How it's affecting us

In much of the world, political boundaries reflect ethnic divisions that have endured for thousands of years. Something more than loyalty to a political system is involved in being a German, a Thai, or a Japanese. Japan, in fact, refused to accept more than a few thousand Indochinese refugees, primarily on the grounds that so alien an element could never be absorbed. But the United States has enshrined the idea that ethnic origins may be surmounted or, better still, ignored. Once Englishmen, Africans, Turks, we are all Americans now.

The glory of American society is its melding of many peoples. But that has never been an easy process. Few threads run more consistently through American social history than concern about racial and ethnic change. Since colonial days, members of successive ethnic groups have warned that the American national character, embodied by their group, was endangered by incoming aliens. The roster of groups that represent the "American" character has slowly expanded: the original British and Dutch Protestants have been joined by Catholics and Jews, Central and Eastern Europeans, and, most slowly and arduously of all, people of color.

Although ethnic concerns obviously remain on Americans' minds, our public language lacks polite ways to express them. The U.S. must rely on political and linguistic terms when it attempts to discuss the complicated web of relations that constitute a society; it has no acceptable language with which to express concern about changes in the ethnic makeup. Mexicans may complain that gringo tourists have changed the character of Mexican resorts, and Saudi Arabians may worry about the effects of American expatriates on their culture. Everyone concedes that there is a Mexican or a Saudi character, and that Americans do not have it. But when Americans attempt to talk about the effect of Mexican immigrants on American society, the only terms that seem to be available are those of racism. The exhortation inscribed on the Statue of Liberty contains no notion of degree, no hint that immigration could change American society too much or too fast.

The United States has faced this issue once before. Its response to the New Immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe at the turn of the century was very different from the anti-immigrant feelings of the previous fifty years. Nativist groups had complained about the Germans and especially the Irish during the mid-nineteenth century, but there were few suggestions that they were racially defective. The hostility to Italians, Slavs, and Eastern European Jews, in contrast, was explicitly racial.

The Dillingham Commission, the official government body whose research paved the way for the national-origins quota system, published a "Dictionary of Races" as part of the scientific findings it released in 1910. The purpose of the dictionary, its authors said, was to ascertain "whether there may not be certain races that are inferior to other discover some test to show whether some may be better fitted for American citizenship than others." The experts who oversaw the dictionary's preparation, according to Oscar Handlin's *Race and Nationality in American Life,* "agreed that there were innate, ineradicable race distinctions that separated groups of men from one another, and they agreed also as to the general necessity of classifying these races to know which were fittest, most worthy of survival."

By "race," these nativist intellectuals meant what would now be called ethnicity. In 1916, a New York socialite and scientist named Madison Grant published a book called *The Passing of the Great Race.* Grant's insight was that the European population might be divided into three distinct races. The Nordic race, the source of America's original British and German immigrants, was, "all over the world, a race of soldiers, sailors, adventurers, and explorers, but above all, of rulers, organizers and aristocrats...." The other two European races, the Alpine and the Mediterranean, were heavily represented in the New Immigration and were deficient in various ways. In the same spirit, Francis A. Walker, then president of MIT, said that the New Immigrants were "beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence...They have none of the ideas and aptitudes which...belong to those who are descended from the tribes that met under the oak trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chieftains."

Most of the quack-scientific theories used to prove the racial inferiority of the New Immigrants make for easy sport these days. Almost no one is contending that today's new immigrants are drawn from defective stock. If anything, the complaint from those who must compete against them is that they are too well equipped in the struggle for economic survival. The only group to earn widespread opprobrium was the several thousand Cubans who were released from prisons and mental hospitals in 1980 and sent to Miami as a small but very noticeable part of the Mariel boatlift.

While the central thesis of "racial" inferiority has no clear counterpart in today's immigration debates, the sense of unease about racial and ethnic differences does. The concerns Americans expressed about the New Immigration help clarify our responses to the immigration now under way.

The turn-of-the-century restrictionists agreed on a premise that seemed so obvious to them that it was often left unstated. The premise was that different races had certain ineradicable traits. Observe the Italian peasant in Calabria, the Jewish peddler in Minsk, and you have seen the future of these "races" in America, the argument went. The presumed effects on American culture ranged from a greater dependence on central government to a reduction in the average American's height.

As post-melting-pot sociologists remind us, American ethnic groups are different from one another. They have different religious preferences, different eating and drinking habits, different patterns of economic success. Ethnic identification affects our political behavior: American foreign policy, for example, would be different if it were simply "American," and not an amalgamation of Irish-American, Greek-American, Polish-American, Jewish-American, Cuban-American, Afro-American, Italian-American, etc., views.

Some people therefore wonder about the directions in which today's new groups will push tomorrow's American culture. For example, Griffin Smith, an attorney who is writing a book about immigration, points out that the English word "representative" and the Spanish word "delegado" appear side by side on the Texas ballot. "The English word exists in a matrix of history and tradition that the Spanish counterpart does not altogether share....Whatever else Spain gave to the New World, a sound political tradition was not high on the list. Immigration from Latin America brings with it that tradition and culture."

A theme in the early literature of restriction as strong as that of the ineradicability of ethnic traits was the idea that Americans' land was no longer their own, that foreign-looking people speaking foreign tongues had usurped territory that once was comfortable and familiar. In his influential book *Poverty,* published in 1904, the Progressive reformer Robert Hunter wrote,

"To live in one of these foreign communities [within American cities] is actually to live on foreign soil. The thoughts, feelings, and traditions...are often entirely alien to an American. The newspapers, the literature, the ideals, the passions, the things which agitate the community, are unknown to us except in fragments. During the meat riots on the east side of New York City two years ago, I could understand nothing....A few years ago, when living in Chicago in a colony of Bohemians and Hungarians who had been thrown out of employment by the closing of a great industry...I felt the unrest, the denunciation, the growing brutality but I was unable to discuss with them their grievances, to sympathize with them, or to oppose them. I was an utter stranger in my own city."

With minor alterations for local geography and updating of the ethnic groups, this might be the lament of English-speaking whites of Miami in the 1980s, or of the black and white populations of Los Angeles, confronting their newly polyglot city.

Robert Hunter and his contemporaries had far more reason to feel like strangers in their own land than most Americans do now. In their day the flow of immigrants was far heavier, in both absolute and relative terms. Moreover, the immigrants who were arriving in such numbers seemed more alien than even the Cambodians and Salvadorans who have come during the 1980s. "The people who opposed their entry—and they were more numerous and vociferous and seem to have felt even more threatened than now—made the point that Catholics and Jews were radically different," says Lawrence Fuchs, speaking of the New Immigration era.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In