Melting Pot or Salad Bowl
The population of the United States includes a large variety of ethnic groups coming from many races, nationalities, and religions. The process by which these many groups have been made a part of a common cultural life with commonly shared values is called assimilation. Scholars disagree as to the extent to which assimilation has occurred in the United States. As we mentioned in the past, some have described the United States as a "melting pot" where various racial and ethnic groups have been combined into one culture. Others are inclined to see the United States as a "salad bowl' where the various groups have remained somewhat distinct and different from one another, creating a richly diverse country.
The truth probably lies somewhere between these two views. Since 1776, an enormous amount of racial and ethnic assimilation has taken place in the United States, yet some groups continue to feel a strong sense of separateness from the culture as a whole. Many of these groups are really bicultural. That is, they consider themselves Americans but they also wish to retain the language and the cultural traditions of their original culture.
People of Hispanic origin were on the North American continent before settlers arrived from Europe in the early 1600s. In Florida and the Southwest, there were Spanish and Latin American settlements established centuries before the thirteen colonies joined together to form the United States in the late 1700s. Because of their long history and the continued influx of newcomers into the established communities, many Hispanics, or Latinos, have taken a special pride in maintaining their cultural traditions and the use of the Spanish language.
Generally speaking, over the years whites from different national and religious backgrounds have been gradually assimilated into the larger American culture, with some exceptions. For example, American Jews are one group of whites who have traditionally retained a strong sense of separateness from the larger culture: This may be a result of the long history of persecution in the Christian countries in Europe, the weaker forms of discrimination and anti-Jewish feeling that exist in the United States, and their own strong feeling of ethnic pride. Yet along with their sense of separateness, American Jews have a strong sense of being a part of the larger American culture in which they have achieved competitive success in almost every field.
The Establishment of the Dominant Culture
The first census of the new nation, conducted in 1790, counted about four million people, most of whom were white. Of the white citizens, more than 8 out of 10 traced their ancestry back to England. African-Americans made up a surprising 20 percent of the population, an all-time high. There were close to 700,000 slaves and about 60,000 "free Negroes." Only a few Native American Indians who paid taxes were included in the census count, but the total Native American population was probably about one million.
It was the white population that had the greater numbers, the money and the political power in the new nation, and therefore this majority soon defined what the dominant culture would be. At the time of the American Revolution, the white population was largely English in origin, Protestant, and middle class. Such Americans are sometimes referred to as WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants). Their characteristics became the standard for judging other groups. Those having a different religion (such as the Irish Catholics), or those speaking a different language (such as the Germans, Dutch, and Swedes), were in the minority and would be disadvantaged unless they became assimilated. In the late 1700s, this assimilation occurred without great difficulty. According to historians Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager, "English, Irish, German,... Dutch, Swedish — mingled and intermarried with little thought of any difference. "
The dominant American culture that grew out of the nation's early history then, was English-speaking, Western European, Protestant, and middle class in character. It was this dominant culture that established what became the traditional values, described by
de Tocqueville in the early 1830s. Immigrants with these characteristics were welcome, in part because Americans believed that these newcomers would probably give strong support to the basic values of the dominant culture such as freedom equality of opportunity, and the desire to work hard for a higher material standard of living.
The Assimilation of Non-Protestant and Non-Western Europeans
As the case in many cultures, the degree to which a minority group was seen as different from the characteristics of the dominant majority determined the extent of that group's acceptance. Although immigrants who were like the earlier settlers were accepted, those with significantly different characteristics tended to be viewed as a threat to traditional American values and way of life.
This was particularly true of the immigrants who arrived by the millions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of them came from poverty-stricken nations of southern and eastern Europe. They spoke languages other than English, and large numbers of them were Catholics or Jews.
Americans at the time were very fearful of this new flood of immigrants. They were afraid that these people were so accustomed to lives of poverty and dependence that they would not understand such traditional American values as freedom, self-reliance, and competition. There were so many new immigrants that they might even change the basic values of the nation in undesirable ways.
