Sunday, July 27, 2008

To assimilate or not to assimilate

Christian Lander’s The Definitive Guide to Stuff White People Like has got me in stitches as well as thinking. Apparently, I very much like a whole lot of things White: Coffee; Religions Their Parents Don’t Belong to; Film Festivals; Farmer’s Markets; Organic Food; Diversity; Barack Obama; Nonprofit Organizations. And that’s just from the beginning of the list. So what does this make me then? A coconut, brown on the outside, white on the inside? Based on the book’s test “How White Are You?” apparently so – I am 54% white!

While the guide parodies highly educated, upper middle class Whites safely and securely sequestered in their enclaves, it does reveal the extent of my assimilation.

So does signing up for Facebook. As friends and schoolmates from over 20 years ago and 3,000 miles away find me, I have come to realize how far I have come. Not only in distance but culturally as well. Aside from shared history and ethnicity, there is not much in common.

Is my immigrant experience shared by other foreign-born individuals? Is assimilation inevitable? Should immigrants assimilate?

Based on numbers from the Urban Institute and the U.S. Census Bureau, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that in 2006, there were close to 36 million individuals in the United States who were born overseas.

In terms of actual assimilation, the Manhattan Institute released a report earlier this year which measures immigrant assimilation. According to its author, foreign-born residents are:

  • Perfectly distinguishable from natives when they are not citizens of the United States.
  • Much more likely to be married to another foreign-born individual.
  • Much less likely to be able to speak English.
  • Less likely to own their residence.
  • More likely to have larger numbers of children living with them.
  • Overrepresented at the low and high ends of the educational distribution; and underrepresented in the group of individuals with no more than a high school diploma, or with some college education but no degree.
  • Less likely to be unemployed or absent from the labor force.
  • Less likely to be veterans.
  • More likely to be working in historically higher-paying occupations but earning less than natives working in those occupations.

As expected however, there are differences among subgroups. Based on the assimilation index developed for the study, people from Mexico, El Salvador, China and India are least assimilated; while those born in Canada, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam are most acculturated. Immigrants from Vietnam, Cuba and the Philippines scored the highest.

Becoming American is a process and is not necessarily inevitable. In urban settings, it is not difficult to find pockets that live in isolation. Within these ethnic enclaves, immigrants stick to their kind, not venturing far from their zones of familiarity and safety (except for jobs). They appear to have no interest whatsoever in participating or being part of the larger community.

This has been a source of concern for some native-born people. As Howard Husock wrote in the New York Sun:

It is a mistake, though, to think that Americans are more worried about who has a green card than they are about immigrant assimilation, a less discussed matter. The idea that immigrants should, and can, become Americans has been a powerful one, a reflection of the fact that ours is a society based on values and laws, rather than a single faith and a common blood.

Lately, discussing immigrant assimilation has become less than acceptable in polite company out of a concern that assimilation imposes Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture on others. But the majority thinks that newcomers should learn English, which is endorsed by 87% of Americans in one Rasmussen survey, and become American citizens. This makes clear that, notwithstanding the affection for multiculturalism among elites, average Americans still believe in the melting pot.

I share affection for multiculturalism and very much value diversity. I think that it is important for immigrants as well as later generations of Americans to remember and be proud of their countries of origin and cultures. The wealth, strength and vitality of the United States are born out of the hard work, resilience and dreams of immigrants.

Nevertheless, we are now part of American society. We chose to come here. We sacrificed a lot to be here. We should thus make the effort to belong, not just economically but culturally and politically as well.

Photo: Nicolai Schäfer in Wikimedia Commons.


Valerie said...

For the record, liking coffee & having two last names would also make you Guatemalan...

Erwin said...

Actually, the book's author did point out that having two last names is a common practice among Spanish-speaking people. He was poking fun at American appropriation of the practice which has no precedence. As for coffee, well I'll let you read the book.