Assimilation is a Double-Edged Sword for Immigrants

Human Rights
The following is an excerpt from, They Take Our Jobs! And 20 Other Myths About Immigration by Aviva Chomsky (Beacon Press, 2007).

In 1993, Toni Morrison wrote, in a special issue of Time magazine on immigration, that the "most enduring and efficient rite of passage into American culture" for immigrants was "negative appraisals of the native-born black population. Only when the lesson of racial estrangement is learned is assimilation complete." Blacks, she said, were permanent noncitizens. "The move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens."

Italian, Polish, and Jewish immigrants may not have identified with, or been accepted into, white society when they first arrived in the United States. But they, or more often their children, assimilated by becoming "white" and experienced upward mobility as they melded into the white majority. And part of the assimilation into whiteness meant the adoption of white racial attitudes.

Black Puerto Rican author Piri Thomas described the generational gap among Italians in his Bronx neighborhood in the 1940s: the mothers and grandmothers accepted him as one of their own while the new generation attacked him as a "spic." One of the Italian boys speculated that if Piri had a sister, they could "cover the bitch's face with the flag an' fuck er for old glory," in a graphic rendering of Toni Morrison's point.

James Loewen points out that just as European immigrants moved out of their inner-city enclaves and merged into white America, African Americans were being residentially segregated as the phenomenon of "sundown towns," which explicitly prohibited blacks from remaining in them after the sun set, spread across the country. Assimilation for people of European origin was accompanied by ongoing exclusion of people of color already in the United States.

For immigrants of color, assimilation means something very different than it historically has for European immigrants. For Latin American immigrants, assimilation more often means shedding their American dream and joining the lowest rungs in a caste-like society where Native Americans and African Americans, the most "assimilated" people of color, have been consistently kept at the bottom. When Haitian immigrants assimilate, explains one study, "they become not generic, mainstream Americans but specifically African Americans and primarily the poor African Americans most vulnerable to American racism."

As Toni Morrison suggested, racial inequality is so deeply embedded in the national culture and social fabric of the United States that assimilation has historically meant finding, learning, and accepting one's place in the racial order. If new immigrants could succeed in challenging and transforming the racial order of the United States, that would be a good thing. But the signs do not point in that direction. The current anti-immigrant sentiment reinforces racial inequality.

The United States, as we have seen, defined itself from the first as a white, Anglo-Saxon country. Africans and Native Americans may have lived in the territories claimed by the United States, but they were not citizens. The Mexicans--primarily people of Spanish and Native American origin--who were added to the U.S. population with the 1848 conquest were granted citizenship, of a sort--but without shaking the firmly held idea that the United States was an Anglo-Saxon country.

The new, non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, starting with the Irish in the 1850s and growing with the southern and eastern Europeans from the 1870s on, were neither Anglo-Saxons nor people of color. Many of these new European immigrants came from nations that Anglo-Saxons considered inferior, and many of them came from peoples without states. They were oppressed minorities in the countries or empires they came from. Many came from the Ottoman Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many were Irish, from a land controlled by England, or they were Jews from Eastern Europe. Some were southern Italians, in a country only just unified, where the South was economically dependent on the North.

When European immigrants assimilated, they joined white society in social and cultural terms. Obviously, the color of their skin did not change--but the category of "white" expanded from its former association with Anglo-Saxons to include these newcomers. Anglo-Saxonism was fundamentally based on the domination of Africans, Native Americans, and Asians, and the institutions and ideologies of the United States reflected this reality. Southern and eastern Europeans were not originally part of this racial dynamic. Assimilating into it meant accepting it and identifying with the racial inequality it entailed--insisting, successfully, on their place among whites.

