Do We Really Want Immigrants to Assimilate?

Peter Skerry

A few years ago Nathan Glazer posed the question: “Is Assimilation Dead?” His answer was yes, more or less—certainly as a national ideal or policy objective, though he stressed that assimilation remains an ongoing social process. While I certainly agree with Glazer that assimilation persists as a social reality, I strongly disagree that it is dead as a national ideal or policy objective. To be sure, assimilation is moribund among many of our elites, especially ethnic, racial, and minority group leaders. But as an animating force in our communities and in our national life, assimilation is alive and well.

I base this judgment not only on the available social science evidence (some of which I will review here), but also on the views and opinions of ordinary Americans whom I encounter as I travel about the country. I would also point to Peter D. Salins’s widely noted Assimilation, American Style (1997). That Salins, an academic economist, wrote this book under the auspices of the Manhattan Institute and The New Republic attests to the persistence of the assimilation idea even among some of our elites.

Yet if assimilation endures as an idea, it is a very confused and muddled one. “Assimilation” has become part of the liturgy of our civil religion, and like any liturgy, we repeat it without often pausing to consider what we mean by it. I will argue here that when Americans say they want immigrants to assimilate, they may think they know what they want, but in fact they don’t understand the concept or its place in our history. Indeed, if Americans better understood the process of assimilation, they might well ask for something else.

This confusion is highlighted by the contradictory assertions we hear about the assimilation of newcomers. Immigrant leaders and advocates claim that America is a racist society that will not allow “people of color” to become part of the mainstream of American life. Alternatively, it is argued that the assimilation of such individuals into that mainstream is an insidious process that robs them of their history and self-esteem. No one ever bothers to explain how both claims can be true.

Echoing immigrant leaders, nativists and restrictionists also argue that today’s newcomers are not assimilating. Yet as I will argue here, there is abundant evidence that they are. How can so many Americans be mistaken about such a relatively easily verified and fundamental aspect of our national life?

What I propose is to scrutinize what is typically understood by the term assimilation and then contrast it with a more adequate conceptualization of the process. I will be particularly concerned to highlight how assimilation has been bowdlerized such that we conceive of it as a benign step toward social peace and harmony, when in fact it generates new social problems and strains.

If you were to ask the average person on the street what is meant by “assimilation,” he or she would say something about immigrants fitting into American society without creating undue problems for themselves or for those already here. In Assimilation, American Style Peter Salins presents a considerably more thoughtful, though in my opinion incorrect, version of this common sense view of assimilation. Salins argues that an implicit contract has historically defined assimilation in America. As he puts it: “Immigrants would be welcome as full members in the American family if they agreed to abide by three simple precepts”:

First, they had to accept English as the national language.

Second, they were expected to live by what is commonly referred to as the Protestant work ethic (to be self-reliant, hardworking, and morally upright).

Third, they were expected to take pride in their American identity and believe in America’s liberal democratic and egalitarian principles.

Though hardly exhaustive, these three criteria certainly get at what most Americans consider essential to successful assimilation. But let me examine these more closely.

English as the National Language

It is not at all clear what Salins means when he insists that immigrants should “accept English as the national language.” He apparently opposes designating English our official language. Yet Salins seems to have much more in mind than immigrants just learning to speak English, which is what most Americans focus on. Unfortunately, he never really elaborates.

Perhaps Salins understands that one can speak English but nevertheless remain emotionally attached to a second language—even, or perhaps especially—when one does not speak it. For example, the evidence is that immigrants and especially their children learn to speak English (even if they don’t necessarily learn to write it). Yet battles over English acquisition persist. Why?

One reason is that English typically replaces the language of one’s immigrant parents and grandparents. As a result, linguistic assimilation sometimes fuels efforts to regain the language and heritage that has been lost. I am reminded of a young Mexican American I met in Corpus Christi, Texas. Having just completed his first semester at Yale, this young man was pleased to be at home for the Christmas holidays and eager to tell an Anglo visitor from back East about his Mexican heritage. Since he had grown up 150 miles from the Mexican border, I assumed this fellow was more or less fluent in Spanish. So, when I happened to inquire, I was surprised to hear him suddenly lower his voice. No, he replied, he did not speak Spanish, but he considered the language a critical part of the Mexican culture he fervently wanted to hold onto. For this reason, I was assured, he would see to it that his future children would learn Spanish before English. Shortly thereafter, we parted. So I never had the chance to ask him how he intended to teach his children a language he himself did not speak.


