Assimilation, American Style

Universalist ideals, capitalism, a plethora of associations, and a love of progress are the secret to interethnic identity.


California Chinese, Boston Irish, Wisconsin Gerrmans, yes, and Alabama Negroes, have more in common than they have apart….It is a fact that Americans from all sections and of all racial extractions are more alike than the Welsh are like the English, the Lancashireman like the Cockney, or for that matter the Lowland Scot like the Highlander.

–John Steinbeck, 1962

Most Americans, both those who favor and those who oppose assimilation, believe that for immigrants to assimilate, they must abandon their original cultural attributes and conform entirely to the behaviors and customs of the majority of the native-born population. In the terminology of the armed forces, this represents a model of "up or out": Either immigrants bring themselves "up" to native cultural standards, or they are doomed to live "out" of the charmed circle of the national culture.

The notion is not entirely far-fetched because this is exactly what assimilation demands in other societies. North African immigrants to France are, for example, expected to assimilate by abandoning their native folkways with alacrity. Official French policy has been zealous in making North African and other Muslim women give up wearing their chadors and, in the schools, instilling a disdain for North African and Muslim culture in their children. To varying degrees, most European countries that have had to absorb large numbers of immigrants since World War II interpret assimilation this way–an interpretation that has promoted national and ethnic disunity.

In America, however, assimilation has not meant repudiating immigrant culture. Assimilation, American style has always been much more flexible and accommodating and, consequently, much more effective in achieving its purpose–to allow the United States to preserve its "national unity in the face of the influx of hordes of persons of scores of different nationalities," in the words of the sociologist Henry Fairchild.

A popular way of getting hold of the assimilation idea has been to use a metaphor, and by far the most popular metaphor has been that of the "melting pot," a term introduced in Israel Zangwill's 1908 play of that name: "There she lies, the great Melting-Pot–Listen! Can't you hear the roaring and the bubbling?…Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian, black and yellow…Jew and Gentile….East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross–how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purifying flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God."

For all its somewhat ahistorical idealism, the melting-pot metaphor still represents the standard around which fervent proponents of assimilation have rallied over the years. According to the melting-pot metaphor, assimilation involved the fine-grained intermingling of diverse ethnicities and cultures into a single national "alloy." If taken literally, this metaphor implied two things. The point most commonly taken is that the new human products of the melting pot would, of necessity, be culturally indistinguishable. Presumably every piece of metal taken from a melting pot should have the same chemical composition. Less frequently understood is the metaphor's implication that natives and their indigenous cultural characteristics would also be irreversibly changed–blended beyond recognition–because they constituted the base material of the melting pot.

These two corollaries of the melting-pot metaphor have long invited criticism by those who thought they were inconsistent with the ethnic realities of American society. Critics of the metaphor have spanned the ideological spectrum and mounted several different lines of attack on it. Empiricists submitted evidence that the melting pot wasn't working as predicted and concluded, as did Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan in Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), "The point about the melting pot…is that it did not happen." Other critics rejected the second corollary of the metaphor–that natives were changed by it, too–and saw no reason that native Americans should give up any part of their cultural attributes to "melt" into the alloy. If true assimilation were to occur, the criticism went, immigrants would have to abandon all their cultural baggage and conform to American ways. It is the immigrant, said Fairchild, representing the views of many Americans, "who must undergo the entire transformation; the true member of the American nationality is not called upon to change in the least."

A third strain of criticism was first voiced by sociologist Horace Kallen in the early part of this century. Among the most prolific American scholars of ethnicity, Kallen argued that it was not only unrealistic but cruel and harmful to force new immigrants to shed their familiar, lifelong cultural attributes as the price of admission to American society. In place of the melting pot, he called for "cultural pluralism." In Kallen's words, national policy should "seek to provide conditions under which each [group] might attain the cultural perfection that is proper to its kind."

Kallen introduced the concept in 1916, only eight years after publication of Zangwill's The Melting Pot, determined to challenge that work's premises. Cultural pluralism rejects melting-pot assimilationism not on empirical grounds, but on ideological ones. Kallen and his followers believed that immigrants to the United States should not "melt" into a common national ethnic alloy but, rather, should steadfastly hang on to their cultural ethnicity and band together for social and political purposes even after generations of residence in the United States. As such, cultural pluralism is not an alternative theory of assimilation; it is a theory opposed to assimilation.