Americans tried to meet what they saw as a threat to their values by offering English instruction for the new immigrants and citizenship classes to teach them basic American beliefs. The immigrants, however, often felt that their American teachers disapproved of the traditions of their homeland. Moreover, learning about American values gave them little help in meeting their most important needs such as employment, food, and a place to live.
Far more helpful to the new immigrants were the "political bosses" of the larger cities of the northeastern United States, where most of the immigrants first arrived. Those bosses saw to many of the practical needs of the immigrants and were more accepting of the different homeland traditions. In exchange for their help, the political bosses expected the immigrants to keep them in power by voting for them in elections.
Many Americans strongly disapproved of the political bosses. This was partly because the bosses were frequently corrupt; that is, they often stole money from the city governments they controlled and engaged in other illegal practices. Perhaps more important to disapproving Americans, however, was the fact that the bosses seemed to be destroying such basic American values as self-reliance and competition
The bosses, it seemed, were teaching the immigrants to be dependent on them rather than to rely on themselves. Moreover, the bosses were "buying" the votes of the immigrants in order to give themselves a monopoly of political power in many larger cities. This practice destroyed competition for political office, which Americans viewed as an important tradition in politics just as it was in other facets of American life.
Despite these criticisms, many scholars believe that the political bosses performed an important function in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They helped to assimilate large numbers of new immigrants into the larger American culture by finding them jobs and housing, in return for their political support. Later the bosses also helped the sons and daughters of these immigrants to find employment, but the second generation usually had the advantage of growing up speaking English.
The fact that the United States had a rapidly expanding economy at the turn of the century made it possible for these new immigrants, often with the help of the bosses, to better their standard of living in the United States. As a result of these new opportunities and new rewards, immigrants came to accept most of the values of the larger American culture and were in turn accepted by the great majority of Americans. For white ethnic groups, therefore, it is generally true that their feeling of being a part of the larger culture — that is, American — is usually stronger than their feeling of belonging to a separate ethnic group — Irish, Italian, and Polish, among many others.
The African-American Experience
The process of assimilation in the United States has been much more for white ethnic groups than for nonwhite ethnic groups. Of the nonwhite ethnic groups, Americans of African descent have had the greatest difficulty in becoming assimilated into the larger culture. African-Americans were brought to the United States against their will to be sold as slaves. Except for the Native American Indian tribes who inhabited the United States before the first white settlers arrived, other ethnic groups came to America voluntarily — most as immigrants who wanted to better their living conditions. (African Americans, WB)
The enslavement of African-Americans in the United States was a complete contradiction of such traditional basic American values as freedom and equality of opportunity. It divided the United States into two increasingly different sections: the southern states, in which black slavery became the basis of the economy and the northern states, which chose to make slavery against the law.
A minority of whites in the North insisted that slavery and freedom could not exist together in a free country and demanded that slavery be abolished, even if this meant war with the South. A much larger number of northern whites believed that freedom and equality of opportunity needed to be protected for white people only, but they were afraid that black slavery would eventually take away their economic freedom. If, for example, the slave system of the South were allowed to spread into the frontier regions of the West, poor and middle-income whites could no longer look to the western frontier as a land of equality and opportunity where people could better their position in life. Rather, whites would have to compete with unpaid slave labor, a situation that they believed would degrade their work and lower their social status.
Abraham Lincoln was able to become president of the United States by appealing to both the white idealists who saw slavery as an injustice to African-Americans and to the larger numbers of northern whites who saw slavery as a threat to themselves. Lincoln's argument was that if black slavery continued to spread westward, white freedom and equality would be threatened. Lincoln also believed that basic ideals such as freedom and equality of opportunity had to apply to all people, black and white, or they would not last as basic American values.
When Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, the southern states left the Union and tried to form a new nation of their own based on slavery. A Civil War between the North and South resulted, which turned out to be the bloodiest and most destructive of all the nation's wars. When the North was finally victorious, black slavery ended in the United States.
