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Has Assimilation Become a Dirty Word?

Tom Brokaw just got into trouble with his comments on Meet the Press that Hispanics in America need to work harder at assimilation and “make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English.”  He was called a “white supremacist;” his words were labeled a “racist rant” and “reprehensible” and an example of “xenophobia in action.”  Some critics claimed that he was ignorant about the degree to which "Latinos absolutely assimilate,” while others claimed that assimilation means "denying one culture for another." Brokaw was quick to apologize for his words.

The media furor over a prominent figure’s use of language that some people found offensive is par for the course in today’s society, where misspeaking and apologies proliferate and navigating what is permissible to say is like walking across a minefield. One media commentator excused Brokaw because “he's probably not up to speed as to where things are today,” presumably because of his age and the generation he represents.

Truth be told, not only Brokaw’s words, but also his critics’ responses represent an unfortunate side of what our media and political spokespeople present us with every day, which is a knee-jerk reaction to trigger words and little knowledge about or motivation to understand the deeper issues related to a subject. “Assimilation” has become one of those trigger words, which evokes totally opposite reactions depending upon to which end of the political spectrum one belongs.  Some conservative pundits were as quick to defend Brokaw’ s words as other commentators were to attack them.

Assimilation needs to be understood, not just attacked or defended. I have discussed this topic before and it’s worthwhile to borrow from my analysis of the subject. Most people still consider assimilation to mean replacing one’s native language with the language of the dominant culture, becoming better educated, increasing income, learning the cultural ways of the dominant culture and moving from ethnic/national enclaves into the broader society. This was the pattern of acculturation that characterized Europeans who came to the United States in the past. But in 1993, Portes and Zhou proposed “segmented immigration theory,” which suggested that new immigrants may take many different paths to assimilation, often to a subculture within the country, rather than explicitly to the dominant culture. Segmented immigration leads to at least three possible outcomes: The first fits the traditional model, in which both the immigrant and his or her descendants begin to use the dominant language, become better educated, move toward the middle class, and completely integrate with the dominant society (which remains European-based, English-speaking). The second pathway is acculturation to a, usually urban, economically challenged subculture where their native language (if not English) is spoken as often as English, educational attainment has a low value, and use of government social safety net programs proliferates. In such subcultures, gang and drug activity may or may not be prominent. A third alternative is acculturation to a economically successful subculture in which education has a high value, traditional language and traditions are valued and maintained, but succeeding generations become English proficient, well-educated, and financially well-off. Members of the succeeding generations may or may not move from the ethnic enclave into the mainstream society in terms of residence, but nearly always do so in terms of work. Each of these pathways is considered a variety of assimilation. 

Studies of Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese enclaves, as well as some African immigrant enclaves, have shown that the children of immigrants who maintain their culture within the U.S. outperform the children of native-born Americans both educationally and financially, even if their immigrant parents were less educated and less financially well-off than the average native-born American. It is these parents and their children who have fostered the term, “the immigrant paradox” in which immigrants with fewer apparent resources than most native-born Americans produce children who are more successful. A strong subculture, which maintains its cultural roots, is part of this pattern of success.

Many immigrants continue to speak their native language as their first choice, and some never become proficient in English. Asian and African immigrants are more likely to arrive being near-proficient in English. Hispanic immigrants are the most likely to not become proficient in English, but the longer they are in the U.S., the more proficient they become and their children virtually all are English-language proficient, a fact which demonstrates that Brokaw’s factual knowledge of young Hispanics was in error. Furthermore, maintaining proficiency in one’s native language while learning English can be superior to forsaking one’s native language entirely. Studies have shown that those immigrants’ children who are proficient in two languages do better in school than those proficient in English only.

One of the issues in the conversation about assimilation is whether or not maintaining cultural enclaves in which one immigrant ethnicity dominates in terms of residents, businesses, and language (e.g. Little Havana, Little Saigon, Koreatown, Chinatown etc), is helpful to assimilation or harmful. The answer is not simple, but appears to be that if the ethnic culture is close-knit and supports education, civic participation, and lawfulness, the children who grow up in that culture tend to do better than most native-born Americans in terms of education and jobs, even though they are likely to leave the enclave after they are adults.

What about those who assimilate to subcultures that are, by almost any standard, less successful in terms of educational and financial achievement, both among new immigrants themselves and their U.S.-born children? Studies of such communities have shown that the same factors that promote success in other immigrant subcultures promote success in the less successful subcultures, i.e. social cohesion, pressures for civic responsibility, local institutional leadership, and absence of discrimination. If these factors are present, then the next generation of these immigrants will also be successful in the wider society, although at lower rates than from other immigrant communities. 

