Myth of the Melting Pot

From The Post
  • Part One: One Nation, Indivisible?
  • Part Two: In L.A., a Sense of Future Conflicts
  • Part Three: Immigrants Shunning Idea of Assimilation
  • Part Four: Sweat of Their Brows Reshapes Economy
  • Part Five: A White Migration North From Miami
  • Part Six: Interracial Marriages Eroding Barriers

  • Graphs showing ethnic shifts and the number of residents born abroad

    On Our Site

  • Immigration Report

    On the Web

  • Ethnic data from the U.S. Census Bureau

    Today's Top News

    National Section

    Home Page

  • America's Racial and Ethnic Divides

    One Nation, Indivisible: Is It History?

    Todd Bigelow/FTWP
    In Los Angeles, demographers see "white flight" beyond the suburbs and into rural areas.
    (By Todd Bigelow for The Washington Post)
    First in a series of occasional articles

    By William Booth
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, February 22, 1998; Page A1

    At the beginning of this century, as steamers poured into American ports, their steerages filled with European immigrants, a Jew from England named Israel Zangwill penned a play whose story line has long been forgotten, but whose central theme has not. His production was entitled "The Melting Pot" and its message still holds a tremendous power on the national imagination – the promise that all immigrants can be transformed into Americans, a new alloy forged in a crucible of democracy, freedom and civic responsibility.

    In 1908, when the play opened in Washington, 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.

    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 driving a demographic shift 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.

    This shift, according to social historians, demographers and others studying the trends, 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."

    Just as possible, they say, is that the nation will continue to fracture into many separate, disconnected communities with no shared sense of commonality or purpose. Or perhaps it will evolve into something in between, a pluralistic society that will hold on to some core ideas about citizenship and capitalism, but with little meaningful interaction among groups.

    The demographic changes raise other questions about political and economic power. Will that power, now held disproportionately by whites, be shared in the new America? What will happen when Hispanics overtake blacks as the nation's single largest minority?

    "I do not think that most Americans really understand the historic changes happening before their very eyes," said Peter Salins, an immigration scholar who is provost of the State Universities of New York. "What are we going to become? Who are we? How do the newcomers fit in – and how do the natives handle it – this is the great unknown."

    This is the first of a series of articles examining the effects of the new demographics on American life. Over the next few months, other reports will focus on the impact on politics, jobs, and social institutions.

    Fear of strangers, of course, is nothing new in American history. The last great immigration wave produced a bitter backlash, epitomized by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the return, in the 1920s, of the Ku Klux Klan, which not only targeted blacks, but Catholics, Jews and immigrants as well.

    But despite this strife, many historians argue that there was a greater consensus in the past on what it meant to be an American, a yearning for a common language and culture, and a desire – encouraged, if not coerced by members of the dominant white Protestant culture – to assimilate. Today, they say, there is more emphasis on preserving one's ethnic identity, of finding ways to highlight and defend one's cultural roots.

    Difficult to Measure

    More often than not, the neighborhoods where Americans live, the politicians and propositions they vote for, the cultures they immerse themselves in, the friends and spouses they have, the churches and schools they attend, and the way they view themselves are defined by ethnicity. The question is whether, in the midst of such change, there is also enough glue to hold Americans together.

    Todd Bigelow/FTWP
    Black community activist Nathaniel J. Wilcox in Miami says, "Hispanics don't want some of the power, they want all the power."
    (By Todd Bigelow for The Washington Post)
    "As we become more and more diverse, there is all this potential to make that reality work for us," said Angela Oh, a Korean American activist who emerged as a powerful voice for Asian immigrants after the Los Angeles riots in 1992. "But yet, you witness this persistance of segregation, the fragmentation, all these fights over resources, this finger-pointing. You would have to be blind not to see it."

    It is a phenomenon sometimes difficult to measure, but not observe. Houses of worship remain, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described it three decades ago, among the most segregated institutions in America, not just by race but also ethnicity. At high school cafeterias, the second and third generation children of immigrants clump together in cliques defined by where their parents or grandparents were born. There are television sitcoms, talk shows and movies that are considered black or white, Latino or Asian. At a place like the law school of the University of California at Los Angeles, which has about 1,000 students, there are separate student associations for blacks, Latinos and Asians with their own law review journals.

    It almost goes without saying that today's new arrivals are a source of vitality and energy, especially in the big cities to which many are attracted. Diversity, almost everyone agrees, is good; choice is good; exposure to different cultures and ideas is good.

    But many scholars worry about the loss of community and shared sense of reality among Americans, what Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture and communications at New York University, calls "the twilight of common dreams." The concern is echoed by many on both the left and right, and of all ethnicities, but no one seems to know exactly what to do about it.

    Academics who examine the census data and probe for meaning in the numbers already speak of a new "demographic balkanization," not only of residential segregation, forced or chosen but also a powerful preference to see ourselves through a racial prism, wary of others, and, in many instances, hostile.