Cultural pluralism is, in fact, the philosophical antecedent of modern multiculturalism–what I call "ethnic federalism": official recognition of distinct, essentially fixed ethnic groups and the doling out of resources based on membership in an ethnic group. Ethnic federalism explicitly rejects the notion of a transcendent American identity, the old idea that out of ethnic diversity there would emerge a single, culturally unified people. Instead, the United States is to be viewed as a vast ethnic federation–Canada's Anglo-French arrangement, raised to the nth power. Viewing ethnic Americans as members of a federation rather than a union, ethnic federalism, a.k.a. multiculturalism, asserts that ethnic Americans have the right to proportional representation in matters of power and privilege, the right to demand that their "native" culture and putative ethnic ancestors be accorded recognition and respect, and the right to function in their "native" language (even if it is not the language of their birth or they never learned to speak it), not just at home but in the public realm.

Ethnic federalism is at all times an ideology of ethnic grievance and inevitably leads to and justifies ethnic conflict. All the nations that have ever embraced it, from Yugoslavia to Lebanon, from Belgium to Canada, have had to live with perpetual ethnic discord.

Kallen's views, however, stop significantly short of contemporary multiculturalism in their demands on the larger "native" American society. For Kallen, cultural pluralism was a defensive strategy for "unassimilable" immigrant ethnic groups that required no accommodation by the larger society. Contemporary multiculturalists, on the other hand, by making cultural pluralism the basis of ethnic federalism, demand certain ethnic rights and concessions. By emphasizing the failure of assimilation, multiculturalists hope to provide intellectual and political support for their policies.

The multiculturalists' rejection of the melting pot idea is seen in the metaphors they propose in its place. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson suggested that Americans are members of a "rainbow coalition." Former New York Mayor David Dinkins saw his constituents constituting a "gorgeous mosaic." Former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm characterized America's ethnic groups as being like ingredients in a "salad bowl." Barbara Jordan, recent chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, said: "We are more than a melting-pot; we are a kaleidoscope."

These counter-metaphors all share a common premise: that ethnic groups in the United States may live side by side harmoniously, but on two conditions that overturn both assumptions of the melting-pot metaphor. First, immigrants (and black Americans) should never have to (or maybe should not even want to) give up any of their original cultural attributes. And second, there never can or will be a single unified national identity that all Americans can relate to. These two principles are the foundations of cultural pluralism, the antithesis of assimilationism.

While all these metaphors–including the melting pot–are colorful ways of representing assimilation, they don't go far in giving one an accurate understanding of what assimilation is really about. For example, across the ideological spectrum, they all invoke some external, impersonal assimilating agent. Who, exactly, is the "great alchemist" of the melting pot? What force tosses the salad or pieces together the mosaic? By picturing assimilation as an impersonal, automatic process and thus placing it beyond analysis, the metaphors fail to illuminate its most important secrets. Assimilation, if it is to succeed, must be a voluntary process, by both the assimilating immigrants and the assimilated-to natives. Assimilation is a human accommodation, not a mechanical production.

The metaphors also mislead as to the purposes of assimilation. The melting pot is supposed to turn out an undifferentiated alloy–a uniform, ethnically neutral, American protoperson. Critics have long pointed out that this idea is far-fetched. But is it even desirable? And if it is desirable, does it really foster a shared national identity? The greatest failing of the melting-pot metaphor is that it overreaches. It exaggerates the degree to which immigrants' ethnicity is likely to be extinguished by exposure to American society and it exaggerates the need to extinguish ethnicity. By being too compelling, too idealistic, the melting-pot idea has inadvertently helped to discredit the very assimilation paradigm it was meant to celebrate.

On the other hand, behind their unexceptionable blandness, the antithetical cultural pluralist metaphors are profoundly insidious. By suggesting that the product of assimilation is mere ethnic coexistence without integration, they undermine the objectives of assimilation, even if they appear more realistic. Is assimilation only about diverse ethnic groups sharing the same national space? That much can be said for any multiethnic society. If the ethnic greens of the salad or the fragments of the mosaic do not interact and identify with each other, no meaningful assimilation is taking place.