It’s easy to poke fun at this fellow, but efforts to recapture parts of a heritage that have been lost do not reflect mere adolescent confusion. Many Latino politicians and public figures grew up speaking only English, but have subsequently learned Spanish in order to maintain their leadership of a growing immigrant community.

A more subtle and intriguing example is the career of Selena, the Tejano singer who has emerged as a cultural icon among Mexican Americans since being murdered by a fan in 1995. The tragedy of Selena is that having conquered the Spanish-language Tejano music world, she died just as she was about to cross over to the English-language market. The irony of Selena is that she was raised (in Corpus Christi, it so happens) speaking English and had to learn Spanish in order to become a Tejano star.

Further evidence that English acquisition does not necessarily lead to the positive outcomes we expect, emerges from recent ethnographic research on the school performance of Latino adolescents. Several such studies report that although newly arrived students experience significant adjustment problems attributable to their rural backgrounds, inadequate schooling, and poor English-language skills, their typically positive attitudes contribute to relative academic success. Yet among Latino students born in the United States, the opposite is often the case. Despite fluency in English and familiarity with American schools, many such students are prone to adopt an adversarial stance toward school and a cynical anti-achievement ethic.

My point is obviously not that learning English is to be avoided. But insofar as it reflects assimilation into contemporary minority youth culture, English acquisition is not an unmixed blessing. In the words of a veteran high school teacher, “As the Latino students become more American, they lose interest in their school work…. They become like the others, their attitudes change.”

As for the Protestant work ethic of self-reliance, hard work, and moral rectitude, there is certainly evidence that some immigrants have been adopting it. A recent study by the RAND Corporation reveals that Japanese, Korean, and Chinese immigrants enter with wages much lower than those of native-born workers, but within 10 to 15 years these newcomers have reached parity with the native-born. On the other hand, Mexican immigrants enter with very low wages and experience a persistent wage gap relative to the native-born, even after differences in education are taken into account.

Now it is not at all clear why Mexican immigrants experience this persistent gap. The RAND researchers who identified it cite several possible causes: the Mexicans’ quality of education, their English language skills, wage penalties experienced by illegal aliens, and discrimination. The RAND researchers also cite “cultural differences in attitudes toward work,” which of course speaks directly to Salins’s concern with the Protestant ethic. Yet the fact is that we just don’t know why Mexican immigrants are faring much worse than others are.

Among immigrants generally, there are other trouble signs. For example, welfare participation rates among immigrants have been climbing in recent years, though overall those rates are currently about the same as among non-immigrants. Some immigrants are clearly involved in criminal activities, though to what degree is subject to dispute. Such indicators are indeed troubling. But along with the ethnographic findings about Latino adolescents cited above, they do indicate that immigrants and their children are assimilating-but not always to the best aspects of American society.

Salins’s third assimilation criterion-taking pride in American identity and believing in our liberal democratic and egalitarian values-has typically been a difficult one for immigrants to satisfy. But the problem has for the most part been not with immigrants, but with native-born Americans’ perceptions of them.

The assimilation of newcomers has long been characterized by the emergence of new ethnic group identities in response to conditions in America. The classic example, of course, is how earlier this century European peasants left their villages thinking of themselves as Sicilians, Neapolitans, and the like, but after arriving here gradually came to regard themselves as they were regarded by Americans-as Italians. Later, they, or more likely their children and grandchildren, came to see themselves as Italian-Americans. Yet the fact that such group identities were one stage in the assin-tilation process was lost on most native-born Americans, who condemned “hyphenated Americans” and considered such group identities as a fundamental affront to America’s regime of individual rights.

Similarly today, immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia and other Spanish-speaking countries do not come to the United States thinking of themselves as “Hispanics” or “Latinos.” That is a category and a label that has come into existence here in the United States. Andjust as with European-origin groups earlier this century, Americans are troubled by this assertion of group identity and fail to understand it as one step in the assimilation process.

Still, there is one important difference between group categories like Italians earlier this century and Hispanics today. For the latter designates a racial minority group (as when we refer to “whites, blacks, and Hispanics”) that is entitled to the same controversial benefits-affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act—that black Americans have been granted. These are group-based claims of an extraordinary and unprecedented nature about which Americans have reason to be anxious.