However, African-Americans were not readily assimilated into the larger American culture. Most remained in the South, where they were not allowed to vote and were legally segregated from whites. Black children were not allowed to attend white public schools, for example, and many received an inferior education that did not give them an equal opportunity to compete in the white-dominated society. Many former slaves and their families became caught in a cycle of poverty that continued for generations. Although conditions were much worse in the segregated South, blacks continued to be the victims of strong racial prejudice in the North, as well as in the South.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s
This state of affairs remained unchanged until the United States Supreme Court declared in 1954 that racially segregated public schools did not provide equal educational opportunities for black Americans and were therefore illegal. Black leaders throughout the United States were greatly encouraged by this decision. They decided to try to end racial segregation in all areas of American life.
The most important of these leaders was Martin Luther King, Jr., a black Protestant minister with a great gift for inspiring his people. From the late 1950s until his assassination by a white gunman in 1968, King led thousands of African-Americans in nonviolent marches and demonstrations against segregation and other forms of racial
King's goal was to bring about greater assimilation of black people into the larger American culture. His ideals were largely developed from basic American values. He wanted greater equality of opportunity and "Freedom now" for his people. He did not wish to separate his people from American society but rather to gain for them a larger part in it.
Some black leaders, such as Malcolm X, urged a rejection of basic American values and complete separation of blacks from the white culture. Malcolm X believed that American values were nothing more than "white man's values" used to keep blacks in an inferior position. He believed that blacks must separate themselves from whites, by force if necessary, and build their own society based on values that they would create for themselves. Because he saw Christianity as a "white" religion, Malcolm turned to a faith based on Islam, and he became a leader of the "black Muslim" faith (founded in 1930). The great majority of American blacks, however; shared Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Protestant religious beliefs and his goal of assimilation rather than separation. Most African-Americans continued to look to King as their leader
Largely as a result of King's activities, two major civil rights laws were passed during the 1960s that removed racial segregation from public facilities in the South and also removed the barriers that had prevented black people from voting in that region.
Race Relations after the Civil Rights Movement
The civil rights laws of the 1960s helped to bring about a significant degree of assimilation of blacks into the larger American culture. Most important, the laws eventually helped to reduce the amount of white prejudice toward black people in all parts of the country. The number of African-Americans attending the nation's colleges and universities, holding elective public office, and earning higher incomes increased dramatically in the late 1960s and 1970s. In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson, a black leader who had worked with King in the 1960s, became the first African-American to run for president of the United States. Although he did not win, he received significant national attention and greatly influenced the policies of the Democratic Party.
African-Americans are now mayors of major cities and members of Congress; they hold offices in all levels of government — local, state, and national. They are sports and entertainment heroes, university professors, medical doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and reporters. There is now a sizable black middle class, and there are a number of wealthy African-Americans. More than 80 percent of whites now say that they would vote for a black for President, someone like General Colin Powell, for example. Powell was President Bush's Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior military leader in the United States.
The bad news is that there is still a gulf between the races. Although African-Americans represent about 13 percent of the population, they are grossly underrepresented in Congress. The median income of a married black man working full time is 23 percent behind a married white man. Segregation and discrimination are against the law, but residential patterns create largely segregated neighborhood schools in many urban areas. Half the whites in the United States live in the suburbs, but only a fourth of the blacks. Many blacks are trapped in cycles of poverty, unemployment, violence, and despair in the inner city. They are the most frequent victims of violent crime, and as many as one in five young males now have a criminal record. Over 40 percent of all black children live in poverty and many have only one parent. Seventy percent of black children are born to unmarried women. Some point to the destruction of the family structure as the cause of many of the social problems that African-Americans now face.