    At a recent school board meeting in East Palo Alto, Calif., police had to break up a fight between Latinos and blacks, who were arguing over the merits and expense of bilingual education in a school district that has shifted over the last few years from majority African American to majority Hispanic. One parent told reporters that if the Hispanics wanted to learn Spanish they should stay in Mexico.

    The demographic shifts are smudging the old lines demarcating two historical, often distinct societies, one black and one white. Reshaped by three decades of rapidly rising immigration, the national story is now far more complicated.

    Whites currently account for 74 percent of the population, blacks 12 percent, Hispanics 10 percent and Asians 3 percent. Yet according to data and predictions generated by the U.S. Census Bureau and social scientists poring over the numbers, Hispanics will likely surpass blacks early in the next century. And by the year 2050, demographers predict, Hispanics will account for 25 percent of the population, blacks 14 percent, Asians 8 percent, with whites hovering somewhere around 53 percent.

    As early as next year, whites no longer will be the majority in California; in Hawaii and New Mexico this is already the case. Soon after, Nevada, Texas, Maryland and New Jersey are also predicted to become "majority minority" states, entities where no one ethnic group remains the majority.

    Todd Bigelow/FTWP
    Korean American activist Angela Oh says, "This persistence of segregation ... you would have to be blind not to see it."
    (By Todd Bigelow
    for The Washington Post)
    Effects of 1965 Law

    The overwhelming majority of immigrants come from Asia and Latin America – Mexico, the Central American countries, the Philippines, Korea, and Southeast Asia.

    What triggered this great transformation was a change to immigration law in 1965, when Congress made family reunification the primary criteria for admittance. That new policy, a response to charges that the law favored white Europeans, allowed immigrants already in the United States to bring over their relatives, who in turn could bring over more relatives. As a result, America has been absorbing as many as 1 million newcomers a year, to the point that now almost 1 in every 10 residents is foreign born.

    These numbers, relative to the overall population, were slightly higher at the beginning of this century, but the current immigration wave is in many ways very different, and its context inexorably altered, from the last great wave.

    This time around tensions are sharpened by the changing profile of those who are entering America's borders. Not only are their racial and ethnic backgrounds more varied than in decades past, their place in a modern postindustrial economy has also been recast.

    The newly arrived today can be roughly divided into two camps: those with college degrees and highly specialized skills, and those with almost no education or job training. Some 12 percent of immigrants have graduate degrees, compared to 8 percent of native Americans. But more than one-third of the immigrants have no high school diploma, double the rate for those born in the United States.

    Before 1970, immigrants were actually doing better than natives overall, as measured by education, rate of homeownership and average incomes. But those arriving after 1970, are younger, more likely to be underemployed and live below the poverty level. As a group, they are doing worse than natives.

    About 6 percent of new arrivals receive some form of welfare, double the rate for U.S.-born citizens. Among some newcomers – Cambodians and Salvadorans, for example – the numbers are even higher.

    With large numbers of immigrants arriving from Latin America, and segregating in barrios, there is also evidence of lingering language problems. Consider that in Miami, three-quarters of residents speak a language other than English at home and 67 percent of those say they are not fluent in English. In New York City, 4 of every 10 residents speak a language other than English at home, and of these, half said they do not speak English well.

    It is clear that not all of America is experiencing the impact of immigration equally. Although even small midwestern cities have seen sharp changes in their racial and ethnic mix in the past two decades, most immigrants continue to cluster into a handful of large, mostly coastal metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, Washington, D.C., and Houston. They are home to more than a quarter of the total U.S. population and more than 60 percent of all foreign-born residents.

    But as the immigrants arrive, many American-born citizens pour out of these cities in search of new homes in more homogeneous locales. New York and Los Angeles each lost more than 1 million native-born residents between 1990 and 1995, even as their populations increased by roughly the same numbers with immigrants. To oversimplify, said University of Michigan demographer William Frey, "For every Mexican who comes to Los Angeles, a white native-born leaves."

    Most of the people leaving the big cities are white and they tend to working class. This is an entirely new kind of "white flight," whereby whites are not just fleeing the city centers for the suburbs but also are leaving the region, and often the state.

    "The Ozzies and Harriets of the 1990s are skipping the suburbs of the big cities and moving to more homogeneous, mostly white smaller towns and smaller cities and rural areas," Frey said.

    They're headed to Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Portland, Denver, Austin and Orlando, as well as smaller cities in Nevada, Idaho, Colorado and Washington. Frey and other demographers believe the domestic migrants – black and white – are being "pushed" out, at least in part, by competition with immigrants for jobs and neighborhoods, political clout and lifestyle.

    Frey sees in this pattern "the emergence of separate Americas, one white and middle-aged, less urban and another intensely urban, young, multicultural and multiethnic. One America will care deeply about English as the official language and about preserving Social Security. The other will care about things like retaining affirmative action and bilingual education."

