The Golden Age of Assimilation?

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UPI's Jim Bennett pens a reasonable-sounding column about immigration politics and the recall, in which he echoes a common immigration-reform sentiment by lamenting the passing of the Good Old Days of hard-headed assimilation.

As a response to these [immigration-related] challenges, many reformers and activists of that era [1890-1920] expended much effort on integrating immigrant groups, fighting the crime, poverty, and corruption that came with them, and in promoting an assimilationist agenda. This effort was in the end successful, culminating perhaps in the successes of World Wars I and II, where Americans of every immigrant group, including nationals of the states with which America was at war, gave a high degree of support to the war effort, and receiving in return a genuine acceptance from the general population.

This may be partially true, but it's also partially true that many non-whites (and Jews) received in return racist housing codes preventing them from living in "good" neighborhoods.

In my neighborhood of Los Feliz, which has been a bedroom community for Hollywood liberals since the days of Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille, the local residents association went bonkers with a "Race Restrictions Committee" during the glory days of 1943-47, which energized members like no campaign before or since. "If non-Caucasians permeate the district, the high class residential character would be seriously affected," the association warned, while banning darker pigments from owning or renting in the 'hood. This, of course, was "in no sense derogatory or prejudicial toward any race ? the purpose of reestablishing the restrictions was to maintain the high residential character of the area and to prevent a decrease in property values."

In California's colorful history, sensible non-multiculti discussion about immigration has led, frequently, to illiberal and immoral public policy, including (but not limited to) the mass 1930s expulsion of Hispanics, a large percentage of whom were born in the United States. The Good Old Days, as usual, weren't nearly as good as all that. (Link via Instapundit)

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  1. I felt as if I was being raked over the coals at a Wellesley College symposium on the injustices of the United States, 1914-present.

    Relax…sensible immigration reform will not lead to another mass-expulsion of Hispanics. Nor will it lead to racist “housing codes.” It will however, attempt to deal with the massive impact on CA’s state budget & infrastructure that illegals represent.

    I’m sure the beautiful people in Beverly Hills & Mailbu will be able to keep their gardening & landscaping help.

  2. L.A. Conf — I’m not at all suggesting that we are doomed to repeat bad history. I’m simply reacting to a column that paints a rosy picture of an assimilationist past by pointing out that it wasn’t so rosy. If someone portrayed the past as an unrelieved nightmare of Klansmen-style horror, I would do (and have done) likewise.

  3. Matt Welch,

    Remember the “Double V!” Victory abroad against fascism, and victory at home against racism!

    Anyway, the analysis that Matt has so successfully eviscerated is simply typical of the historical amnesia that humans are prone to as a species – well that and the results of the American education system. And before you claim that I am a French hypocrite, I will readily admit that that France has had its own historical amnesia about WWII (dealt with fairly successfully as far as school textbooks and scholarly works are concerned) and Algeria (still in the process of being dealt with)

  4. Similar posts about this vary issue in the “Wrinkles In Rationality” thread: https://www.reason.com/mt/mt-comments.cgi?entry_id=2594

    I had a big post there, so will not take to making another one on the exact same point here.

    All these politicians seem to be entirely ignorant of the experience of growing up under two inevitably different cultures (unless one somehow thinks people who come here can somehow instantly purge their mind of their old culture and uncritically accept whatever culture their community has at the time – which is both impossible and hardly a desirable thing to do). Every ‘new’ group to the US has such very real problems, going all the way back before there even was a United States to begin with, or even a 13 Colonies, and all the way throughout all of human history.

    The historical and cultural ignorance of some people never fails to astound. In the words of HL Mencken (sp), “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me!”

    Ugh.

  5. Plutarck,

    I think an excellent example are the Germans who migrated to the piedmont areas of the US South; their primary language and culture continued to be German well into the 19th century (that is for over a hundred years).

  6. Yeah, but we’uns dun learn a tawk raht nayow.

  7. It will however, attempt to deal with the massive impact on CA’s state budget & infrastructure that illegals represent.

    I dissagree. If anything, “illegal” immigrants are propping up the California budget (and the budget of the US). There is a huge population of workers, who get taxes deducted out of their paychecks for services that they will never qualify for because of their immigration status.

  8. Heather, many illegals pay no taxes out of their paychecks because this will make them visible to the apparatus of the state. Many illegals work strictly on a cash basis, which doesn’t negate their economic contributions (and which leaves them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation). I would be interested in seeing any research on this issue, if anyone knows of any.

    In addition, illegals do find quite a few ways to draw on the public fisc. Their access to health care and education, for example, is unobstructed by law. These just happen to be the two biggest single line items in any state’s budget. They also impose just as great a burden on the state’s police, fire, and infrastructure as any other person.

  9. Matt:

    I’m still rolling this issue around in my head, but I seem to be missing something in your argument.

    Are you criticizing assimilationist policies by discussing the bad things that happened when they were _not_ applied?