Who is to blame? In a recent poll, 44 percent of blacks said the problems are due to white discrimination against them. Only 21 percent of whites agree. Some African-Americans have given up on ever having equal treatment within a society dominated by whites. There has been a renewed interest in Malcolm X, three decades after his death. In 1993, Spike Lee, a black film director, made a movie about the life of Malcolm X and his separatist ideas. In the '90s, Louis Farrakhan, a new black Muslim leader, advocated that blacks separate themselves from the hostile white culture instead
of trying to become a part of it. In the fall of 1995, Farrakhan and others organized the "Million Man March" of African-American men and boys in Washington, D.C. The goal of the march was to gather together responsible fathers and sons who would demonstrate positive role models for African-Americans, and who would inspire people to take leadership roles and make a difference in their home communities.
Although some view Farrakhan as an extremist, his angry voice has a certain appeal to many African-Americans. Many young blacks, in particular, are searching for a separate African-American identity, one that will recognize the contributions that their black culture has made, and one that will validate the black culture as an equal alternative to the white. Since they did not live through the civil rights battles of the 1960s, the progress achieved, and the status that African-Americans now have in the white society are not as real to them as the inequalities they believe they experience. They have no memory of the segregated buses, parks, restaurants, even restrooms and drinking fountains, of the pr-civil rights South.
Back in the 1830s, de Tocqueville predicted trouble between blacks and whites in the United States:
These two races are fastened to each other without intermingling; and
they are unable to separate entirely or to combine. Although the law may
abolish slaver, God alone can obliterate the traces of its existence.
Nathan Glazer; an expert on assimilation, believes that blacks in the United States have had more difficulty being accepted by the white majority than have other racial and ethnic groups such as Hispanics, Native American Indians, and Asians. Therefore, racial and cultural separatism is a stronger force with them than with other minority groups. There has been no separatist leader of other ethnic or racial minority groups with the broad emotional appeal that Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan have had with black Americans.
Although slavery was abolished in the 1860s, its legacy continues. Fortunately, however, people of good faith, both black and white, are working together to achieve harmony and equality between the races.
A Universal Nation
As we have noted, the dominant culture and its value system, established by the early settlers, had its roots in white, Protestant, Western Europe. In the late 1900s and early 1900s, millions of immigrants came from eastern and southern Europe, bringing cultural traditions perceived by the dominant culture as quite different. By the I920s, Americans had decided that it was time to close the borders to mass immigration, and the number of new immigrants slowed to a trickle. In spite of the worries of those in the dominant culture, the new immigrants did assimilate to life in the United States. They greatly enriched the cultural diversity of the nation, and they ultimately did not cause major changes to its system of government, its free enterprise system, or its traditional values.
In 1965, the United States made important changes in its immigration laws, allowing many more immigrants to come and entirely eliminating the older laws' bias in favor of white European immigrants. As a result, the United States is now confronted with a new challenge-taking in large numbers of new immigrants who are nonwhite and non-European. About 90 percent are from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In addition to the large numbers of legal immigrants, for the first time the United States has significant numbers of illegal immigrants.
Many worry about what the impact will be on the American society Can the American economy expand enough to offer these new immigrants the same opportunities that others have had? What will be the effect on the traditional value system that has defined the United States for over 200 years? Many Americans see wonderful benefits for their country. Ben Wattenberg, a respected expert on American culture, believes that "new Immigration" will be of great help to the nation. According to Wattenberg, something very
important is happening to the United States. It is becoming the first universal nation in history Wattenherg believes that the United States will be the first nation where large numbers of people from every region on earth live in freedom under one government. This diversity, he says, will give the nation great influence and appeal to the rest of the world during the 21st century.
Perhaps the United States will he described not as a "melting pot" or a "salad bowl" but as a "mosaic" a picture made up of many tiny pieces of different colors, if one looks closely at the nation, the individuals of different colors and ethnic groups are still distinct and recognizable, but together they create a picture that is uniquely American. "E Pluribus "E Pluribus Unum" — the motto of the United States from its beginning means one composed of many. "Out of many, one."