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.

NEXT: Brink Lindsey on the Classics of Conservatism--Traditional and Liberal Varieties

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  1. “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.”

    And not because the Catholic Church is authoritarian to begin with? That is a pretty bold statement.

    I think they are both full of shit. This is not the 19th Century. I don’t see a whole lot of parallels one way or another.

  2. With a book title like that, it’s no wonder Christina sent you an email at an internet-busting two-and-a-half grand words. (That seems like something the pope would do.)

  3. Once upon a time, the entirety of America was just like Beaver Cleaver’s street; it was a happier, simpler time, and we miss it.

    1. You’re kidding right?

  4. Ziegler-McPherson proves too much. She claims that anti-Irish measures made the Irish more radical and insular. Yet, those measures were well beyond anything that would be contemplated today. And the Irish are anything but some militant minority and the American Catholic church is the most liberal in the world.

    Or maybe she just hates the Irish.

    1. Well, in her defense, why wouldn’t she? Fucking car-bombing shitfucks.

    2. How many religious/ethnic groups are *more* assimilated than Irish Catholics? Seriously.

      1. WASPs are **WAY** more assimilated. Seriously.

        1. No, WASPs didn’t assimilate.

          1. Like hell they didnt. You dont think the Angles and the Saxons (and Jutes – not to mention the Danes and whoever the fuck else was on the island) were that similar do you?

            1. [sob] my tats were da coolest and no one even remembers us.

            2. Dude, the WASPs were here first. Everyone else assimilated into WASP culture.

      2. Hmm… seems I’ve got a shaky hand.

      3. Jews have done pretty good. In fact there is a good argument that they invented much of American’s national culture.

  5. We all hate the Irish.

  6. Gillespie, Doherty, Moynihan, Bailey’s Irish Cream, O’Welch, McMangu-Ward…hell, that’s just the obvious ones. IRA and/or Sinn Fein, every one of ’em.


    1. And, oh BTW, you know who won the World Pipe Band Championship this weekend? The Royal Scottish Pipers Society world championship?? Maybe a Scottish band? Oh no…

      St. Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band – Ireland. Second – Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band – Northern Ireland. Canadian band was third…but probably affiliated with the Irish.


      1. Quote from St. Lawrence O’Toole Pipe Band website: Our current membership includes players from Ireland, Scotland, England, Canada and South Africa.… so, hyphenated Irish?

        1. Irishmen in disguise…

      2. There was a bagpiper in a kilt playing outside an Irish bar in Madison last weekend. Confused the hell out of me.

    2. You forgot Shaquille O’Neal..

      1. Is he one of those Black Irish? 🙂

      2. And Donovan McNabb…

    3. Gillespie \= Irish

      Gillespie = Italian

      And i may be wrong but I am pretty sure the Welch sir name is Welsh.

      1. “The Gillespie name is ancient, its origins dating probably from 5th century Ireland. It is widely thought to be made up of two Gaelic words, “Filid,” a druidic bard, and “Asbuig,” a bishop. “FilidAsbuig” = Gillespie
        A Filidasbuig (the f is silent) was effectively a bishop’s clerk in early (5th to 12th century) Ireland”

        1. Lies…

          There must have been a lost Roman soldier who stumbled from a ship wreak and then got seamlessly into the business of Bishop clerkery.


          Or he must be Italian on his moms side.

  7. Both Dohout and Ziegler miss the elephant in the room; intermarriage. There is no serious Irish or anti-Catholic prejudice anymore because there was so much intermarriage. Few white Americans do not have some Catholic ancestors somewhere. Places were the races kill each other are places where they don’t marry each other. Contrast black and white relations in this country where intermarriage was verboten until 20 or so years ago and still fairly rare with Hispanic white relations where intermarriage is very common.

    1. Consider that you might be confusing cause and effect.

      1. I am think you are confusing cause and effect. People certainly hated the Irish. And it was the slow intermarriage that went a long way to lower that hatred. Granted it feeds on itself, less hatred more inter marriage with leads to less hatred and so forth.

        1. I’ll give you that there’s a feedback loop with intermarriage, but you’re resolving a chicken-or-egg problem in a way that conforms to your thesis without supplying any evidence.

