REINVENTING THE MELTING POT
The New Immigrants and
What It Means To Be American
Basic Books, Paperback Edition, November 2004
Basic Books, Hardcover Edition, February 2004
Edited by Tamar Jacoby
Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow
AUTHOR Q & A
What gave you the idea for this book?
As a journalist writing about immigration and ethnicity, I spend a lot of time among young people—foreign-born and the children of the foreign-born—who are going through the process of becoming American. And the more I talk to them, the more I realize: they are becoming American—faster probably than any newcomers ever have, in all of American history. But many don’t realize that’s what’s happening to them, and they don’t know how to think or talk about it. They think assimilation is a dirty word. They feel American, but they feel ethnic, too—and they don’t know how to reconcile these two different identities. They need guideposts, and we as a nation need to find new ways to talk about and encourage assimilation.
Why is this such a big issue now?
Partly because of the sheer number of immigrants who have been streaming into our country for the past 25 years. There are 33 million foreign-born people living in America today—that’s more than the entire population of Canada. One in five Americans—nearly 50 million people—speak a language other than English at home. Most of them speak English too, and their children generally speak English well. But we are once again—literally, not just figuratively—becoming a nation of immigrants. And in the wake of 9/11, with the country as a whole thinking harder than ever before about what it means to be American, it couldn’t be more important to help these newcomers find a way to fit in.
You’ve got a pretty diverse group of contributors here—people on the far left and the far right. Do they all agree on that? Do they all agree on anything?
Actually, yes, they do. You’re right, this is a very diverse group of contributors. Not just left and right, but academics and journalists, novelists and numbers-crunchers, people who are in favor of more immigration and people who want to clamp down on the borders. But on this question—the question of assimilation—they all more or less agree. Most of them think assimilation is happening. They think it should happen. They think we as a nation ought to be encouraging it. And they think we ought to be finding new ways to talk about it that resonate for today’s immigrants and children of immigrants.
So is that the point of the book—that you have all these different kinds of writers coming together to say more or less the same thing?
Yes, in a way it is. Think of the book as a political act. Or maybe—maybe a better metaphor—think of it as a symphony orchestra. These are very, very different writers, and they come from very different places. But they are all coming together to sing something like the same tune. To stand up in favor of assimilation and to jumpstart a national conversation about what it means.
Does this group have a name, or a label? How do we even talk about the idea that brings them together?
I’m not sure they’d all agree on one label. As writers, they can be an opinionated bunch. But I call them “realists.” Because they’re trying to come up with a definition of assimilation that fits with the realities of the world we live in. A definition that makes sense in an era of globalization, the internet, identity politics, ethnic niche advertising and a TV remote with a hundred or more different channels.
But wait a minute—what about ethnic identity? What about diversity and multiculturalism? Can you have assimilation and ethnic identity, too? Don’t people who assimilate have to give up their ethnic identities?
Absolutely not, and that really is the bottom line of the book. Assimilation does not mean obliterating your parents’ culture or the customs you brought with you from the old country. It doesn’t mean that today and—you know what it has rarely if ever meant that. Assimilation got a bad name in the 1950s—an unfair reputation that still lingers. Sure, in the course of American history, in the 1950s and before that in the 1920s and at other times, there were native-born Americans who wanted to push it too far—who wanted to insist that immigrants give up the culture they came with. But these nativists were only one faction, and by and large they lost the battles of their day. And in fact, we have very rarely demanded that people give up their ethnic identities in order to become Americans.
But surely America is different today? Isn’t ethnicity more important than it used to be? How are people supposed to reconcile their ethnic origins with becoming American?
Yes, of course, ethnicity is more important today. Multiculturalism may be fading a little in the wake of 9/11, but it hasn’t disappeared—far from it. Diversity and identity and where you or your people come from: all of that is central to the way we live now, and it will probably remain so for the rest of our lifetimes and beyond. But that doesn’t mean today’s newcomers won’t find ways to fit in and contribute here. People don’t have to choose between being American and being “ethnic”—the very idea is an abomination.
But surely they have to make some choices? You’re not saying we can have it all—you’re not saying anything goes?
No, we can’t have it all. Being American means something, and you have to embrace it if you’re serious about fitting in here. The most important thing—it’s not the only thing, but it’s the most important thing—is how you think about yourself and where you fit. When you read about the Founders, when you look back on the Civil War, when you study the Depression or think about what happened on 9/11—do you think “them,” or “us”? Do you identify as an American? That doesn’t mean you have to behave like a New England WASP. And it doesn’t mean you have to bury your ethnicity. The American identity is big enough and strong enough—it leaves plenty of room for diversity. What we ask of you is to balance your ethnicity and your American identity—and to remember that what we all have in common is more important than our differences.
Is assimilation working in America today?
Most of the essayists that have contributed to this volume think that it is. The book looks at every aspect of the issue: from how today’s newcomers are different than yesterday’s to how immigrant businesses are faring in places like the Houston suburbs. There’s an essay on the Mexican-American way of assimilating and another on the Asian-American way, and others on economic assimilation and political assimilation and how the melting pot works in New York City. And sure, one or two of the writers are a little more worried than the others—we’re talking about 33 million people, after all, and they’re probably not all going to make it quickly or easily. But by large, the consensus among the essayists is optimistic. Today’s immigrants are indeed assimilating—maybe even faster than the immigrants of a hundred years ago.
Does the book talk about policy? What if anything should the native-born be doing about this issue?
It’s not primarily a book about policy. There is a need for policy—and not only government policy. Business can help, and so can civil society. There’s a lot to be done, and some of the writers in the book go into it. But most of the essays are more focused on how the American people think about what it means to become one of us. Ultimately, this is as much a matter of culture as of policy—and the way we think and talk about it and the way it gets handled in the popular culture is as if not more important than any steps the government takes. The goal of this book is to push us all to think a little harder about what it means to be American—and to find new, realistic ways of talking about it that will help today’s immigrants find their way.