When Asian and Latino immigrants assimilate, they also assimilate to the United States racial hierarchy, but in a different way. Very few of them can cross the line into whiteness. Instead, they assimilate by becoming people of color in a racially divided society. Assimilation, instead of bringing upward mobility, brings downward mobility. Of course there are exceptions, but overwhelmingly, the social and economic statistics have told the same dreary story for many generations: blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, even--perhaps especially--those whose ancestors have the longest presence in the country. It's not lack of assimilation that keeps them marginalized--it's assimilation itself.

The relationship between assimilation and downward mobility has been especially noted in studies of schoolchildren. Education professor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco conducted two major studies of Latino adolescents in which he found that the most recent immigrants tended to be the students with the highest aspirations and the strongest belief in the American dream. This was because, as immigrants, they were not yet educated into the U.S. racial order. Teachers consistently reported on new immigrants' commitment to education, their work ethic, and their respect for their teachers. As they became more Americanized, they entered an oppositional inner-city teenage culture that valued money, drugs, and reckless behaviors defined as cool--the opposite of the hopeful and hard-working recent arrivals.

Over time new immigrants lost their optimism. They became acculturated by becoming aware of the long-standing historical place of Latinos in U.S. society. They realized that education was not the solution they had originally believed it was. In fact, studies have shown that the higher the educational level, the greater the income disparity between whites and nonwhites in U.S. society. Rather than leveling the playing field, educational achievement maintains or even exacerbates inequalities.

Although students of color may not be aware of the statistics, their decisions seem to reflect a larger awareness that education is not an automatic ticket to the American dream. A 2000 study found graduation rates to be 76 percent for white students, 57 percent for Native Americans, 55 percent for African Americans, and 53 percent for Hispanics. The newest immigrants look a lot like the oldest "foreigners" in the United States in terms of social status. Unlike whole generations of European immigrants, no amount of assimilation will ever make them white.

Like earlier generations of immigrants, those arriving today still see learning English as crucial to survival and success. But new immigrants also become aware that learning to speak English will not resolve the problems of race. Native Americans and African Americans are native speakers of English--but this has not helped them to assimilate into a U.S. society that still in many ways defines itself as white.

Of all Latino groups in the United States, it's Puerto Ricans who are the most assimilated. All Puerto Ricans have been citizens since 1917. Puerto Ricans tend to know English, and to speak English as their primary language, at much higher rates than other Latinos. Puerto Ricans also have a huge advantage over other immigrants because their citizenship status makes them eligible for public social services and gives them the automatic right to work, rights that many immigrants from other parts of Latin America lack.

Although Mexican nationals are not automatically citizens the way Puerto Ricans are, Mexicans have the longest history in the United States of any Latino group. Mexicans residing in the territories taken by the United States in 1848 were granted citizenship, and Mexicans have been migrating into the United States for a longer time than any other group.

Yet Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have the highest poverty rates of any group of Latinos in the United States. Cubans, the vast majority of whom came to the United States after 1959, Dominicans, who started coming in large numbers in the 1970s, and Central Americans, whose massive migration dates to the 1980s, all have much lower poverty rates: 24.1 percent of Mexicans and 23.7 percent of Puerto Ricans in the United States lived below the poverty line in 2003, while only 14.4 percent of Cubans did.

In an interesting study of black West Indian immigrants, Mary Waters found that "immigrants and their children do better economically by maintaining a strong ethnic identity and culture and by resisting American cultural and identity influences . . . those who resist becoming American do well and those who lose their immigrant ethnic distinctiveness become downwardly mobile . . . When West Indians lose their distinctiveness as immigrants or ethnics they become not just Americans, but black Americans."

The picture is clear. Immigrants of color do assimilate into U.S. society, but, in contrast to white immigrants, for people of color assimilation means downward mobility. Assimilation means learning the racial order of the United States, and for people of color it means joining the lower ranks of that racial order. The association often made between assimilation and upward mobility is based on the experience of white immigrants. For immigrants of color, the trajectory of assimilation is a very different one.

Reprinted from
They Take Our Jobs! And 20 Other Myths about Immigration by Aviva Chomsky Copyright © 2007 by permission of Beacon Press,

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