          1. Show me an example of a group that did assimilate but didn’t intermarry? Unless you are claiming the groups that have assimilated somehow were not hated, I don’t see how their assimilation isn’t evidence for the value of intermarriage as a promoter of good will rather than just a symptom of such.

          2. It is funny how the existence of a feedback loop is still considered a sign of a logical inconsistency. People forget that the supposed logical contradiction of the chicken-and-the-egg nevertheless reliably produces both chickens and eggs.

            The key attribute of feedback loop is that reducing a positive feedback anywhere in the loop reduces the magnitude of the resulting output. In feedback loops, quality counts for nothing and quantity counts for everything.

            In this case, it is quite plausible that small degrees of assimilation drives slightly larger degrees of assimilation which drives an even large degree of assimilation and so on. It follows that anything that prevents intermarriage would significantly slow down assimilation.

            Miscegenation laws most likely did significantly slow down assimilation even when no other barriers may have existed. It would follow that subpopulations that themselves discouraged intermarriage would slow there own assimilation.

    2. Zieg talked about intermarriage in the longer version….

    3. I’m not seeing how marriage reduces hatred.

      But maybe that’s just me.

      1. If you hadn’t married one of your stalkers, you would probably look at it differently.

    4. Do you think so? I know Cubans and Puerto Ricans intermarry like crazy.

      1. They are breeders all right, I will give you that.

      2. It’s way more convenient when your enemy lives with your sister.

    5. John, many Serbs, Croata and Bosnians intermarried and look what happened. Intermarriage and trade are just as likely to add fuel to the ethnic fire as not. What America HAD years ago was confidence in itself, which caused newcomers to want to be a part of it. This is no longer true.

  8. Can’t we just agree that Ross is full of crap period, instead of constantly analyzing the ways he’s full of crap? It’s so much simpler, and just as accurate.

    1. Then how would we kill time?

    2. I agree. It’s how the H&R commentariat deals with you and I must admit it’s a real time saver. 😉

  9. I am afraid of anything Irish.

    As for Douthat (sp? or as we used to call him around the quad, “Douche-Hat”, oh, those were the fine days of liminality!)–he is to “historical perspective” what Howard Zinn was to “not translating the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact into Esperanto”

  10. 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

    Matt’s buddy seems to ignore language and a possible definition of discrimination. The fact was if you did not speak English or knew someone who could translate for you, you were fucked. In some circles not allowing immigrants to communicate in their native tongue is discrimination.

    The tyranny of the English speakers did force immigrants to adopt. And once that hurdle was accomplished the rest would have fallen with it.

    Note: I think assimilation for an immigrant to the united states is a far lower hurdle then for immigrants to other cultures. In most cases if you can speak English you are pretty much in. and this has been true through out its history.

  11. To clarify, when I said that the American Catholic Church was authoritarian, I was speaking of the Church as an institution before the 1970s, when the Church exerted much greater socio-cultural as well as spiritual control over American Catholics. Talk to any Catholic historian (and I mean a historian of Catholicism, not a historian who is Catholic) and they will describe for you a very hierarchical, authoritarian institution built primarily by Irish immigrants and their descendants to protect themselves against WASP discrimination and prejudice. As I explained to Welch privately, inter-marriage, both between members of different ethnic groups and between people of different faiths has been key to fostering assimilation in the U.S., both in the 19th and 20th centuries.
    My comments about the Irish and other groups were meant historically (i.e., in the 19th century), not now, in 2010. Sorry for any confusion. And no, I don’t hate the Irish.

    1. The thing is, she calls me “Welch” to my face, too.

    2. I would have liked to see your entire reply to Matt Welch, because it’s a bit hard to reply on just the snippets. However, I think that it’s fair to say that the Roman Catholic Church was very hierarchical and authoritarian long before the large Irish immigration of the mid-19th century. Most of the pre-1840 American Catholics were either English (Maryland) or French or Spanish (Louisiana, some Florida) – none of whose national RC traditions were liberal in any sense (though the English Catholics had to get along, perforce, in a militantly Protestant land).

