Is Xenophobia Helpful in Assimilating Immigrants?


Thanks for helping with the assimilation!

Earlier today Nick Gillespie linked to a Ross Douthat New York Times op-ed making the case that both sides of the "Ground Zero mosque" debate represent two basic strains of American attitudes about pluralism and assimilation, and that both continue to have something positive to offer the country. Such John Edwards-style reductionism inevitably sends off alarm bells, but this paragraph in particular smelled funny to me:

[B]oth understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment's success. During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture — and the threat of discrimination if they didn't — was crucial to their swift assimilation. The post-1920s immigration restrictions were draconian in many ways, but they created time for persistent ethnic divisions to melt into a general unhyphenated Americanism.

When he first came to New London he was only 16

Is this true? To find out I asked an old college newspaper buddy of mine, the immigration historian Christina Ziegler-McPherson, who is author of a recent book called Americanization in the States: Immigrant Social Welfare Policy, Citizenship, and National Identity in the United States, 1908-1929. She e-mailed me back 2,500 words; thought I'd pass along a few of them:

Douthat is full of crap in several ways:

1. […] [F]or much of the 19th century, except in the big cities like New York, immigrants and natives had little contact and less competition with one another, because the country was growing and was so physically big. […]

This is not to discount the nativism (i.e. the Know Nothing party) of the mid-1850s but that was a city phenomenon and was driven mostly by anti-Catholicism inspired by famine Irish immigration. Some people didn't like "clannish" Germans but as long as they weren't Catholic, no one complained as much. Nativism in the mid-19th century was basically an anti-Irish phenomenon. AND, in some ways, it wasn't anti-immigrant, just anti-Catholic, and sought to slow down the integration of immigrants into the polity (i.e., by requiring a much longer period of residency before naturalization, and this was as much an elite anti-machine politics idea as anti-Irish or anti-immigrant).

Also, there was no real "national" culture until after the Civil War (and this developed gradually with industrialism and the spread of a mass media and eventually mass consumption) so there could be no "insistence" on immigrants assimilating. Who the heck is he talking about? […]

I won't lie -- I LOVE looking at this stuff

2. Nativism, and some aspects of the Americanization movement of the WWI period (especially the more coercive stuff) has always had the effect of making immigrants cling more tightly to their cultures, their languages, traditions. This is both basic psychology and is historically accurate and can be documented for many groups.

Any attack on religion (which frankly, is what anti-Muslim talk is, it's not anti-ethnic, because there's no ethnic group called "Muslim") encourages more orthodoxy, not less, and is totally counter-preductive, because of the 1st Amendment. The American Catholic Church became the authoritarian institution that it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries in large part because of Anglo-American Protestants insisting that Protestantism and Americanism were synonymous and attacking Irish Catholics. […]

[T]he harder you push for "assimilation"…the more you get orthodoxy, extremism, alienation.

3. Post-WWI restrictions were separate from the Americanization movement and were not designed to encourage assimilation (although a few people did realize that assimilation might happen if immigrants were cut off from rejuvenating contact with their home cultures). The 1924 and 1929 restrictions were explicitly racist (and I mean that in the 19th century biological sense, as in, we don't want our blood being contaminated by alien blood which is different and is incompatible with ours.)…Eugenics heavily influenced the 1924 and 1929 acts and eugenicists were the statisticians who determined the specific quotas for each group. […]

The problem of course with Douthat, besides that he has no idea about what he's talking about, is he's so vague. When in the 19th century? Which groups? Where? What created these "persistent ethnic divisions"? Are these institutional, cultural, created by policy? Who the heck can tell?

More on the topic from Alex Knapp. Read Ziegler-McPherson's book here. Reason on immigration here.