Assimilation, American Style
(Basic Books, 1997)
by Peter Salins
Peter Salins’ latest book, Assimilation, American Style, reminds us that the United States has developed into the world’s greatest democracy because we have been able to build one nation from many peoples. From the Reverend Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam on one side to Pat Buchanan on the other, our daily news is dominated by indications that America’s uniquely cohesive social fabric is being pulled apart from the left by multiculturalism and from the right by a resurgent nativism. As the tension between the two forces increases, Salins reminds us that the means by which generation after generation of new Americans have been assimilated have never really changed. Salins believes America can once again reassert these priorities, indeed we must reassert them, and revive the traditional notions of America as the great melting pot.
A Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and himself the son of immigrants, Salins decries the current trend toward multiculturalism and ethnocentricity. Separating Americans by ethnicity or race through bilingualism, ethnic separatism, and affirmative action, not only harms the groups it is intended to help, but also undermines such core national principles as liberty and equality. While Salins demonstrates that new immigrants need not wholly surrender their native cultures upon arrival in the U.S., he does stress that an aggressive and persistent dedication to the three most crucial institutions of assimilation—the English language, liberal democratic capitalism, and the Protestant work ethic—is absolutely necessary to the success of any new immigrant group.
But the process and responsibilities of assimilation do not fall solely onto the shoulders of the new immigrants. Salins also instructs native Americans in their responsibilities in the assimilation paradigm. Natives must recognize the legitimacy of new immigrants; only then will the immigrants’ acceptance of American values fully enable them to become Americans. Salins chides the nativists who seek to close our borders to many immigrant groups and those who profess doubts about some groups’ ability to share in the American Dream. He points out that the Hispanic and East Asian immigrants of today are behaving exactly like the Irish and German immigrants of the nineteenth century, and show every sign of being able to enjoy similar success. His message is clear: America is still a land in need of contributions from immigrants, and natives, for their own sake, if not for the immigrants’, should work to ensure that those contributions continue to be made.
Salins ends his book with a troubling reminder of the ethnic conflicts in dozens of regions of the world that each year cost thousands of lives. In each instance, societies with a heightened devotion to and a focus on ethnicity, race, or religion are paying the price for their emphasis on their differences, instead of their commonalities. Until now, fortunately, America has avoided the trap of dividing power and privilege along ethnic or racial lines. But Salins stresses that if we are to remain truly a civil society, one which invests in individuals and not groups, then we had better return quickly to our very special form of assimilation, American style, or face the prospect of living in a radically different and much less pleasant country in the twenty-first century.
“Peter Salins makes a powerful case in Assimilation, American Style that assimilation in the United States has saved us from the ethnic and religious wards of Europe and elsewhere. He urges bringing back the concept of the melting pot, which does not, in his opinion, require the immigrant to lose his or her cultural identity. He makes for a persuasive, interesting, and provocative discussion.”
– Edward I. Koch, former Mayor of New York City
“Thanks to assimilation, says Peter Salins, the making of America is the making of Americans. He throws down a gauntlet to strident multiculturalists hostile to the Americanization process, and another to resurgent xenophobes who limn a specter of America defiled by lesser ethnic groups. The melting pot-assimilation at its ultimate- is at full boil, as proved by high and rising intermarriage rates that confound the significance of ancestry. Salins argues convincingly that the ethnically blended Americans of the twenty-first century will lead our nation to new heights, if they are not distracted by appeals to ethnocentricity.” – Louis Winnick, Vice Chairman, Institute of Public Administration
“At long last- an intelligent, brutally honest, and unqualified articulation of the need for blacks and other racial minorities to reject cultural separatism, ethnic pluralism, and physical isolation in America. Salins dares to argue, with history and the future on his side, that it is un-American for minorities not to relentlessly pursue integration with whites- or for newcomers to delay their assimilation through such ethnic-building programs as bilingual education and multiculturalism. Embracing intermarriage as a way of forging a less color-conscious society, and resuscitating the melting pot as the main route to a unified nation, Salins’s work will undoubtedly earn him scathing criticism from America’s ethnic puritans on both the Left and the Right.”
– Michael Meyers, Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition
“Americans who are anxious about whether today’s immigrants will become the Americans of tomorrow should read Peter Salins’s book, Assimilation, American Style. He provides much needed perspective to the current debate, avoiding the hysteria of the xenophobes and the wishful thinking of the multiculturalists. His book deserves to be read by those who truly want to understand our immigrant past and to participate in the present deliberation over immigration policy.”
– Linda Chavez, President, Center for Equal Opportunity, and author of Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation
“In an enlightening new book, Assimilation, American Style, author Peter D. Salins reminds us that it is only for a short period- since the 1960s, really- that we have veered from the [assimilationist] vision.”
– Wall Street Journal, November 26, 1997
“Salins’ diagnosis is powerful and persuasive, and surely the first step is the one he takes: to understand how and why the American model worked so well, and how it is now being threatened.”
– Elliott Abrams, The Public Interest, Spring 1997