      I would be curious to see good evidence of intermarriage between Catholics and ‘old stock’ Protestants — my recollection from my training as an historian some 40 years ago, and my own observation, is that there was strong social sanction (from both sides) against Protestant-Catholic marriages as late as the 1950s and early 1960s, at least outside of major urban centers in the East.

      In thinking about assimilation, too, I think one has to consider the role of America’s wars: both the Irish and the Germans found far greater acceptance after their significant participation in the Civil War, and some of the Eastern European immigrants began to assimilate better after the First World War (although the strong elements of socialism among some of them caused a strong backlash as well, complicating the picture). And, of course, the full integration and assimilation of the Catholic immigrants generally – the Irish and the Italians primarily, excluding only the uneducated Latin Americans, really – only came after World War II and, then, was only realized as the first wave of the Baby Boomers reached maturity.

      This is a fascinating topic.

    3. You only have to look at what the irish Catholic dominated hierarchy did when they encountered Byzantine Catholics. Two million schismed straight into Orthodoxy because respect for the immigrant and resistence to forced assimilation was only for them.

    4. And no, I don’t hate the Irish.

      I can’t imagine why not. What with their small hands. Smell like cabbage.

  12. (and I mean a historian of Catholicism, not a historian who is Catholic)

    Most excellent.

  13. “[T]he harder you push for ‘assimilation’…the more you get orthodoxy, extremism, alienation.”

    Not true. Culture wars happen just like military wars. If one side is vastly outnumbered they’ll cave to the majority if the majority presses hard enough, though they may go down kicking and screaming. If it’s split more-or-less evenly, she’s probably right…more push = more division.

    1. We disagree.

  14. Some of her argument against pressure to ‘assimilate’ is a multi-culti straw man, only correct if you take ‘asimilate’ to mean ‘blend in 100%’.

    ‘Assimilate’ in terms of accepting the basic ideas of being American (work hard, be responsible, don’t try to make things here too like the shithole you left) was absolutely necessary for prior immigrant’s long term success — and is precisely what the multi-culti left has been pooh-poohing for 40 years, as they want to erase the distinction between citizen and resident-consuming-govt-services.

  15. Amazing to me how little everybody’s touching on muslims and why they’re a special case. Islamic jurisprudence, especially its “no exit from Islam” clause is unamerican. If you reserve the right to run your own court system, a system that can issue the death penalty to me for exercising my free speech and religious rights, then we’ve got ourselves a problem, one that’s not going to go away.

    If Islam had a hierarchical priesthood, you could sign a treaty, like we do with the Catholic Church, to regulate how the institution interfaces with the US state and what is and is not going to happen on our territory. But they’re not hierarchical so we can’t do it. Islam’s going to have to make its peace with the US and much of it already has in practice. The remaining fraction is large enough to already be dangerous and could grow if we don’t watch it.

    1. The lack of a Pope or an Emperor who can tell Muslims to “endure the unendurable” and expect to be obeyed makes the second of Wretchard’s Three Conjectures more likely than not.

  16. She totally overlooks any understanding of “values” assimilation in the sense that regardless of the group they understood that success was based on working harder, learning the language, etc… and a firm belief that their kids would have an opporunity to do better only if they became more “american”

  17. I think Ziegler-McPherson is playing rather loose with the facts:

    (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…

    I kind of doubt that for the simply reason that many areas in America have communities or parts of communities that trace their origins back to so many different European groups. E.g. Central Texas was populated by Scotts-Irish, Germans, Czecks and Mexicans. In the late 1800s, central Texas was noted as a region in which you could expect to hear four or more languages spoken on the streets of small towns. Well into the late 1800s most immigrants ended up in the country. We were after all a primarily agricultural society. The Irish came to America first to build roads, canals and railroads out in the sticks. The settled in migratory shanty towns.

    I think the idea that the cities where the sole melting pots is just regional and class observational bias. Historians tend to be upper class urbanites so that is the history they see.

