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BOOK REVIEW

Assimilation, American Style by Peter D. Salins

American Immigrants Have a Successful History of Assimilation

MARCH 01, 1998 by RITA J. SIMON

Basic Books • 1996 • 272 pages • $26.00

Rita Simon teaches in the department of justice, law and society, School of Public Affairs at American University, Washington, D.C.

Author Peter Salins says up front that he had two major reasons for writing Assimilation, American Style. First, to tell about the wonderful contributions immigrants have made to American society and to explain how successful their assimilation into the mainstream has been, without the loss of their identities. Second, to take on both the political left and the old-line nativists on the right for their attacks on assimilation and on an immigration policy that allows more than 700,000 immigrants a year to enter the United States.

More than any of the other major receiving nations (Canada, Australia, and Argentina), the United States has had a successful experience assimilating immigrants of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Salins states very clearly that assimilation does not mean the abandonment of the immigrants’ culture and conformity to the behavior and customs of the native-born population. He points to the rich, colorful mosaic that immigrants have created in American society with their religion, music, fashion, food, and other cultural contributions.

Salins emphasizes that assimilation is about national unity. He gives credit for achieving this sense of national unity to American law, policies, and public attitudes. The United States encourages and allows immigrants to become citizens after five years. They then can vote and run for political office (save for the presidency). Speaking the same language, living in the same neighborhoods, and sending their children to the same schools have all contributed to the successful assimilation process that has produced a unified country.

But today, Salins warns, the public schools are the site of strong anti-assimilationist movements that are part of a larger ethnocentrist, multiculturalist movement led by the American left. In the public schools, the three-pronged movement consists of the development of multicultural curricula, bilingual education, and the disparagement of American traditions. Of the three, Salins views bilingualism as the most insidious, not only because of its anti-assimilationist ideology, but because studies have shown that it has been a failure on its own pedagogical terms—immigrant children enrolled in bilingual programs fall far behind their counterparts who are taught all subjects in English.

How do multicultural curricula threaten assimilation? Salins argues that behind its bland facade of emphasizing diversity and inclusiveness, multiculturalism promotes an agenda of ethnic grievances, and a delegitimation of the prevailing national culture. Multiculturalism in the public schools and at the university level focuses on non-Western, non-European influences and contributions. The works of dead white males are either stripped from the curriculum or strongly devalued. Salins argues that “Multiculturalism is explicitly and self-consciously directed toward nurturing an acute sense of ethnic grievance and victimization among the children of ethnic minorities, with ethnic minorities narrowly defined as encompassing only blacks, Latinos, and American Indians.”

The third prong of the anti-assimilationist movement is the disparagement of the U.S. Constitution and American heroes and traditions. George Washington was just a rich slave owner, Andrew Jackson caused the Cherokee Trail of Tears, and U.S. foreign policy is always imperialist and evil.

Salins warns that these movements are part of a general emphasis on ethnocentrism that the American left is leading. He argues it is exactly the type of emphasis that threatens national unity and could lead to the balkanization of American society.

But Salins does not only see danger to the successful American style of assimilation and national unity from the left, he also recognizes that the traditional nativist movement that has historically had its base on the right has also joined the attack. The nativists are making their usual argument: these new immigrants—i.e., immigrants who are entering the country now—will never assimilate because their backgrounds and cultures are too different. The leading exponent of this view today is Peter Brimelow, who, in his book Alien Nation argues that the current crop of immigrants will change the culture, values, and lifestyle of American society. But of course what Brimelow is saying today is what other nativists have said of immigrants who have come to American shores for more than 100 years, including the Irish, the Jews, the southern and eastern European Catholics, the Chinese, and the Japanese. We were warned about how each of those groups would destroy American culture and society. But all of these immigrants have made extraordinary contributions to the economic growth, public life, and the cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual well-being of this country. The nativists were wrong in the 1880s and the 1920s; they are wrong today.

Salins acknowledges what he calls “the great exception” to the assimilation paradigm: black Americans. Reviewing the history of America’s treatment of blacks, which he labels “the greatest betrayal of the American idea,” he nevertheless urges blacks not to join the ethnocentric, multicultural movement of the left with its goal of dividing American society. Salins concludes with a hope and a plea that the United States will continue to welcome immigrants from all over the world, that native-born and naturalized Americans will join in helping recent immigrants to assimilate, and that ethnocentrism and multiculturalism will crumble in defeat.

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March 1998

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