Perhaps a new assimilation metaphor should be introduced–one that depends not on a mechanical process like the melting pot but on human dynamics. Assimilation might be viewed as more akin to religious conversion than anything else. In the terms of this metaphor, the immigrant is the convert, American society is the religious order being joined, and assimilation is the process by which the conversion takes place. Just as there are many motives for people to immigrate, so are there many motives for them to change their religion: spiritual, practical (marrying a person of another faith), and materialistic (joining some churches can lead to jobs or subsidized housing). But whatever the motivation, conversion usually involves the consistent application of certain principles. Conversion is a mutual decision requiring affirmation by both the convert and the religious order he or she wishes to join. Converts are expected in most (but not all) cases to renounce their old religions. But converts do not have to change their behavior in any respects other than those that relate to the new religion. They are expected only to believe in its theological principles, observe its rituals and holidays, and live by its moral precepts. Beyond that, they can be rich or poor, practice any trade, pursue any avocational interests, and have any racial or other personal attributes. Once they undergo conversion, they are eagerly welcomed into the fellowship of believers. They have become part of "us" rather than "them." This is undoubtedly what writer G.K. Chesterton had in mind when he said: "America is a nation with the soul of a church."

In the end, however, no metaphor can do justice to the achievements and principles of assimilation, American style. As numerous sociologists have shown, assimilation is not a single event, but a process. In 1930 Robert Park observed, "Assimilation is the name given to the process or processes by which peoples of diverse racial origins and different cultural heritages, occupying a common territory, achieve a cultural solidarity sufficient at least to sustain a national existence." More recently, Richard Alba defined assimilation as "long-term processes that have whittled away at the social foundations of ethnic distinctions." But assimilation is more complex than that because it is a process of numerous dimensions. Not all immigrants and ethnic groups assimilate in exactly the same way or at the same speed. In Assimilation in American Life (1964), Milton Gordon suggested that there is a typology, or hierarchy, of assimilation, thus capturing some of the key steps that immigrants and ethnic groups go through as their assimilation–their cultural solidarity with native-born Americans, in Park's words–becomes more complete.

First, and perhaps foremost, natives and immigrants must accord each other legitimacy. That is, each group must believe the other has a legitimate right to be in the United States and that its members are entitled to pursue, by all legal means, their livelihood and happiness as they see fit. Second, immigrants must have competence to function effectively in American workplaces and in all the normal American social settings. Immigrants are expected to seize economic opportunities and to participate, at some level, in the social life of American society, and natives must not get in their way. Third, immigrants must be encouraged to exercise civic responsibility, minimally by being law-abiding members of American society, respectful of their fellow citizens, and optimally as active participants in the political process. Fourth, and most essential, immigrants must identify themselves as Americans, placing that identification ahead of any associated with their birthplace or ethnic homeland, and their willingness to do so must be reciprocated by the warm embrace of native Americans.

The speed and thoroughness with which individual immigrants conform to these criteria vary, but each dimension is critical and interdependent with the others. The absence of legitimacy breeds ethnic conflict between natives and immigrants and among members of different ethnic groups. The absence of competence keeps immigrants from being economically and socially integrated into the larger society and breeds alienation among the immigrants and resentment of their dependence among natives. The absence of civic responsibility keeps immigrants from being involved in many crucial decisions that affect their lives and further contributes to their alienation. Having immigrants identify as Americans is, of course, the whole point of assimilation, but such identification depends heavily on the fulfillment of the other three criteria.

One of the most frequently overlooked dimensions of assimilation is the extent to which it depends more on the behavior of natives than of immigrants. Most conventional definitions and analyses of the subject assume that assimilation involves affirmative acts or choices that immigrants alone must make. But the real secret of American assimilation is that the native-born Americans–not the immigrants–have made it work. Since independence, a majority of Americans, all of whom once were immigrants themselves or the descendants of immigrants, have been instilled with the assimilationist ethos and have, in turn, instilled it in each new generation of immigrants.