But, once again, such group claims are in response to conditions here in the United States, specifically the incentives presented by our post-civil rights political institutions. To focus on one immigrant group-Mexican Americans-I would note that Mexicans in Mexico do not agitate for the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action. Mexicans engage in such efforts only here in the United States, and they do so because our institutions encourage them to. Perhaps even more to the point, such institutions and programs, originally established in response to the demands of black Americans, have been crafted by our political elites in the name of the very same liberal democratic and egalitarian values that Salins invokes.

Assimilation Is Multidimensional

This commentary on Salins’s three criteria leads to three overarching points about assimilation. The first is that assimilation is multidimensional. This point was made more than thirty years ago by sociologist Milton Gordon in his classic study, Assimilation in American Life. Yet academic and popular commentators alike continue to talk about whether this or that group will “assimilate,” as if assimilation were a single, coherent process when, in fact, it has several different dimensions—economic, social, cultural, and political. Even when these different facets of assimilation are acknowledged, they are typically depicted as parts of a smoothly synchronized process that operates in lock-step fashion. In particular, it is typically assumed that the social, economic, or cultural assimilation of immigrants leads directly to their political assimilation, by which is invariably meant traditional ethnic politics as practiced by European immigrants at the beginning of this century.

But as Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed many years ago in Beyond the Melting Pot, what makes sociological or economic sense for a group does not necessarily make political sense. Certainly today, what makes political sense for immigrants is often at odds with their cultural, social, and economic circumstances. Take the situation of Mexican Americans, which term I use loosely to include all Mexican-origin individuals living in the United States. As I have indicated above, there is evidence that Mexican Americans are having problems advancing economically. Nevertheless, there are other indicators—of Englishacquisition, of residential mobility, of intermarriage—demonstrating that Mexican Americans are assimilating socially, culturally, and to some extent even economically. In other words, the evidence on Mexican-American progress is mixed and, as I have already suggested, our understanding of the underlying dynamics is limited.

In order to advance politically, however, MexicanAmerican leaders downplay or even deny signs of progress and emphasize their group’s problems. More specifically, these leaders define their group as a racial minority that has suffered the same kind of systematic discrimination as have black Americans. However regrettable and divisive, this political stance is hardly irrational. Indeed, it is a response to the incentives of our post-civil rights institutions, which have brought us to the point where our political vocabulary has only one way of talking about disadvantage—in terms of race. The resulting irony is that even though Mexican Americans are assimilating along various dimensions much as other immigrants have, their political assimilation is following a very different and highly divisive path.

Assimilation Is Not Irreversible

The second point to be made about assimilation is that it is not necessarily an irreversible process. To be “assimilated” is not to have arrived at some sociological steady state. Or to borrow from historian Russell Kazal, assimilation is not “a one-way ticket to modernity.” The assimilated can and frequently do “deassimilate,” if you will. I have already offered the example of language, of how linguistically assimilated Mexican Americans who speak only English may reassert the importance of Spanish in their own and in their children’s lives.

As sociologist John Stone has noted: “There is a dialectic of fission and fusion that marks the ethnic history of most eras.” Indeed, assimilation is not a simple linear progression, but one that moves back and forth across the generations. As historian Marcus Lee Hansen put it succinctly: “what the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember.” However flawed as a precise predictor of generational differences within specific ethnic groups, Hansen’s basic insight remains valid: the process of assimilation is a dialectical one.

A case in point is intermarriage. Social scientists and laymen alike point to intermarriage as one of the most-if not the most-telling indices of social assimilation. (I myself did so above, when highlighting evidence of Mexican-American assimilation.) Yet when we cite these data for such purposes, we make large and not always justified assumptions about how the offspring of such unions will identify themselves, or be identified by others. For example, we point to blackwhite intermarriage as an indicator of a desirable amalgamation of the races. And to be sure, in this spirit the children of some such marriages now refer to themselves not as black or white, but as multiracial. Yet their numbers are small, and the fact remains that most such individuals tend to see themselves, and are seen by others, as black.

Another example of the dialectic of assimilation can be seen in the findings of the Diversity Project, a research effort at the University of California at Berkeley. Project interviewers were particularly concerned to delve into how minority undergraduates identify themselves ethnically and racially before and after arriving at Berkeley. Despite evident differences across groups, it is striking how many such students describe themselves in high school as having so assimilated into majority Anglo environments that they did not think of themselves as minority group members. It is at Berkeley where such individuals begin to see themselves differently.

