Steve King was half right. Im­mi­grants do change the cul­ture.

Jour­nal­ist Tom Gjel­ten says we re­vised our self-con­cep­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Tom Gjel­ten, a cor­re­spon­dent for NPR News, is the au­thor of “A Na­tion of Na­tions: A Great Amer­i­can Immigration Story.” Twit­ter: @tg­jel­ten

Rep. Steve King’s tweet this past week in de­fense of Geert Wilders, the anti-im­mi­grant Dutch politi­cian, won the Iowa Repub­li­can praise from white su­prem­a­cists but a put-down from his col­leagues. “Wilders un­der­stands that cul­ture and de­mo­graph­ics are our des­tiny,” King wrote. “We can’t re­store our civ­i­liza­tion with some­body else’s ba­bies.” Jeff Kauf­mann, the Iowa Repub­li­can chair­man, ap­peared to speak for the con­sen­sus in an­swer­ing the ugly no­tion that chil­dren of for­eign-born par­ents are not quite Amer­i­can. “We are a na­tion of im­mi­grants, and di­ver­sity is the strength of any na­tion and any com­mu­nity,” Kauf­mann said.

But in one small way, King was on to some­thing: Immigration does change a na­tion’s cul­ture. It has al­tered Amer­ica’s na­tional iden­tity, and the trans­for­ma­tion has been stress­ful.

Fifty years ago, only about 5 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion was for­eign-born, and the new­com­ers were al­most en­tirely from Europe. The 1965 Immigration and Na­tion­al­ity Act opened Amer­ica’s doors to peo­ple of all na­tion­al­i­ties, with dra­matic ef­fect. By 2010, im­mi­grants made up about 13 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion,

and 9 of 10 were com­ing to Amer­ica from out­side Europe. Th­ese Asian, African, Mid­dle Eastern and His­panic im­mi­grants bring rich di­ver­sity to Amer­i­can mu­sic, ar­chi­tec­ture, cui­sine and sports; they con­trib­ute might­ily to growth and in­no­va­tion in science, tech­nol­ogy, medicine and other sec­tors of the econ­omy.

They have also forced us to re­vise our think­ing about what it means to be­come Amer­i­can. Gone is the “melt­ing pot” idea, with its as­sump­tion that im­mi­grants can be­come in­dis­tin­guish­able from na­tives. This is not a con­ces­sion to some po­lit­i­cally cor­rect cel­e­bra­tion of dif­fer­ences; no mat­ter how will­ing Nige­rian Amer­i­cans or Korean Amer­i­cans may be to melt into the broader pop­u­la­tion, they can­not change the color of their skin. Pa­tri­otic Mus­lims and Sikhs can’t do any­thing about a re­li­gious her­itage that does not fit with the no­tion of a Chris­tian Amer­ica.

The more di­verse im­mi­grant in­flux of re­cent decades has brought new life to an old de­bate over Amer­ica’s na­tional iden­tity. From the time of its found­ing, the United States has been a na­tion de­fined, at least in the­ory, by a po­lit­i­cal ideal rather than by a par­tic­u­lar peo­ple. John Quincy Adams said that Amer­i­cans “look for­ward to their posterity rather than back­ward to their an­ces­tors.” The French travel writer Alexis de Toc­queville ob­served that Amer­i­cans in this re­gard were “quite ex­cep­tional” com­pared to Old World Euro­peans.

That un­der­stand­ing of the Amer­i­can na­tion was not re­ally tested, how­ever, be­cause in prac­tice the coun­try ex­isted only as a slightly more open Euro­pean state. Di­ver­sity in early Amer­ica meant the pres­ence of Ger­man im­mi­grants in ad­di­tion to the British and French who had ar­rived ear­lier. The lim­its of that idealized iden­tity be­came ap­par­ent when the im­mi­grant pat­tern di­verged from the original pro­file, first with the ar­rival of a largely poor Ir­ish pop­u­la­tion, then with Chi­nese la­bor­ers, and fi­nally with a big in­flux of South­ern and Eastern Euro­peans.

Each new wave was met with hos­til­ity. A Mas­sachusetts of­fi­cial, writ­ing in 1857, in­formed the state leg­is­la­ture that the Ir­ish im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion was char­ac­ter­ized by “wretched­ness, beg­gary, drunk­en­ness, de­ceit, ly­ing, treach­ery, mal­ice, su­per­sti­tion.” Chi­nese im­mi­grants in Cal­i­for­nia com­peted with white, Mex­i­can and black work­ers and faced vi­o­lent at­tacks as a result.