Americans have accorded immigrants (and their children) their legitimacy. They have done so by letting them come, letting them quickly become citizens, according them a full complement of American civil rights, and treating them in myriad ways, both large and small, as equals. Americans, through their faith in individual achievement, have given immigrants the chance to prove themselves. They have employed them, let them buy homes in their neighborhoods, let them join their social organizations, and even let them marry their sons and daughters. Regarding the latter point: Americans may only recently have grown so tolerant that they condone their children marrying immigrants of another race, but Americans have long surpassed the citizens of other nations in accepting interethnic marriages. Americans have sustained a civic order and a civic ideology that values good citizenship and political participation by all residents. They have drilled the immigrants' children in the American Idea, actively encouraged immigrants to become citizens and to vote, aggressively appealed to them as political constituents, and let them run for political office. In short, Americans, by law, policy, and attitude, have actively encouraged immigrants to become fellow Americans in spirit as well as in law.

The roots of Americans' predisposition in favor of assimilation reach deep into the American psyche. This predisposition is undoubtedly nourished by the personal and collective memories and aspirations of a nation of immigrants, but since other nations of immigrants (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, and New Zealand) have not been nearly as assimilationist, there must be some other explanation. American assimilation owes its power to four unique aspects of American society: 1) the liberal, universalist ideas embedded in the U.S. Constitution; 2) the universal commitment to an economy built on market capitalism; 3) the density and redundancy of organizational life–governmental, political, religious, social, economic, and philanthropic; and 4) a persistent, society-wide infatuation with modernity and progress. Each factor by itself is assimilationist. Together, they make assimilation irresistible.

America's political system has fostered assimilation in several ways. By blocking acts of discrimination against immigrants and ethnic minorities, it has given immigrants civil legitimacy, undermined the credibility of nativists, and prevented the buildup of unresolved ethnic grievances. In its machinery of political participation based on universal suffrage, it has further enhanced immigrants' civil status, offered appropriate forums for airing ethnic grievances, and provided an important entrée for involvement in American organizational life. By allowing all immigrants to become citizens after a brief residence and a painless apprenticeship, the United States has offered them formal membership in the American community. Finally, as the practical embodiment of universally cherished, if often breached, principles of civic idealism embodied in the "American Idea," the U.S. political system has served as a compelling philosophical rallying point for all Americans.

American capitalism has been nearly as important as its political institutions in fostering assimilation. As economist Thomas Sowell pointed out, by putting an economic premium on talent and effort, market capitalism makes any discriminatory, anti-assimilation policies of natives or immigrants unprofitable. Even anti-immigration scholar George Borjas noted in his 1990 book, Friends or Strangers, "Not only is economic mobility an important aspect of the immigrant experience, it is also sufficiently strong to guarantee that for most of their working lives, first-generation immigrants outperform natives in the American labor market." Competition between natives and immigrants in most parts of the world has bred hostility and ethnic conflict. From time to time, it has done so in the United States as well, especially during economic downturns, but America's capitalist ethos has been so strong that inevitably the economic contributions of immigrants earn the grudging respect, rather than the envy, of natives. Once immigrants and natives work together and come to appreciate each other's economic value, it becomes much easier to form other kinds of interest-based relationships. Eventually, economic relationships lead to social ones, culminating in friendship and even intermarriage. At a deeper philosophical level, a society devoted to judging people mainly by their accomplishments is a society that, of necessity, places less stock on judging them by their ethnic, or even class, backgrounds.

More than 160 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked about Americans' proclivity to join and participate in an array of organizational activities and saw that proclivity as one of the young nation's most stabilizing and heartening tendencies. The United States still leads the world in the density and profusion of organizations of every imaginable sort and the extent to which its citizens join them. Francis Fukuyama, in his 1995 book Trust, thoroughly documented the importance of America's "intermediary" institutions in promoting the stability and harmony of American life, not the least in providing one of the most effective venues for the assimilation of generations of immigrants. Even the formal governmental apparatus of this federated nation, which, in addition to the states, supports thousands of local and special-purpose jurisdictions, offers a vast arena for formal and informal participation by citizens. Leaving government aside, in even the smallest towns and neighborhoods, people have always belonged to an abundance of religious, fraternal, business, social, recreational, philanthropic, and single-purpose activist organizations.

