We hope that this weekend the nation’s families will take a moment to raise a glass to a special group–new Americans. In 1997 some 600,000 newcomers will stand before the nation’s judges to be sworn into citizenship. These are people who toiled through years or even decades to win their place at America’s bounteous table.
The new citizens join us at a time when a shift seems under way in our understanding of what it means to be American. For years one group–call them the multiculturalists–has dominated the debate. They have converted our schools, our government offices, our courts into war zones for competing ethnic groups. Those who clamor on about group rights would have our Constitution read not “We, the People,” but “We, the Peoples.”
Now there is a growing move afoot to return to an older vision of America, to that of the America of assimilation. By assimilation we do not mean forcing our diverse populace into milquetoast conformity. We mean an America whose inhabitants, whatever their provenance, embrace their adopted culture, an Anglo-American one that stands for the rule of law, and their adopted English language. And that they do this as individuals, rather than as members of this or that ethnic claque.
Political types–from college presidents to elected officials–have been successfully intimidated by the diversity movement. But this may be changing, with the nation’s mayors leading the way. Testifying this summer at a special Congressional hearing held on Ellis Island, Rudolph Giuliani outlined in glowing terms the contribution of New York’s numerous immigrants. Today people born outside the U.S. make up some 30% of his city’s citizens. Yet immigrants, the mayor recognized, had chosen to be New Yorkers first, New Yorkers who have been central to the city’s revival, starting businesses at a faster rate than other New Yorkers.
Another sign of the turn is the recent and final report of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, a bipartisan body created by Congress in 1990. The group’s interim report, issued several years ago, called for the type of anti-immigrant measures typical of the 1990s–a national identity card system, border controls and so on. But its 1997 document includes a full-throated call for “Americanization.” Barbara Jordan, the Commission’s late chairwoman, said that Americanization earned a bad reputation when it was stolen by racists and xenophobes in the 1920s. But it is our word, and now we are taking it back.”
In an enlightening new book, “Assimilation: American Style,” author Peter D. Salins reminds that it is only for a short period–since the 1960s, really–that we have veered from this vision. It was the commitment to that assimilationist vision that made America, in contrast to the xenophobe European continent, such a successful immigration machine. “Learn English. Be American. Otherwise America will become like the old country,” read a sign posted in one of the classrooms where turn-of-the-century New York immigrants stumbled through English grammar. The retreat of the assimilationist vision–and the assault on the Constitution by group rights warriors–have given rise to the nativist abuses of the 1990s.
In fact, new immigrants are often articulate advocates of the old assimilationist vision. Testifying this summer at the Ellis Island hearings, teenager Diameng Pa of Cambodia spoke of his joy in mastering English “thanks to my teachers and the miracle of TV,” and his plans to become a cardiovascular surgeon. The cliche that first-generation immigrants lobby for a bilingual America because they fail to master English holds little truth: A National Academy of Sciences study shows that after 30 years in this country all but 3% of immigrants speak the language well. Occasionally, immigrants will even take the lead in fighting multiculturalism. In California, Hispanics have been prominent in pro-English initiatives. In Canada–a nightmare of what multiculturalism might lead to in America–immigrants played a key role in defeating Quebec’s secession referendum, voting by a margin of 90% against the change.
Adopt the assimilationist vision, and some of the knotty policy challenges of the decade become much simpler. Is it right to preserve the mother tongue and old religion in the home, or in private, after-school classes? Yes. Should federal, state or municipal dollars fund bilingualism or expensive cultural diversity programs in our public schools? No. The Republican Congress did wrong this year when it widened bilingual ed funding by more than $300 million. What about widening the number of ethnic identities–Latino, Asian, Hawaiian, and so on–that citizens may lay claim to when they fill out Census forms and other federal documents? A bad and divisive idea, though unfortunately one the White House recently made policy.
One can’t help but sense that returning to the assimilationist vision will do much to restore what has lately seemed a fractious nation. Very few of us can claim ancestors who sat down at the colonies’ first Thanksgiving meals. Yet Thanksgiving is ours to enjoy this weekend, all of ours.