All through American history, one of the most common epithets hurled against immigrants is that they were “unassimilable” — too clannish to become “true Americans.” The irony, of course, is that this charge is leveled by people whose forebears were themselves regarded as unassimilable. Recently, the issue has re-emerged in a new guise and from an unexpected quarter: from Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University and author of the best-seller, “Bowling Alone,” that warned of the dangers of declining civic engagement in American life.
Putnam has unleashed a storm of controversy with his claim, based on large population surveys, that ethnic diversity is inimical to civic engagement. The problem, according to Putnam, is that immigrants “hunker down” in their own communities, building “bonds” to their fellow ethnics at the expense of “bridges” with wider social networks and the larger society. What particularly worries Putnam is his finding that in communities marked by great diversity, people are less likely to volunteer, to donate to public charities, and to vote and otherwise participate in the collective life of the community. Given the rising diversity in both American and European societies, Putnam — whose own politics are liberal — frets that the promise of E Pluribus Unum — of creating a novel “one” out of a diverse “many” -is doomed to defeat, though he holds out the prospect that in the long run immigrants will overcome fragmentation and develop solidarities with the larger society.
Putnam’s findings have been seized upon by those on the political right who have been railing against immigrants and immigration policy. Last month, Patrick J. Buchanan wrote a piece for VDARE.Com under the title, “Robert Putnam: Diversity Is Our Destruction.” According to Buchanan, prior to 1965 when most immigrants came from Europe, “the Melting Pot worked.” However, he insists the situation is different today: “The numbers coming are huge, and they are coming from countries, cultures and civilizations whose peoples have never before been assimilated by any European nation. And they are arriving in an America whose Melting Pot is broken and whose elites lack the vision to see or the moral courage to confront the imminent peril.”
The fundamental problem with Putnam’s analysis is that it is ahistorical and predicated on a wholly inaccurate conception of how assimilation works. It ignores one of the oldest insights in the historiography on immigration that derives from a 1945 study by Lloyd Warner and Leo Srole, “The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups.” Like Putnam, Warner and Srole observed that immigrants “hunkered down” in ethnic enclaves, but they contended that these enclaves functioned as a decompression chamber, on the one hand easing the adjustment of immigrants to their new surroundings, and on the other hand, developing the occupational and institutional foundation that serves as a springboard of mobility for the children of immigrants. The end result is precisely the thing that Putnam wants: participation in the wider society.
Thus, Putnam’s findings do not add up to the conclusion that the melting pot is broken. His data only provide a snapshot of the moment. However, immigrants do not “melt” like molten iron or instant oatmeal. Rather, assimilation is a process that operates incrementally across generations. It is not the immigrants who are assimilated, but their children and grandchildren.
Contrary to Buchanan and Putnam, the evidence is overwhelming that, despite their “racial” difference, recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America are assimilating more rapidly and more completely than did European immigrants a century ago. Many of these new immigrants were already acclimated to American culture in their countries of origin, and many arrived with education and skills that accelerated their economic mobility. Even in the case of immigrants who lack education and skills, their bilingual children rapidly acquire fluency in English, and for the most part their grandchildren are monolingual in English, a precondition for developing the social capital that Putnam decries is lacking diverse communities.
Indeed, the assimilation of the children of immigrants begins at birth. According to a study of baby names in New York City in 2005, the five most popular names for Hispanic girls were Ashley, Emily, Isabella, Jennifer and Mia. For Hispanic boys, it was Angel (a crossover name pronounced AHN-hel in Spanish), Anthony, Christopher, Justin and Joshua. In the case of Asians, the five most common baby names for girls are Emily, Sophia, Nicole, Michelle and Rachel. For boys, it is: Ryan, Jason, Kevin, Daniel and Justin. These naming practices demonstrate that immigrant parents are looking forward, not backward, when they inscribe a name on their newborn children. Buchanan has little to fear from immigrant boys named Angel or Ryan, or girls named Ashley or Emily!
In his 1908 play, “The Melting Pot,” Israel Zangwill exulted: “There she lies, the great Melting Pot — Listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling?” We should trust our ears and eyes rather than Putnam’s statistical regressions. And we should take a lesson from history: like it or not — and the dissent of the multiculturalists is clear — these new immigrants will follow in the footsteps of the old immigrants, which is to say, footsteps leading into the melting pot. There is no need to slam the door shut on immigrants or undocumented workers who desperately want inclusion in the society where they labor and have raised their children. All that is needed is patience for the powerful solvents within the melting pot to run their course.
Stephen Steinberg is author of “Race Relations: A Critique” published in September by Stanford University Press.