Americans' active organizational life has greatly facilitated all aspects of assimilation. Civic organizations have given immigrants status and reinforced their civic assimilation. Other kinds of organizations have enhanced immigrants' competence and protected their economic interests, reinforcing their "structural" assimilation. From the beginning, ethnically based religious and social organizations have given aid and comfort to immigrants, greatly eased the immigrants' transition to American life, and led inevitably to their participation in a wider social network. The historian Maldwyn Jones explained the paradox of how ethnic churches and ethnic celebrations actually worked to promote assimilation and "Americanization" as follows: "To some observers there has been an element of contradiction in the fact that immigrants assert their American patriotism as members of separate groups. But the contradiction is only superficial. When Polish Americans observe Pulaski day, when Irish Americans parade in honor of St. Patrick, when Italian-Americans gather to fete San Rocco or San Genaro, and even when Americans of Greek, Mexican, or Armenian origin celebrate the old country's independence day, they are merely asserting their cultural distinctiveness, merely seeking to make clear their own identity in the larger American community. And even while doing so, they rededicate themselves to the common national ideals that bind them together." "The common national ideals" Jones had in mind include Americans' enthusiasm for religious expression and, on a secular plane, their civic spiritedness and freedom of cultural definition.

The most overlooked national attribute that has facilitated assimilation is Americans' enduring enthusiasm for "progress" and all things modern, what Max Lerner referred to as "the merging of the Constitution with the idea-of-progress strain in American thought." A country that is in love with progress appreciates the potential contributions of immigrants and is eager to incorporate them. A country that is determined to be in the vanguard knows that anti-assimilationist ethnocentricity represents a retrograde and outmoded way of thinking. A country that is always willing to embrace change is rarely daunted by the prospect of living with new and "exotic" peoples.

Over the United States' two centuries of existence, the tides of nativism have periodically advanced and receded with changing levels and national mixes of immigrants, the onset and conclusion of great wars, and the vicissitudes of the national business cycle. But they have never been strong enough to overwhelm the irresistible currents of America's political, economic, and social predispositions. It is the combination of these predispositions and the assimilationist ethos they support that has made the United States, with all its problems and shortcomings, the most successful nation in world history in integrating ethnically diverse people.

The great hallmark of assimilation, American style is that immigrants are free to retain or discard as much or as little of their homeland cultures as they wish without compromising their assimilation. This fact is rarely recognized, however, in most discussions of the subject, allowing a misperception to stand that severely distorts the American debate about assimilation's desirability and possibility. The conventional judgment as to whether immigrants or their descendants are assimilating is usually based on how much of their native cultural heritages they have discarded and how culturally "American" they seem. By this standard, a foreign-born teenager listening to rock music on his Walkman, wearing a baseball cap backward, and speaking accent-free English is "assimilated," whereas an Amish farmer is not. But the social characteristic being identified here is not really assimilation, but what Milton Gordon and other sociologists refer to as "acculturation," conforming to superficial cultural features of the dominant society such as dress, speech, and etiquette.

Acculturation may or may not accompany assimilation. Usually, immigrants who assimilate–or at least their children–become acculturated as well, but not always and not completely. Usually, acculturated people are assimilated, but again, not always. The distinction between assimilation and acculturation is crucial, and Gordon's decades-old insistence that acculturation is not synonymous with assimilation may be his greatest contribution to the theory of assimilation. Except for the need to speak English, acculturation, in the American historical context, may be meaningless, because it is unclear what it is that immigrants should be acculturating to.

Notwithstanding the continuing predominance of English cultural and social influences, African-American, Hispanic, Jewish, Italian, Asian, and other ethnic influences are now deeply and ineradicably embedded in the national cultural mix, and new ethnic influences are changing that mix every day. Even international ethnic influences, detached from any immigrant cohorts, are at work changing the American "national" culture. For instance, the widespread appeal of Japanese products, architecture, and food is largely unrelated to the direct influence of the small cohort of Japanese-American immigrants.

Acculturation, in the conventional understanding of the term, is largely irrelevant in a mass consumer culture to which the entire world is acculturating. Blockbuster video stores, multiscreen cineplexes, and Burger Kings are scattered across the landscape from coast to coast. Housewives in a San Antonio barrio, a Detroit ghetto, and a Westchester County suburb watch Oprah Winfrey or the O.J. Simpson trial at exactly the same time. Virtually the entire American population (and a growing share of the world's) has made at least one visit to a Disney theme park. Americans of all ethnicities have never been more acculturated than they are today. If assimilation really was the same thing as acculturation, there might be nothing to worry about.

