The Assimilation Debate

The Assimilation Debate September 20, 2016

Recently Facebook, bringer of many things, brought me two. The first was a quote from Bobby Jindal: “Let’s be really honest about this: Immigration without assimilation is not immigration; it’s an invasion, . . .  we need to tell folks, if you want to come to our country, come here legally, learn English, adopt our values, roll up your sleeves, and get to work.”

The second was a rebuke directed at me which said roughly, “As a new immigrant do you realize how offensive the word “assimilation” is to me. My family came to the United States to escape the oppression of a government that insisted that everybody had to be the same. We thought this was a country where you were free to keep  your heritage, your religion, and your values.”

Let’s put it another way. My friend thought that being American was about being free to keep your identity. Jindal things being American is about being forced to accept a new identity. I want to note that there are problems with both ideas.

Let’s look at Jindal, who was quoted on Breitbart and represents a major stream of discourse about immigration:

“Come legally.” This seems reasonable except of course that the ancestors of a huge number of Americans didn’t come legally. We don’t need to be a-historical about this. I know that there were cases of treaties with Native Americans. But there were plenty cases where land was simply stolen by force, and as often that treaties made by European settlers were broken. I know its a new day and we now have better international law, but a lot us can’t stand on Jindal’s moral high ground and say, “my relatives came here legally.”

“Learn English.” Why? The United States has no national language. We have no laws requiring that English be spoken. Within living memory of many people there were large American communities that for generations didn’t speak English. And not just Spanish. Yiddish, Chinese, German, Polish, and others. Lot’s of folks came to the US legally without any English, and just learned enough for the simplest citizenship test to be naturalized.

In any case English itself is hardly a pure linguistic marker of identity. It has a huge variety of dialects, and with regard to loan words is the most promiscuous language in history. Should an Indian have to learn English when words like bandana, pajamas, and ketchup come from India? And what about Spanish speakers – since 90% of all Spanish words have English cognates. And the rest are Arabic or come from indigenous American tribes. And of course we share English with the British, and the Indians (no doubt Jindal’s parents were bi-lingual and taught in English before they came to the US) and the Canadians. Obviously it isn’t a mark of being American, and it isn’t necessary to fully participate in American life.

“Adopt our values.” But which ones? And who is this “our” anyway? Does Jindal mean the values that created slavery and the slave culture, racism, and bigotry that are so deeply part of American culture? Does he mean the values of striking coal miners and auto workers fighting for a living wage? Does he mean the values of anti-Vietnam war protesters? Or the National Guard troops that shot them down like dogs at Kent State? Or the servicemen and women who gave their lives for their country? Or the single mom working two jobs? Or the rich heiress whom we idolize? Or the rich CEO on his 4th trophy wife? Or the woman who has remained faithful to a single man for 50 years? The Muslim woman whose standards of modesty were the norm in the US 100 years ago? Or the modern Christian soccer mom in yoga pants and a sports bra? The man carrying a rifle in Walmart because he can? Or the mothers in support of gun control? The term “American values” has words but no real meaning.

American values have always been contested and varied. Varied across class, ethnic, religious, and regional lines. Talking about “our values” is as nonsensical as it is demeaning to all the real Americans that don’t share them.

“Roll up your sleeves and get to work.” Really Bobby? Because you parents came to the US already rich and privileged, and spun student status into immigration status long after they arrived on these shores. Oh yes, and your mother was pregnant with you when she left India. I guess that makes you what, an anchor baby?

Yes you worked hard. They worked hard. But it is at least arguable that they brought their work ethic from India and didn’t find it in Baton Rouge! So do the vast majority of immigrants, many of whom didn’t come from wealthy families with high academic credentials. The assertion that people come to the US to live on federal largess is absurd. That’s what US corporations and politicians like Jindal do.

No, this talk of assimilation is non-nonsensical. To be an American there is only one requirement: agree to live under our laws and honor our constitution as their font and test. All the rest is optional.

But what about the other side? The refusal to assimilate? The effort to maintain a culture, identity, language, and values from another society? In many ways it enriches us. Would we have all that good ethnic food if Italians, Germans, Chinese, Thais, Poles, Czechs, Mexicans, Salvadorans, Cubans, Ethiopians, Indians, Arabs, Iranians, Indonesians, French and on and on had simply assimilated? It enriches our language, rejuvenates our values, invigorates our culture in every respect. Imagine, those of you who like movies, what Hollywood would be like without the Austrian and German Jews who fled Hitler.

The refusal to assimilate, the insistence on injecting new culture, religion, values, and lifestyles into American society helps makes the US strong.

But, to address my immigrant friend, in the long run some measure of assimilation is inevitable. Economic pressures are such that almost no immigrant group can thrive for more than a generation without learning English. You may be able to survive in many parts of the US speaking only Spanish (the whole Southwest) or even Armenian (Glendale CA), but ultimately you’ll want your children to succeed and that means an English language college or university, work for a private company where English is the norm, or just move out of the old neighborhood and have the geographical mobility that in the US means social mobility. And ultimately it means that to some extent you conform to cultural norms (quite wide) in dress, social relations, and so on. You simply have to assimilate to some extent if you want to enjoy the widest array of economic and social opportunities, and thus the greatest chance for success.

Why do we fear this? Either diversity or assimilation? Change comes to all of us. It is inevitable and it is driven by forces beyond the control of those trying to maintain the integrity of their identity.

On my mother’s side of the family came Dutch, Germans, Czechs, and Scots. Not one Methodist, until now. My grandfather came from a long long line of Anglo-Saxon Quakers who arrived in the Americas 150 years before independence. Generation after generation they moved westward to protect their unique identity. But my grandfather’s birthplace is a ghost town on the High Plains of Texas, and he not only converted to Methodism but did his best to convert others.

And here I am, thinking about assimilation. Married these 37 years to a woman born in the then British colony of Sarawak whose parents came from China. My daughter was born in Austin, my son in Kuala Lumpur. My grandchildren have a Asian-American mother and and Austrian Jewish father. They live in Vienna and speak German. My son is married to a Croatian Catholic. They live in LA. I suppose that their children, should we be so blessed, will also be American. But I bet growing up in LA they understand America differently than I did growing up in Richardson TX.

This may not please Bobby Jindal. It may not please my immigrant friend struggling to maintain an identity in a new world. But it is the case. We will be, generation by generation, new people. We will speak new languages and our old languages will change. We will worship new gods, or the same old God in new guises, or no god at all. We’ll eat food we didn’t know existed and wear clothes our grandparents couldn’t imagine. We will change, society will change, culture will change. And we’ll still be Americans, because America is what we are creating together.

Generation by generation we become the Founding Parents of our nation.

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