During a recent appearance on Meet the Press, Tom Brokaw, the renowned television journalist, offered a number of observations about immigration that have proved intensely controversial. In the course of a panel discussion on the politics of immigration and why voters in states where immigrants are relatively rare are so deeply concerned about immigrant inflows, Brokaw attributed Republican misgivings about Latin American immigration to concerns about “the intermarriage that is going on and the cultures that are conflicting with each other.” Pointedly, he spoke of people who’d said to him, “Well, I don’t know whether I want brown grandbabies.”
Speaking extemporaneously is always fraught with peril; I’m sure I’ve been less than precise when doing the same thing. But Brokaw’s remarks, and the furious reaction they provoked, help illuminate why the subject of assimilation is so contentious.
First, consider the supposed threat of grandbabies of mixed ancestry. Though Brokaw’s claim that elderly white conservatives are deathly afraid of having brown grandbabies comports with the widespread belief that immigration restrictionists are chiefly motivated by fears of racial dilution, this line of argument has an obvious problem. High levels of intermarriage are an indication that putatively distinct cultural communities are not, in fact, in conflict with one another, and indeed that the boundaries separating them are blurring. Judging by the growing literature on “ethnic attrition,” a phenomenon in which individuals choose not to identify with an ethnic group despite having ancestors who belonged to that group—think of a third-generation American with three grandparents of Scots-Irish extraction and one born in Mexico who identifies as non-Hispanic white—it is quite possible that many of the brown grandbabies Brokaw’s interlocutors have in mind will grow up to identify as white, assuming they don’t already do so.