But because it is manifestly clear that people can be acculturated without being assimilated, there is a great deal to worry about. Indeed, in most of the world's hot spots of ethnic conflict, acculturation is not an issue, but assimilation is. Religion aside, Bosnia's Serbs, Croatians, and Muslims are acculturated to the same cultural base, as are Northern Ireland's Catholics and Protestants. But the ethnic conflicts of Bosnia and Northern Ireland transcend acculturation and religion and would not disappear even in the face of mass religious conversion. They owe their virulence to the absence of all the other aspects of the assimilation typology.

Conversely, people can be assimilated without being acculturated. The strangely dressed Hasidim of Brooklyn, the devout Mormons of Utah, and the insular Chinese Americans of San Francisco's Chinatown are incompletely acculturated to contemporary American cultural norms, but they are very much assimilated.

Not only is acculturation not synonymous with assimilation, it can dangerously distract attention from the absence of true assimilation. That is why people in the United States cannot fathom the deep ethnic hatreds of a Bosnia or Northern Ireland today or the murderous anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s that was unleashed against the most acculturated Jews in Europe.

One can see many examples of acculturation without assimilation in the United States itself. Several of the Arab-born perpetrators of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City were actually highly acculturated to American society. The sister of one of the ringleaders is quoted as saying about her brother: "We always considered him a son of America. He was always saying 'I want to live in America forever.'" Here, obviously, is a man who, though sufficiently acculturated, was thoroughly unassimilated. His unwillingness to identify with the United States as a nation, rather than as a culture, led him to participate in a murderous anti-American act. Even Timothy J. McVeigh, the alleged perpetrator of the much more devastating bombing of the Oklahoma City federal office building, is, in his own way, an example of someone who is an acculturated but unassimilated American. McVeigh claims that he is only anti-government, not anti-American. But the research and testimony emerging since he was apprehended suggest a man motivated by hatred of America's ethnic diversity and of the American Idea's universalist principles that generated and legitimated that ethnic diversity. McVeigh's case illustrates how national unity–the key output of true assimilation–depends on the commitment of natives, as much as immigrants, to what Gordon called "civic assimilation."

On a much more mundane level and with fewer harmful consequences, one sees acculturation without assimilation among such immigrants as Dominicans in New York, who refuse to think of the United States as their permanent national home. Most Dominican youngsters in New York speak accent-free English and are very much at ease in the cultural matrix of New York and the United States. Their parents still speak accented English and Spanish among themselves, but they are far more acculturated than were the Jews and Italians on New York's Lower East Side a few generations ago. But as Luis Guarnizo documented in his study of the New York Dominican community, whether they are more acculturated or less acculturated, a disturbingly large number of Dominicans see New York and America as only a temporary way station–a place to make some money. They plan to return to their native Dominican Republic as soon as they have saved enough. In the meantime, they constantly travel back and forth, undermining the stability of an assimilationist social order.

The confusion between acculturation and assimilation is no mere terminological quibble, because the muddling of that distinction has been one of the most durable pegs on which the enemies of assimilation have hung their arguments for keeping the United States permanently divided along ethnic lines. In the 30 years since Gordon wrote Assimilation in American Life, there has been an explosion of studies on immigration, ethnicity, and assimilation in America. Many of the researchers have been dedicated to proving that assimilation isn't occurring, perhaps that it never did occur, and that such assimilation as may have occurred was a much more ragged and painful process than Gordon and other theorists of assimilation have laid out. By pointing to the supposed failure of assimilation, they have hoped to provide intellectual support for cultural pluralism and political support for the policies of ethnic federalism.

But the revisionists are wrong. By confusing assimilation with acculturation, they have missed two fundamental points. Ethnically diverse Americans do not have to be alike to be assimilated. And as the ethnic historian Stephen Thernstrom pointed out, "We can best appreciate the significance of assimilation in American history by taking as our standard of reference other multiethnic societies around the globe." By those standards, assimilation in the United States has been a monumental triumph, which is clear in how successfully the United States has functioned, not just economically but socially. The interethnic amity of American society, enviable by world standards, sustained for centuries in the face of an ethnic diversity literally unmatched anywhere else, needs to be explained. The only plausible explanation lies in the United States' unique formula for assimilation.

Peter D. Salins (psalins@hegira.hunter.cuny.edu) is chairman of the department of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. This article is excerpted from Assimilation, American Style, by Peter D. Salins. Copyright ©1997 by Basic Books. Published by arrangement with Basic Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.