what we think we are is forged in relation to, and in reaction to, who
and what we think we are not. American pluralism is Janus-faced—looking behind to
vastly different and even antithetical pasts, looking ahead to scarcely predictable if
polyethnic futures—mixing a plurality of interests, origins and outlooks capable of
interpreting the nation’s “foundational fictions” and the ethno-national experience from
very different vantage points. It will remain thus—how can it not?—unless and until this
“permanently unfinished” country manages somehow, convincingly and collectively (cf.
Marty, 1997), to resist the centripetal forces of its totalists (whose strictures would
enforce conformity to a dominant unum) and the centrifugal forces of its tribalists (whose
narratives aim to enhance their separate tribal claims), to redefine the national (and
international) situation and to reconcile the erstwhile irreconcilable meanings and
strivings of its history: a country stamped at once with all of its alluring, perennial
promise as a land of opportunity and fresh starts for the ambitious stranger and the
tempest-tost, and with all of its enduring, bitter legacy of racial exclusion and color lines,
of blocked opportunities and deferred dreams—the kind that can, as Langston Hughes
wondered in “Harlem,” “dry up like a raisin, or fester like a running sore, or sag like a
heavy load, or perhaps just explode.” Hughes himself embodied and gave poetic
expression to those historic contradictions between the real and the ideal: “Let America
be America again—the land that never has been and yet must be… America never was
America to me, and yet … America will be!” (Hughes, 1994 ).
The challenges of American pluralism—of its motley variety and its melting pots,
with all its hopes and its grievances—are not peremptory challenges, imperious and
impervious to debate; rather, they are played out in the context of a civic culture that
offers room for open discussion and question and re-invention. What’s past is prologue,
yes; but it need not be the epilogue too. An inclusive, not intolerant, American pluralism
need not produce bitter legacies, but better ones, while teaching some poignant lessons of
universal history: to learn and absorb those lessons would be “absorbent magic” indeed.
Meanwhile, Bourne’s century-old vision of a “trans-national America” (1916) is as
relevant and compelling today as his fundamental and concluding question has remained
As long as we thought of Americanism in terms of the ‘melting-pot,’ our American
cultural tradition lay in the past. It was something to which the new Americans were to
be moulded. We must perpetrate the paradox that our American cultural tradition lies in
the future. It will be what we all together make out of this incomparable opportunity.
The failure of the melting-pot, far from closing the great American experiment, means
that it has only just begun… We have all unawares been building up the first international
nation… America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving
back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors. Any
movement which attempts to thwart this weaving, or to dye the fabric any one color, or
disentangle the threads of the strands, is false to this cosmopolitan vision… Our question
is, What shall we do with our America? How are we likely to get the more creative
America—by confining our imaginations to the ideal of the melting-pot, or by
broadening them to some such cosmopolitan conception?
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