The situation of Mexican-American students at Berkeley is particularly instructive. Though predominantly from working-class backgrounds, they typically speak no Spanish and are described as products of “sheltered secondary education.” One undergraduate, who did not think of herself as “a minority” or “a Mexican” before Berkeley, recounts her surprise when she got introduced as a classmate’s “Mexican friend.” Another such student reports that she was not familiar with the word “Chicano” when growing up in a predominantly Anglo community in San Luis Obispo. Another student complains to the Berkeley researchers that the student body at his Jesuit high school in Los Angeles was “pretty white washed,” that most of the Chicano students there spoke “perfect English,” and that he and they were “pretty much assimilated.” One other undergraduate, referring to his identity as a Mexican American, describes himself as being “born again here at Berkeley.”

I am struck that the rapid assimilation experienced by these students parallels what I have found in my field research throughout the Southwest. In the impoverished Rio Grande Valley, right next to the Mexican border, a prominent Mexican-American physician and Democratic Party activist expressed dismay that his grown children “think like Dallas Republicans.” In the barrios of Los Angeles, a persistent complaint is that Mexican grandmothers who speak little English have a hard time communicating with their grandchildren, who speak no Spanish. I have heard young Mexican Americans repeatedly criticize their parents for raising them to be ignorant of their Mexican heritage. Contrary to much of what we hear today, for many, though hardly all, Mexican Americans social and cultural assimilation are so thoroughgoing and rapid that the result is often a backlash, especially among the young and well educated who, like the Yale student from Corpus Christi, want desperately to recapture what they have lost-or perhaps never even had.

Assimilation Is Conflictual

The third and final point I wish to make about assimilation is that it is fraught with tension, competition, and conflict. I offered a glimpse of this when I earlier focused on the emergence of ethnic groups as part of the assimilation process. Whether we’re talking about Italians yesterday or Hispanics today, such group identities in part signal the efforts of immigrants and their offspring to secure their place in America. Such efforts have in our history almost always been contentious. It is difficult to imagine that they could be otherwise.

Stanford sociologist Susan Olzak provides systematic evidence for this assertion. Based on her study of 77 immigrant-impacted American cities from 1877 to 1914, Olzak rejects the conventional view that intergroup conflict is caused by segregation. Instead, she argues that intergroup competition and conflict resulted from occupational desegregation. In other words, tensions are caused not by the isolation of ethnic groups but by the weakening of boundaries and barriers between groups. Olzak’s perspective is consistent with the findings of Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab in The Politics of Unreason. In that study of right-wing extremism, Lipset and Raab report that anti-immigrant nativism in the United States has had as much to do with the social strains of urbanization and industrialization as with anxieties associated with economic contraction. For example, both the Know-Nothings of the 1850s and the immigration restrictionists of the 1920s flourished during periods of prosperity.

Thus, it is during periods of growth when individuals have greater opportunities to break beyond previously established group boundaries. But opportunities for more interaction also lead to opportunities for more conflict. The sociologist Kurt Lewin made this point many years ago about the consequences of advances made by Jews. The historian John Higham has similarly noted that the remarkable economic advances made by Jews in post-Civil War America resulted in the harsh social discrimination they then encountered. More recently, political scientists Bruce Cam and Roderick Kiewiet point out that while claims of economic discrimination decline steadily from first- to second- to third-generation Latinos, claims of social discrimination increase. Apparently, Latino economic advances lead to increased social contacts with non-Latinos and hence more occasions for friction. Once again, we are reminded that assimilation is a multidimensional process in which gains along one dimension may not be neatly paralleled by progress along others.

Cain and Kiewiet’s cross-generational finding should remind us that much of what drives the tension and conflict associated with assimilation concems the varying expectations of first, second, and third generation immigrants. A virtual truism of the immigration literature is that the real challenges to the receiving society arise not with the relatively content first generation, who compare their situation with what was left behind, but with the second and third generations, whose much higher expectations reflect their upbringing in their parents’ adopted home.

Thus, economist Michael Piore, a longtime student of migration, traces the labor unrest of the 1930’s to the aspirations and discontents of second-generation European immigrants to America. And this dynamic is hardly limited to foreign migrants. For Piore also points out that it was not black migrants from the South who rioted in Northern U.S. cities during the 1960s, but their childrenthat is, the second generation. In light of the foregoing, Peter Salins is profoundly wrong when he asserts: ‘@The greatest danger looming for the United States is interethnic conflict, the scourge of almost all other nations with ethnically diverse populations. Assimilation has been our country’s secret weapon in diffusing such conflict before it occurs …… To be sure, in the long term Salim is correct. But in the short and medium term he is wrong. As should be evident by now, the assimilation of newcomers and their families into American society has typically resulted in group competition and conflict. Moreover, today’s post-civil rights political institutions transform the inevitable discontents generated by assimilation into divisive racial minority grievances.

