Urging Assimilation Sans Bigotry

by Conor Friedersdorf

One objection I have to Ross Douthat's recent work on assimilation is the way his division of America into two camps creates a false choice for those of us trying to grapple with the best way forward in a multi-ethnic nation of immigrants.

Let's revisit the conceit as he articulates it in his column:

There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.

But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly...

The first America tends to make the finer-sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes. The first America welcomed the poor, the tired, the huddled masses; the second America demanded that they change their names and drop their native languages, and often threw up hurdles to stop them coming altogether. The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics. But both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment’s success.

The implication here, perhaps unintended, is that Americans should tolerate crude xenophobia from their fellow citizens, however ugly it may sound, because it is a necessary driver of the assimilation that helps the American project to succeed. But this misunderstands the nature of the wisdom that is supposedly missed by the first America, and known to the second: that some minimum of cultural cohesion is a necessary part of every society. If you believe that to be true, as I do (along with most but not all members of blue America) surely it is possible to encourage it without trampling on the rights or dignity of newcomers, or modifying their behavior through nativist intimidation.

It is telling that many millions of Americans manage to participate in this project, and they don't seem to fit inside the column's frame. In Embattled Dreams, Kevin Starr's book about World War II era California, one striking scene takes us inside the Japanese internment camps, where the American born adolescents of Japanese immigrants are re-forming the Boy Scout troops they belonged to prior to being rounded up and relocated. In prior years, the work of cultural assimilation had been done by people like a troop leader who welcomed his son's Japanese American friend into the fold, the Japan born parents who felt comfortable enough with their son's acculturation to let him participate, and the troop camping trip where parents of various backgrounds socialized.

In the pre-WWII years, Southern California's gardens were largely tended by Japanese immigrants, whose Buddhist inspired landscapes helped to reshape this region's sensibilities. The Japanese were successful farmers and fishermen too. Being young laborers, they were also mostly men, but unlike the Chinese workers whose labor Californians had exploited in earlier years, the Japanese immigrants sought marriage in much greater numbers, and intermarriage with white women was a natural result. In February 1905, the California legislature held hearings exploring this "problem." One white farmer, capturing the atmosphere, told legislators that his neighbor had a white wife and a new infant. "What is that baby?" he said. "It isn't white. It isn't Japanese. I'll tell you what it is. It is the beginning of the biggest problem that ever faced the American people."

In other aspects of life that farmer probably contributed to his country, but there is no wisdom in the ugly sentiment he expressed in that hearing, and his incorrect understanding of America's distinctive culture was opposed in this instance to intermarriage, the surest vehicle of assimilation in the history of this country. It was morally and practically expedient to refute views like the one held by that man. Precisely because enough people forcefully did so over the years -- challenging the wisdom of the second America -- we got racial progress (it's impossible to watch "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" without marveling at how far we've come on that issue in a short time).

It is important to note that the scout leader I conjured above, the one who welcomed the Japanese American boy into his troop, might himself have objected to the intermarriage of whites and Japanese. This is something Mr. Douthat captures better in a blog post followup to his column. "It would be nice, obviously, if you could draw a bright line between benighted exclusionists and enlightened assimilationists in American history," he writes. "But the record doesn’t really support that kind of line-drawing. The two tendencies can be separated, and sometimes were. But they just as often coexisted in the same movements and institutions and in the same human hearts."

How do I recommend we approach these issues?

Take language. I submit that all immigrants to the United States should learn English. It is the language of our presidential debates, our Supreme Court decisions, and our jury trials, the language of our school principals and a common language that newcomers from Vietnam, Nigeria and Peru can use to interact with one another. The public school system should make English fluency its highest priority, poor immigrants and those granted asylum should get government assistance learning English, and it ought to be looked down on to live in this country for many years without making an attempt to learn the language, and especially to pass it on to your kids.

At the same time, I appreciate how difficult it is to learn a new language, and how comforting it can be to speak in one's native language. That's why I am neither bothered nor hostile if I hear a family of Algerian immigrants speaking French at the restaurant table next to me, or when I walk through New York City's Chinatown and admire the characters in its signage, or when I get the chance to practice my Spanish while doing interviews in San Francisco. Nor do I particularly mind if there's an old Polish woman in Greenpoint who tried to learn English twenty years ago when she came here at age 40, but just found it too difficult to manage.

Perhaps I don't have this issue exactly right. But arguments for the necessity of some cultural assimilation can be made and won sans bigotry or xenophobia. As such, I believe that ugly sentiments can be forcefully denounced without losing any wisdom in the process, and that unattainable though that public discourse may be, it should still be our goal.

As for an example of how tolerance advances the cultural assimilation of Muslim Americans...