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We misunderstand assimilation, suggests California essayist Richard Rodriguez, because we have denied that American culture exists: "Lacking any plural sense of ourselves, how shall we describe Americanization, except as loss? The son of Italian immigrant parents is no longer Italian. America is the country where one stops being Italian or Chinese or German."
That common-culture advocates like Schlesinger do not understand our common culture shows in their obsession with public schools. America is not France, a nation defined by its state institutions, a uniform culture imposed by law. Richard Rodriguez, the Sacramento-born child of immigrants, did not go to public schools. His teachers were not even Americans but nuns from Ireland. His was the experience of millions of Catholic Americans whose story is missing from the official accounts.
America is not a finished artifact but an irresistible process. The assumptions of America–ambition, tolerance, social equality, the individual pursuit of happiness–do not dictate an outcome. But they produce an atmosphere, an atmosphere that permeates every institution, that undermines every group. Even the Amish lose many of their children.
"For the child of immigrant parents the knowledge comes like a slap: America exists," writes Rodriguez. "America exists in the slouch of the crowd, the pacing of traffic lights, the assertions of neon, the cry of freedom overriding the nineteenth-century melodic line. Grasp the implications of American democracy in a handshake or in a stranger's Jeffersonian 'hi.' America is irresistible. Nothing to do with choosing."
Well, choice has something to do with it. We choose America, and we choose which America to choose.
America is a multicultural nation. It would be a multicultural nation if every non-Caucasian vanished tomorrow. New England is not the South is not California is not Utah. Understanding America, and American assimilation, has to start with that fact.
America exists quite comfortably with numerous enduring subcultures. Indeed, the greatest testimony to America's irresistibility may be the persistence of our regional cultures. Though they differ from each other less than America differs from the world, American regions have maintained distinctive cultures through centuries of changing populations. My husband's great-grandparents lived in the shtetls of Ukraine and Lithuania, but he is the unmistakable child of the Delaware Valley. His ancestors are William Penn and Benjamin Franklin.
"On average," writes John Shelton Reed, sociologist of the South, "migrants to the South already look something like Southerners, culturally. In a few respects, they look more like Southerners than Southerners do. They are even less wild than the natives about taxes and federal programs to help the poor, for example....By moving to California and New England, some atypical Southerners have made those places look more like California and New England, and the South more like the South."
My friend Kris, the Indiana-born child of German parents, moved to South Carolina in the ninth grade, having spent the previous few years in France. If you met her today, the only signs of her roots would be her Catholicism and an unusual level of thrift. She drawls and flirts and cheers for Clemson football like any other child of the Carolina Piedmont. She makes the South more Southern.
As do I, by living elsewhere. In the fall of 1978 I left the religious, conservative, biracial, slow-paced culture of South Carolina for the secular, liberal, multi-ethnic, intense culture of Princeton University. Like most immigrants, I was looking for a better life in a place I only half understood. Like many immigrants, I found educational and economic opportunities greater than any in my homeland. And I assimilated–dropped most of my accent, changed my politics and my religion, stopped trying to get a tan. I did these things not because anyone foisted a common culture upon me but because they made me happy.
That is how, and why, most immigrants assimilate. Not because they hate themselves or deny their roots. Not because the government has prohibited their native tongue or forced them to swear allegiance to a new religion. Not because they've gone through the homogenizing experience of public school. Assimilation is a combination of willful self-fashioning (11 percent of the Mormons in L.A. are Latino; they didn't accidentally convert) and unconscious adaptation. I dropped most of my twang because prejudiced people, on hearing it, would think me stupid and a bigot; I replaced it with a hodge-podge of Northeastern strains, because that is where I lived. Happiness and practicality, the pursuit of personal furfillment and financial success, preserve the common culture. A common purpose has nothing to do with it.
America won't crack up in the next 25 years because its mosaic is not the one the Balkanizing multiculturalists describe. America is a mosaic not of groups but of individuals, each of whom carries a host of cultural influences, some chosen, some inherited, some absorbed by osmosis. That mosaic is held together by the pursuit of happiness, the most powerful mortar ever conceived. Left alone, it will long endure.
Unfortunately, intellectuals and activists are obsessed with lining the tiles up in neat, monochromatic rows. Jim Crow has returned, somewhat half-heartedly, to dole out privilege and power according to racial quotas. Politicians address voters as genetic categories, not as people with ideas. Educated people argue, quite seriously, over whether 16th-century Aztec civilization was superior to 16th-century Spanish civilization–as though either form of barbarism proves something about late 20th-century America.
And we are ruining our colleges. Students who have spent their high-school years happily existing in a multicultural stew hit college and are told they can trust only others of their own kind; they are classified by race and expected to join social groups defined by ethnicity. This was true at Princeton, which had the lame excuse of a large number of provincial white preppies, but it's even true at California's state universities, which have no such defense.
"Students moving out of ethnically/racially diverse environments and into the austere university setting come face to face with cultural stratification," writes Lynell George in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. "It is, for many, the first time that they are called upon to choose sides or feel a need to become politically active."