Assimilation or Racialization?

We Americans seem to have a very difficult time grasping the contentious nature of assimilation. There are several reasons for our collective obtuseness on this point. On the one hand, immigration restrictionists focus exclusively on the strife occasioned by mass immigration throughout our history. Indeed, restrictionists are so obsessed with this aspect of immigration that they overlook that immigrants did assimilate and the nation survived and even prospered.

On the other hand, immigration enthusiasts go to the opposite extreme. They focus exclusively on the successful outcome of mass immigration and totally ignore the discord and dissension along the way. For example, reading Salins one would never know that our history has been marked by nots both by and against immigrants. For that matter one would never know that Catholic schools, which Salins correctly argues promote assimilation today, were nevertheless originally established in the nineteenth century by churchmen eager to thwart the assimilation of Catholics.

My point is that both sides of this debate ignore precisely what I am arguing—that assimilation and conflict go hand in hand. But there is another reason why we Americans have such difficulty confronting these conflicts. As I have already indicated, in today’s post-civil rights environment the problems and obstacles experienced by immigrants are now routinely attributed to racial discrimination. This racialization of immigration has fundamentally altered the contours of public discourse. On the one hand, because the accepted explanation for any negative response to immigrants is “racism,” many reasonable and fair-minded individuals who might otherwise be tempted to disagree with immigration enthusiasts have been scared away from the topic. On the other hand, because racialization posits a community of interest between black Americans and immigrants who are “people of color,” obvious competition and conflict between black Americans and immigrants (especially the sizable Hispanic population) have been downplayed, ignored, or simply denied. In other words, today’s post-civil rights ideology allows us to high-mindedly rule such group competition and conflict out of bounds—such that they are not topics suitable for serious inquiry.

What can be done about this situation? To begin, we need to get beyond the romance of immigration enthusiasts as well as the melodrama of immigration alarmists. We need to introduce a sense of realism about how we think about these issues and to face up to the turmoil and strains that mass immigration imposes on our society, particularly in this postcivil rights era.

I am reminded of Robert Park, whose research on ethnic and race relations pioneered the field of sociology at the University of Chicago earlier this century. Writing to a former associate in the wake of the 1943 Detroit race riot, Park commented: “I am not quite clear in my mind that I am opposed to race riots. The thing that I am opposed to is that the Negro should always lose.”

Here are the basic elements of Park’s “race relations cycle,” which took competition and conflict (and then accommodation and finally assimilation) as the inevitable outcomes of group contact. For all the criticisms that have been justifiably directed against Park’s perspective, it did have the singular virtue of realism.

By contrast, today we recoil in hand-wringing dismay when legal immigrants are deprived of welfare benefits. Or we cry racism when law enforcement officers ferociously beat illegal aliens. Such responses may be humane and generous-minded, but they are utterly lacking in the realism of which I speak. Do we honestly believe that millions of poor, disenfranchised immigrants can be introduced into a dynamic, competitive social and political system without their interests being put at risk? If so, we bear an uncomfortable resemblance to an enthusiastic but imprudent football coach who allows inexperienced players with poor training and equipment onto the field and then reacts with surprise and shock when they get injured.

More than just realism, Park affords us a sense of the tragic dimensions of immigration. William James, one of Park’s teachers, once wrote that “progress is a terrible thing.” In that same spirit, Park likened migration to war in its potential for simultaneously fostering individual tragedy and societal progress.

As in war, the outcome of the immigration we are now experiencing is difficult to discern. And this is precisely what is most lacking in the continuing debate over immigration—a realistic appreciation of the powerful forces with which we are dealing. We have heard much in recent years about the daunting experiment we have embarked upon with welfare reform. Yet our immigration policy is arguably a social experiment of even greater import—with enormous potential benefits, but also enormous risks. None of us knows for sure how these millions of newcomers will affect the United States. Easy answers about computer scientists and welfare cheats don’t begin to help us address the enormity of this issue. And neither do ill-informed notions about assimilation.

[Author note]

Peter Skerry teaches political science at Claremont McKenna College. His book, Counting on the Census? Race, Group Identity, and the Evasion of Politics, was recently published by the Brookings Institution, where he is a senior fellow.