    (2)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. […]

    Well, no, the Catholic Church was an authoritarian institution in the 19th and 20th centuries because it had been one for nearly a millennia and saw no reason to change. The Catholic Church took a dim view of democracy until the late 1800s and even afterward clearly preferred more traditional, hierarchal/authoritarian societies to open liberal-democracies. Its history is complex but to say that American anti-Catholic sentiment had anything to do with the authoritarianism of the Catholic church is plain silly. That is especially true without mentioning that the origins of of anti-Catholic sentiment was owing in no small part to the Catholic Church’s very real hostility to liberal-democracy and religious pluralism.

    I think that argument is more a knee-jerk, “lets blame everything bad that ever was on WASP” argument so much beloved by contemporary academia

    (3) Post-WWI restrictions were separate from the Americanization movement and were not designed to encourage assimilation…

    It is true that the pseudo-scientific secular racism of the era played a role in restricting immigration in the 1920s but it also very clear in historical context that racial theories were the rationalization for and not the actual cause of the exclusions.

    In all cases, the primary drivers for the politics of immigration restriction have always been working class natives who see immigrants as unfair economic competition. Racially exclusive immigration laws in the West date back to the 1840s, long before scientific racism arose. Asians were excluded because they outworked Anglos and Hispanics and for a long time it was easier to get from China to California than it was to get there from anywhere in the Atlantic. Racist claims were used to prevent Anglos and Hispanics from being swamped by desperate and hardworking Asians fleeing the oppression of their native lands.

    We see the same pattern today in which native working class whites and African-Americans are those most strongly opposed to illegal immigration. Everybody else has only an abstract interest in the real and imagined problems of immigration. Working class natives are the ones who pay for immigration out of their pockets. We can certainly say that immigration provides a long term benefit to everybody but short term it reduces the wages of the poor and working class and they form the electoral core of all anti-immigration movements. (They were also the primary support for Jim Crow laws which had the same economic motivation.)

    In general, I think it self-evident that xenophobia, especially the subtle kind of minor avoidance, played a key role in driving assimilation. It’s just the free-market in action. Even today people learn to suppress mere regional accents to make themselves more employable. The economic pressure to conform would have been even stronger in the past.

    I think the appearance of counter-assimulation immigrants groups in response to xenophobia was insignificant. I think they appear in history only because they are more visible to historians than the much larger number of people quietly assimilating out of economic self-interest.

    If this isn’t true, then we would have to presume that the decision to use public schools to explicitly indoctrinate immigrant children with American language and values in fact backfired and slowed assimilation when all evidence points to the contrary.

    I think that recurrent waves of anti-immigration sentiment and the resulting throttling off of immigration allowed America to absorb large numbers of immigrants without generating major backlash that would have reduced immigration even more and for longer periods. When immigrants had lowered the incomes of native workers, the natives could suppress the economic competition via political means. Without that throttling mechanism, immigration could have led to serious violence and perhaps permanent bans.

    I find it interesting that the very people who claim to be the most proud of America’s ability to absorb a higher proportion of immigrants than any country in history nevertheless are very keen to disrupt all the real-world mechanisms that made that assimilation possible: free-association, immigration throttling, emersion and political-values education and, most importantly, the free-market.

    In the end, the immigration strategy supported by many today has absolutely nothing in common with the one we’ve used successfully for centuries. When they point to the past for an example, they’re pointing to intellectual mythology that ignores the very real and often rather ugly, sources of our success.

  18. Matt Welch categorically dismisses the notion that the carrot-and-stick approach to molding human and animal behavior somehow doesn’t apply in this single case.

    I am not talking about serious oppression, or “xenophobia,” but penalties for violating general social mores – penalties like, for example, not getting or keeping a job; or not being able to buy a home in a nice neighborhood outside the immigrant ghetto – can have positive effects for assimilation.

    Of course nowadays the government has outlawed many of those traditional means of approbation; has oulawed, one could say, the RIGHT of a businessman to hire and fire whoever the hell he wants. These moral expectations are seldom imposed on the recent, unassimilated populations, however – giving them more rights than Americans in the majority, just as they effectively have more say over our immigration policies (via family reunification) than we do.

    The world has been turned upside down. Or at least my country has.

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

    Which is why speaking French to an Alsatian will get you backhanded to this very day.

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