A New Way of Joining the Mainstream


By Richard Alba and Victor Nee

(Harvard, 359 pages, $39.95)

Trying to understand American society without grappling with the idea of assimilation is a little like studying the cardiovascular system while ignoring the heart. Assimilation has been central to the American experience since the first European colonists arrived on these shores. And for just as long its definition has been a source of contention and confusion. In 1782, the Frenchman J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur waxed poetic about this new nation, where individuals from different backgrounds “are melted into a new race of men.” In the same era, Benjamin Franklin was griping about the “Palatine boors” in Pennsylvania who threatened to “Germanize” the colony’s Anglo- Americans.

In a broad sense, assimilation refers to the process by which people of divergent ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds come to feel themselves part of a larger family. Though integral to an American sense of nationhood, such feelings of extended kinship operate according to rules that are both unclear and unstable — and always have been. The “Americanization” movement of the early 20th century, for example, was for many a model of assimilationist purpose. For others, it was merely a program of coercion and cultural condescension.

Over the past generation, the very idea of assimilation has come under attack from multiculturalists, who favor separate but equal cultures in one place. They argue that current immigrants — two- thirds of whom hail from Latin America and Asia — should not be expected to assimilate into the culture of their host country. Still others believe that a globalizing world has made the very idea of assimilation nothing more than a quaint notion.

In “Remaking the American Mainstream,” Richard D. Alba and Victor Nee, sociologists at State University of New York at Albany and Cornell University, respectively, have dusted off the idea of assimilation, updated it for the 21st century and found it to be a powerful force in contemporary America — even now. Staying clear of polemics, Messrs. Alba and Nee have contributed a much needed and dispassionate analysis of the current state of immigrant assimilation.

They define assimilation not as a linear process of ethnic obliteration but a dynamic one in which minority and majority cultures converge. In the authors’ rather fluid definition, assimilation has less to do with one group adapting to another than with the blurring of boundaries among groups. In other words, assimilation is a two-way street, and mainstream culture is more malleable than monolithic.

Messrs. Alba and Nee find useful parallels between the high tide of European immigration at the turn of the 20th century and today. They argue that the differences between the two periods have been overplayed in part because of the tendency to mythologize the earlier white ethnic experience. But assimilation has never been simple and painless. Just as yesterday’s Irish and Italians found distinct points of entry into the mainstream, assimilating at different rates, so will today’s Chinese and Hondurans.

Nor are the authors convinced that nonwhite newcomers are destined to join the ranks of disadvantaged minorities. They argue that race has declined as a barrier to mobility in the post-civil-rights era. As for the academic buzzword “transnationalism” — the idea that new Americans will maintain civic ties in multiple places — they are skeptical. They doubt that the children and grandchildren of immigrants will be truly “at home” in more than one nation. Because culture is so deeply embedded in language, the authors note, ethnic distinctions will weaken as languages are lost.

The experience of Mexican-Americans — the group whose concentration and proximity to the homeland seems to challenge assimilation the most — strongly suggests the continued primacy of the English language. According to the authors’ analysis of Census data, more than 60% of Mexican-American children of the third or later generations speak only English.

Yet unlike some earlier immigrants who were first treated as racial outsiders only to be redefined later as “white” — Jews and Italians, for example — Latin American and Asian immigrants are unlikely to undergo a “whitening.” Instead, the authors conjecture, they are likely to erase the formula whereby “mainstream” equals “white.” Like millions of earlier immigrants, in short, the newest immigrants are likely to change America at least as much as America changes them.

Mr. Rodriguez is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.


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