    Todd Bigelow/FTWP
    This century's huge wave of immigrants is attracted to large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, above.
    (By Todd Bigelow for The Washington Post)
    Ethnic Segregation

    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 bellwether megacity such as Los Angeles, many residents speak soaringly of the great mosaic of many peoples. But the social scientists who look at the hard census data see something more complex.

    James P. Allen, a cultural geographer at California State University-Northridge, suggests that while Los Angeles, as seen from an airplane, is a tremendously mixed society, on the ground, racial homogeneity and segregation are common.

    This is not a new phenomenon; there have always been immigrant neighborhoods. Ben Franklin, an early proponent of making English the "official language," worried about close-knit German communities. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y) described the lingering clannishness of Irish and other immigrant populations in New York in "Beyond the Melting Pot," a benchmark work from the 1960s that he wrote with Nathan Glazer.

    But the persistance 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. Hispanics in Los Angeles, to take the dominant group in the nation's second largest city, are more segregated residentially in 1990 than they were 10 or 20 years ago, the census tracts show. 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.

    If there is deep-seated ethnic segregation, it clearly extends to the American workplace. In many cities, researchers find sustained "ethnic niches" in the labor market. Because jobs are often a matter of whom one knows, the niches were enduring and remarkably resistant to outsiders.

    In California, for example, Mexican immigrants are employed overwhelmingly as gardeners and domestics, in apparel and furniture manufacturing, and as cooks and food preparers. Koreans open small businesses. Filipinos become nurses and medical technicians. African Americans work in government jobs, an important niche that is increasingly being challenged by Hispanics who want in.

    UCLA's Roger Waldinger and others have pointed to the creation, in cities of high immigration, of "dual economies."

    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.

    A Rung at a Time

    Traditionally, immigration scholars have seen the phenomenon of assimilation as a relentless economic progression. The hard-working new arrivals struggle along with a new language and at low-paying jobs in order for their sons and daughters to climb the economic ladder, each generation advancing a rung. There are many cases where this is true.

    More recently, there is evidence to suggest that economic movement is erratic and that some groups – particularly in high immigration cities – can get "stuck."

    Among African Americans, for instance, there emerges two distinct patterns. The black middle class is doing demonstrably better – in income, home ownership rates, education – than it was when the demographic transformation (and the civil rights movement) began three decades ago.

    But for African Americans at the bottom, research indicates that immigration, particularly of Latinos with limited education, has increased joblessness, and frustration.

    In Miami, where Cuban immigrants dominate the political landscape, tensions are high between Hispanics and blacks, said Nathaniel J. Wilcox, a community activist there. "The perception in the black community, the reality, is that Hispanics don't want some of the power, they want all the power," Wilcox said. "At least when we were going through this with the whites during the Jim Crow era, at least they'd hire us. But Hispanics won't allow African Americans to even compete. They have this feeling that their community is the only community that counts."

    Yet many Hispanics too find themselves in an economic "mobility trap." While the new immigrants are willing to work in low-end jobs, their sons and daughters, growing up in the barrios but exposed to the relentless consumerism of popular culture, have greater expectations, but are disadvantaged because of their impoverished settings, particularly the overwhelmed inner-city schools most immigrant children attend.

    "One doubts that a truck-driving future will satisfy today's servants and assemblers. And this scenario gets a good deal more pessimistic if the region's economy fails to deliver or simply throws up more bad jobs," writes Waldinger, a professor of sociology and director of center for regional policy studies at the University of California-Los Angeles.

    Though there are calls to revive efforts to encourage "Americanization" of the newcomers, many researchers now express doubt that the old assimilation model works. For one thing, there is less of a dominant mainstream to enter. Instead, there are a dozen streams, despite the best efforts by the dominant white society to lump groups together by ethnicity.

    It is a particularly American phenomenon, many say, to label citizens by their ethnicity. 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.

    "My family has had trouble understanding that we are now Asians, and not Koreans, or people from Korea or Korean Americans, or just plain Americans," said Arthur Lee, who owns a dry cleaning store in Los Angeles. "Sometimes, we laugh about it. Oh, the Asian students are so smart! The Asians have no interest in politics! Whatever. But we don't know what people are talking about. Who are the Asians?"

    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." A common concern among Haitians in South Florida is that their children will adopt the attitudes of the inner city's underclass. Vietnamese parents in New Orleans often try to keep their children immersed in their ethnic enclave and try not to let them assimilate too fast.

    Hyphenated Americans

    One study of the children of immigrants, conducted six years ago among young Haitians, Cubans, West Indians, Mexican and Vietnamese in South Florida and Southern California, suggests the parents are not alone in their concerns.

    Asked by researchers Alejandro Portes and Ruben Rumbauthow how they identified themselves, most chose categories of hyphenated Americans. Few choose "American" as their identity.

    Then there was this – asked if they believe the United States in the best country in the world, most of the youngsters answered: no.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top
    Navigation image map
    Home page Site Index Search Help! Home page Site Index Search Help!