The Har­vard-trained lawyer Prescott Hall, co-founder of the Immigration Re­stric­tion League, posed this ques­tion in 1897: “Do we want this coun­try to be peo­pled by British, Ger­man, and Scan­di­na­vian stock, his­tor­i­cally free, en­er­getic, pro­gres­sive, or by Slav, Latin,

With a more di­verse ar­ray of new­com­ers, gone is the “melt­ing pot” idea, with its as­sump­tion that im­mi­grants can be­come just like na­tives.

and Asi­atic races, his­tor­i­cally down­trod­den, atavis­tic, and stag­nant?” Congress of­fered an an­swer in 1924 by en­act­ing na­tional-ori­gin quo­tas, al­low­ing North­ern and Western Euro­peans vir­tu­ally un­lim­ited en­try while re­strict­ing immigration op­por­tu­ni­ties for South­ern and Eastern Euro­peans and ef­fec­tively ex­clud­ing Asians, Africans and Mid­dle Eastern­ers.

That pol­icy was hugely dis­ap­point­ing to those who clung to a more idealized def­i­ni­tion of the Amer­i­can na­tion, like Mau­rice Sa­muel, a nov­el­ist who was born in Ro­ma­nia but raised in Bri­tain and the United States. “If Amer­ica had any mean­ing at all,” he wrote, “it lay in the pe­cu­liar at­tempt to rise above the trend of our present civ­i­liza­tion — the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of race with State.”

In 1952, af­ter Congress passed a new immigration law up­hold­ing the na­tional-ori­gin quo­tas and then over­rode a veto, Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man es­tab­lished a com­mis­sion to re­view the coun­try’s immigration pol­icy. The com­mis­sion’s re­port, ti­tled “Whom We Shall Wel­come,” con­cluded that “na­tional uni­for­mity” was nei­ther de­sir­able nor nec­es­sary, be­cause “an out­stand­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of the United States is its great cul­tural di­ver­sity within an over­rid­ing na­tional unity.”

When the na­tional-ori­gin quo­tas were abol­ished 13 years later, the United States was ready to test whether it could fi­nally live up to its found­ing promise as a na­tion de­fined in­de­pen­dently of race, eth­nic­ity, re­li­gion or na­tional ori­gin. Within a few decades, the chal­lenges were ap­par­ent: Not only were the post-1965 im­mi­grants com­ing from dif­fer­ent parts of the world, there were many more of them. Immigration over the pre­ced­ing four decades had slowed to a trickle, giv­ing the as­sim­i­la­tion process more time to work. Now the phe­nom­e­non was ac­cel­er­at­ing. Sep­a­rate im­mi­grant iden­ti­ties were con­stantly re­in­forced by the ar­rival of new peo­ple from the same an­ces­tral lands. The lib­eral his­to­rian Arthur Sch­lesinger wor­ried about the rise of a “cult of eth­nic­ity” that “be­lit­tles unum and glo­ri­fies pluribus.”

It was time to get more pre­cise in the def­i­ni­tion of a core civic cul­ture, and it was pre­cisely the big im­mi­grant in­flux that prompted the re­flec­tion. Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Sey­mour Martin Lipset ad­vanced de Toc­queville’s no­tion of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism with his propo­si­tion that be­com­ing an Amer­i­can is “an ide­o­log­i­cal act” akin to adopt­ing a new “po­lit­i­cal re­li­gion” whose creed in­cludes five es­sen­tial ideas: lib­erty, egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, in­di­vid­u­al­ism, pop­ulism and a lais­sez-faire ap­proach to gov­er­nance and daily life.

How much cul­tural di­ver­sity could be tol­er­ated un­der such a broad con­cep­tion of Amer­i­can iden­tity was not im­me­di­ately clear. The surge in non-Euro­pean immigration in­evitably pro­duced some back­lash. A 1983 di­rect-mail so­lic­i­ta­tion for an English-only cam­paign pro­duced 300,000 re­sponses within a few months. When bak­eries in for­merly white neigh­bor­hoods switched from donuts and cheese­cake to chur­ros and pan dulce, when some Korean shop own­ers treated their African Amer­i­can cus­tomers rudely, when So­mali high school stu­dents in­sisted on sit­ting to­gether in the lunch­room, com­mu­nity sol­i­dar­ity suf­fered, at least in the short term. Na­tive-born Amer­i­cans no­ticed th­ese changes.