The community into which one attempts to assimilate makes a tremendous difference, but that community, in turn, is strongly affected by the social, legal and economic policies of the larger society. Assimilation into a subculture that is a product of discrimination, which offers flawed institutions such as schools, banks that discriminate in terms of loans to businesses or for home mortgages, and which are poorly and sometimes prejudicially policed, offers little opportunity and certainly much less than is available to other immigrant groups or the majority of native-born Americans (except those who continue to suffer from ongoing racial prejudice and discrimination, i.e. African-Americans).

Assimilation isn’t a dirty word, but ignorance about the reality that there are different patterns of assimilation is not conducive to having an intelligent conversation about the subject. Assimilation is not simply a choice on the part of the immigrant, it depends both on the nature of the subculture to which one belongs and to the behavior of the larger society toward that subculture, so prejudice against and stereotypes about it can be harmful to those who live within such a subculture. There are as many instances where belonging to a cohesive subculture within the United States, even one in which the elder members continue to speak their native language and where the younger members become multilingual as a result, can produce better educational and financial outcomes for those young people than being from the larger society. There are other instances where remaining in a subculture that is discriminated against and is characterized by crime and poverty can hinder young people’s development. Learning English is crucial for most pathways to economic and educational success in the United States, but virtually all young people who grow up in this country, whether from an ethnic subculture or the larger culture, learn English today.

The words of media figures, such as Tom Brokaw, could provide the basis of an informed discussion and debate about the issue he brought up. Instead, all further discussion was squelched as the debate centered on whether, by bringing up the topic of assimilation, he was branding himself a racist and white supremacist. This kind of reaction is hardly conducive to public enlightenment, and so long as we react to such a wide range of ideas as forbidden topics that trigger accusations rather than discussion, we will remain an ignorant nation.




Reader Comments (4)

I wonder how assimilated Brokaw is to America? Is his neighborhood an example of the melting pot of American ethnic and class experience?

I wonder if he has recently lived or even visited with people in the lower half of the economic strata or is he stuck in a privileged and rich white zone of experience. He clearly hasn't visited New Mwxico where I live and Hispanic folks are certainly a majority of our state government elected and bureaucratic posts.

I also wonder if he has noticed Hispanic assimilation in his life...Has he converted to tortilla chips and salsa in lieu of potato chips and dip, as have the majority of Americans. Is he still hanging on to hot dogs or does he let an occasional taco slip in.

Is he racist? His friends certainly are expressed in Brokaw's claim of their fear of their grandchildren having brown babies. Is he out of touch with the Hispanic assimilation in/of America? Clearly.

I find it sad to note that at one time Brokaw was a leftist talking head anchoring the nightly news. If his current state is anything reminiscent of what he was...then...Sad to think what parochial classist dribble he must have been spewing then disguised as being truth.

January 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

It's a sign to the poor education people get that those commenting, on the right and the left, often can't read a text in front of their eyes. I didn't hear Brokaw, but I did read his comments, and he didn't say his friends didn't want brown children; he said when one pushes Republicans, they say they don't want brown children. I agree with Casey when it comes to assimilation. Being an immigrant myself, I can attest to the value of learning English, though that knowledge didn't push me into the middle class because I came from that background. I also remained fluent in two other languages and learned two others. I, too, wish Brokaw were more informed about different paths to assimilation, but, as many immigrant parents notice in their children, sometimes ruefully, other times with great sorrow, is that they become assimilated whether the parents want them to or not. They live here and go to school here. It's too bad that we can't have a discussion that may inform people of good will about real issues of immigration, without all the shouting and name-calling.

January 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

Dear Casey,

Your two essays on the Brokaw fiasco could serve as a model for Americans who are sick and tired of living in a country where civil conversation has been replaced by partisan rants. Your prose exhibits balance, concern for cultural/gender sensitivities, and a willingness to listen to opposing points of view.and to seek common ground. At the risk of bringing down the wrath of the PC gods upon my head, I would suggest that what distinguishes you from the screaming meanies at both ends of the political spectrum is the fact that you are a gentleman.. According to Wikipedia, a gentleman "is any man of good, courteous conduct." King James II of England is said to have quipped, "I could make [a supplicant] a nobleman, but God Almighty could not make him a gentleman."

February 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLucy Wilson

I too am taking an informed middle ground approach to political issues. A recent essay I submitted to Harvard Theological Review discusses a religious studies course that could challenge students and instruct them while enabling them to discuss and learn about religion. Evolution and Creationism would both enter the class conversation. As noted in the essay, this debate is heated and students should be prepared emotionally and intellectually for it.

February 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDustin Pickering

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