    Or, are you claiming that the expulsion of Hispanics and de facto segregation of Jews was a consequence of the assimilationist policies? If so, what’s the connection?

    If you argue that the refusal of certain immigrant groups to assimilate caused those groups to run afoul of the assimilationist policies and the public who supported them, well, then, that was kinda the point, eh?

  10. But illegals have to live somewhere, and unless they’re squatting in public parks, they’re paying property taxes indirectly. They also pay sales taxes, excise taxes, etc. They also aren’t privvy to minimum wage.

    It might even be that if services such as education were all private, there might actually be less immigration, one less freebie to take advantage of. (Though it probably just would mean less education across the board. Then again, how could you tell??)

    Other than passing some lame constitution test and some phoney “swearing in”, what’s really so “leagal” about legal immigration and what’s the advantage? Illegal aliens are the true libertarians!

  11. What some people choose to forget about the long period of high immigration before 1920 is that it was followed by a long period of relatively low immigration, lasting roughly to 1965. This had an appreciable impact on the assimilation question.

    Does this have implications for our situation today? I think it very likely does. Assimilation is bound to be a different process if the pool of immigrants from is continually refreshed on a large scale. Moreover, during slack economic periods large populations of people obviously foreign, different in language, religion and customs from native-born Americans can be a significant source of social tension. We have been fortunate enough to avoid this so far.

    This isn’t say that immigration is bad, or even that all immigration is the same, only that immigration restrictions in the past did serve a useful purpose — and that the idea that unrestricted immigration into the indefinite future must be a good thing rests wholly on faith, not on history or empirical evidence.

  12. buzz harsher,

    Matt is saying that the assimilation picture painted by Jim Bennett is a tad too bright and that there were certain groups (jews, african-americans etc) who were NOT allowed to assimilate.
    Possibly he thinks that there are “immigration reformers” out there whose motives are other than to assimilate immigrants, their disingenuous rhetoric nowithstanding.

  13. Buzz Harsher — At the risk of being a literalist, I suggest you read both my post and my follow-up comment literally. In a column of note, the past was portrayed, in my view, better than it actually was, and I thought it might be useful to point that out. Were the assimilationist policies better in 1913 than 2003? I really don’t have an idea, but I would tend to doubt it, given the higher levels of sanctioned and/or tolerated bias against non-majority groups back then. It’s tough to assimilate people when you are legally discriminating against them.

  14. The State should promote neither “assimilation” nor “diversity.” Ethnicity and language are matters of personal choice; at the same time, the individual should bear the consequences of inability to function in a majority society.

    This has always been a society with a wide variety of ethnic enclaves: the Dutch in the Hudson valley; the Germans in western Pennsylvania; the St. John’s River French in northern Maine; the Cajuns in Louisiana. Hispanics are relative late-comers.

    If people are free to choose, and also responsible for the consequences of their choices, society will regulate itself.

  15. When it came to Asian immigrants, the Chinese Exclusion Act assisted assimilation by ensuring there were few immigrants to assimilate. This act was passed in 1882 and made permanent in 1902; it wasn’t fully repealed until 1943:

    http://www.ourdocuments.gov/content.php?page=learn_more&doc=47

    Also keep in mind the Alien Land Laws, which helped ensure that the few Asian immigrants who did reside in California could not own land:

    http://www.santacruzpl.org/history/ww2/9066/land.shtml

    Keep in mind that this law applied to ALL Asians. Also keep in mind that these laws were strengthened during WWII, which is supposed to be the apex of Bennett’s golden era of assimilation.

  16. I note that Bennett, when discussing the assimilationist efforts of the period 1890-1920, makes no mention of the extreme nastiness that took place during the US’s participation in WWI. German-Americans, Irish-Americans, and other “ethnics” mostly opposed American entry into that war. They received in return, not “genuine acceptance”, but baseless accusations of disloyalty, government harassment and surveillance, and violent attacks at the hands of nativist vigilantes. This led many to at least pretend to assimilate culturally, out of fear for their lives and livelihoods. Not exactly the picture of benign and peaceful assimilation that Bennett paints.

  17. Yes, I do realize that the previous commenter made the same points. No, I didn’t read that comment thoroughly before posting. Yes, I’m inobservant. Sigh.

  18. Good point, Kevin. If Mexico wants to flood California, in the hopes of fulfilling MechA’s “Aztlan” fantasy, who are we to stop the individuals who come to the U.S. to make it happen…

  19. > “This [assimilationist] effort was in the end successful, culminating perhaps in the successes of World Wars I and II…”

    One could say with greater historical accuracy that it culminated in the anti-German hysteria of 1917 (effectively suppressing what had been the largest non-native-English immigrant subculture)… the Palmer Raids “red scare”… and the immigration restrictions of 1921-24, which reduced immigration to negligible levels for two generations.

    I don’t have a pro- or anti-assimilationist brief — but I do think that if we’re going to get all misty remembering the Great Immigration of 1880-1920, lifting the torch beside the golden door, etc., we should also remember that that period ended with one hell of a backlash.

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