In his 2004 book, “Who Are We?,” Har­vard Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Sa­muel Hunt­ing­ton ar­gued that Amer­ica was “An­glo-Protes­tant” at its core and that the unity of the coun­try was jeop­ar­dized by im­mi­grants who did not iden­tify with that cul­ture. “Through­out Amer­i­can his­tory,” he wrote, “peo­ple who were not white An­glo-Saxon Protes­tants have be­come Amer­i­cans by adopt­ing Amer­ica’s An­glo-Protes­tant cul­ture and po­lit­i­cal val­ues.”

Whether that had re­ally hap­pened or was even pos­si­ble was de­bat­able. “A na­tion of more than 130 cul­tural groups can­not hope to have all of them An­glo-Sax­onized,” ar­gued Molefi Kete Asante in his book “The Painful Demise of Euro­cen­trism.” Try­ing to do so, he ar­gued, would only alien­ate mi­nori­ties and deepen dis­unity.

For the Steve Kings of Amer­ica, the so­lu­tion may sim­ply be to stop ac­cept­ing “some­body else’s ba­bies” and re­turn to con­sid­er­ing the na­tional ori­gin of im­mi­grants as a fac­tor in whether they should be al­lowed en­try. In a Phoenix cam­paign speech, Don­ald Trump ar­gued, “It is our right as a sov­er­eign na­tion to choose im­mi­grants that we think are the like­li­est to thrive and flour­ish and love us.”

Im­plicit in such com­ments is the sug­ges­tion that nondis­crim­i­na­tory immigration is too much of a bur­den on a na­tion’s core cul­ture, even in such a broad-minded coun­try as the United States of Amer­ica. One read­ing of the 2016 elec­tion is that this was the ver­dict of Amer­i­can vot­ers.

But there is also a more hope­ful as­sess­ment. The surge of non-Euro­pean im­mi­grants over the past 50 years has un­de­ni­ably changed the cul­ture, but with the ef­fect of strength­en­ing it, not weak­en­ing it. Amer­ica to­day is a more re­silient na­tion pre­cisely be­cause of its ex­pe­ri­ence with immigration. In com­par­i­son with Western Euro­pean coun­tries that have also re­ceived large num­bers of im­mi­grants, Amer­ica has proved to be more ca­pa­ble of ab­sorb­ing and suc­cess­fully in­te­grat­ing a di­verse pop­u­la­tion.

There is a dan­ger of over­an­a­lyz­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of Trump’s elec­tion, es­pe­cially with re­gard to Amer­i­cans’ at­ti­tudes to­ward im­mi­grants. An abun­dance of sur­vey data makes clear that Amer­i­cans are be­com­ing more re­cep­tive of the for­eign-born, not less. In 1994, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, 63 per­cent of Amer­i­cans saw im­mi­grants as a bur­den on the na­tion. By 2015, more than half of sur­vey re­spon­dents saw im­mi­grants as strength­en­ing the coun­try, while the share that saw them as a bur­den had fallen to 41 per­cent.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, the changes in at­ti­tudes to­ward im­mi­grants co­in­cide di­rectly with Amer­i­cans’ ex­po­sure to them. As of 2015, three-quar­ters of U.S. adults sur­veyed by Pew re­ported the pres­ence of im­mi­grants in their lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, and the PRRI re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion has found that the more so­cial con­tact na­tive-born Amer­i­cans have with im­mi­grants, the more pos­i­tively they see them. So it was with the Ger­mans, the Ir­ish, the Ital­ians and the Jews. And so it will be with the Mus­lims, the Asians and the Africans. In the end, di­ver­sity pro­motes tol­er­ance, not con­flict.

Many re­cent im­mi­grants have lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence with mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and learn to ap­pre­ci­ate it only in Amer­ica, where it has be­come so com­mon. A 2013 study by the Anti-Defama­tion League found that while 36 per­cent of His­panic Amer­i­cans born out­side the coun­try har­bored anti-Semitic views, the num­ber dropped to 14 per­cent among His­pan­ics raised in the United States.

Those con­cerned about the fu­ture of Amer­i­can civ­i­liza­tion, like Rep. King, should be re­as­sured.


Newly ar­rived im­mi­grants on El­lis Is­land in New York in 1912. At the time, most im­mi­grants were from Europe. Since 1965, new­com­ers have been more di­verse, lead­ing to fresh de­bates about what it means to be­come Amer­i­can.

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