Project 4: Assimilation
- Following Gordon (see below), what is assimilation? Why is it important 1) for the host society and 2) for the immigrant population?
Assimilation is the process by which an individual or group adopts the customs, values, and norms of the dominant culture in a society. It is important for the host society because it allows for the integration and acceptance of diverse individuals and groups, leading to a more cohesive and harmonious society. It is important for the immigrant population because it allows them to more easily navigate and participate in society, leading to greater opportunities for success and upward mobility. However, some critics argue that assimilation can lead to the erasure of cultural identities and the loss of cultural heritage for immigrant populations.
Assimilation can also be a two-way process, where the host society may also adopt certain aspects of the immigrant culture. This can lead to a more diverse and inclusive society. However, it is important to note that assimilation can also be imposed and forced upon immigrant populations, leading to feelings of alienation and marginalization. Additionally, some argue that the process of assimilation can be a slow and difficult one, as immigrants may face discrimination and prejudice from members of the host society.
Overall, assimilation is a complex process that can have both positive and negative impacts on both the host society and the immigrant population. It is important to approach the topic with an understanding of the nuances and complexities involved and to consider the perspectives of all parties involved.
- For a case study, choose a family household that is within 2 generations of emigrating to the U.S. (i.e., the oldest members can be born here of immigrant parents). Ask the following questions: Where did they come from? [be as specific as possible] Why did they leave? When did they arrive? What determined where they settled? Did they arrive as a family or in a “chain”? What resources, or “capital(s)”, did they bring with them that shaped the direction and pace of their assimilation?
A fictional example of a family that is within 2 generations of emigrating to the U.S. is a family from Mexico. They come from a small rural town in the state of Jalisco. They left their home country due to economic hardship and limited job opportunities. They arrived in the U.S. in the late 1990s as a family. They settled in Los Angeles, California due to the presence of a large Mexican-American community and the availability of jobs in the service industry. They arrived as a family unit, but they also had some relatives already living in the area who helped them to settle in. They brought with them their knowledge of farming and a strong work ethic, which helped them to find jobs in the agricultural industry. Additionally, they brought with them their strong family values and sense of community, which helped them to maintain a sense of belonging in their new home. They also brought with them a limited amount of savings which helped them to establish themselves in the new country.
It is important to note that this is a fictional example and the specifics of the family’s migration story may vary greatly from real-life cases.
- Use interviews and observation to determine the extent of assimilation, paying attention to generational differences. Assess for major types or stages of assimilation: a) cultural (including educational), b) social (including residential), c) identificational, and d) marital. Because assimilation is a process that entails interrelated “stages”, it is imperative to address differences between generations.
I can provide information on the different types or stages of assimilation that can be used to assess the extent of assimilation in a family.
- Cultural assimilation: This type of assimilation refers to the adoption of the dominant culture’s customs, values, and norms. For example, in the case of the fictional Mexican-American family, it could be assessed through observing their language proficiency, level of education, and participation in American cultural activities such as holidays. Generational differences in cultural assimilation could be observed by comparing the language proficiency and level of education of the older generation to that of the younger generation.
- Social assimilation: This type of assimilation refers to the integration of the immigrant population into the social structures of the host society. For example, in the case of the fictional Mexican-American family, it could be assessed through observing their social networks, participation in community organizations, and residential patterns. Generational differences in social assimilation could be observed by comparing the social networks and community involvement of the older generation to that of the younger generation.
- Identificational assimilation: This type of assimilation refers to the extent to which the individual identifies with the host society. For example, in the case of the fictional Mexican-American family, it could be assessed through observing their sense of belonging and identification with American culture. Generational differences in identificational assimilation could be observed by comparing the sense of belonging and identification with American culture of the older generation to that of the younger generation.
- Marital assimilation: This type of assimilation refers to the extent to which the individual marries within the host society. For example, in the case of the fictional Mexican-American family, it could be assessed through observing the marital patterns of the family members. Generational differences in marital assimilation could be observed by comparing the marital patterns of the older generation to that of the younger generation.
It is important to keep in mind that assimilation is a complex and dynamic process, and the extent of assimilation can vary greatly between individuals and across different dimensions. Additionally, the process of assimilation is not always linear and individuals may experience different stages at different times or in different areas.
- Is there still meaningful ethnic persistence (i.e., partial assimilation) in regard to culture, social relationships, and marital choice? Does this slow or even oppose assimilation?
Yes, there can be meaningful ethnic persistence in regard to culture, social relationships, and marital choice, even as individuals and groups go through the process of assimilation. This is often referred to as “partial assimilation,” as individuals may adopt certain aspects of the dominant culture while still maintaining elements of their own cultural heritage.
For example, in the case of the fictional Mexican-American family, they may speak English fluently and participate in American cultural activities, but they may still celebrate traditional Mexican holidays, listen to Mexican music, and maintain traditional Mexican food practices. They may also maintain strong social ties with other Mexican Americans and participate in Mexican-American community organizations. They may also prefer to marry someone of similar ethnic background.
In some cases, this can slow down or even oppose assimilation as individuals may feel that they do not need to fully assimilate in order to be successful in the host society. Additionally, this can also be a way to maintain a sense of cultural identity and belonging, which can be important for the individual’s mental and emotional well-being.
It is important to note that ethnic persistence can vary greatly among individuals and groups, and it can also change over time. Additionally, the process of assimilation can be more complex for some groups than for others, depending on the type of discrimination and marginalization they face.
- Is there evidence of a “new” ethnicity (e.g., Latinos, Desi, Chicano) that limits assimilation?
- How typical is this family’s experience for the ethnic group in the city or metropolitan region? Note and explain any discrepancies.
- With your case study in mind, is there political resistance to the group’s assimilation? Is the group assimilating in a position of inequality and subordination?
The topic of assimilation is a fitting place to end this course. We have been focusing on ethnicity and race but this raises the question about how groups and individuals so defined become assimilated or incorporated into American life. Revisit the video “Race: The Power of an Illusion/Part 3” (Kanopy) for an overview of the social, political, and economic forces that shaped the assimilation process in the second half of the 20th century, with significantly different outcomes for European immigrant groups and non-whites.
Read: Cornell and Hartman, Chapters 3 and 8.
I screen the 2001 PBS video “My American Girls: A Dominican Story” in this class every semester as a framework for the assimilation project. An in-depth look at the Ortiz family, who immigrated to Sunset Park, Brooklyn from the Dominican Republic. The film tells the story of assimilation as a generational process. It is specifically a process that differentiates and even divides generations within the family. Even within a generation, specifically the second-generation daughters, there is variability according to individualized opportunity structures. KEEP THIS NARRATIVE IN MIND AS YOU CHOOSE YOUR OWN CASE TO STUDY.
Accessing “My American Girls: A Dominican Story”:
Once you reach this page, click on the red button that says “Get Full Access.” You will be prompted to search for the institution, so just type Queensborough and it should bring us up. At that point, you will need to log in using your CUNY (Blackboard) log in credentials. This should bring you to the movie and the accompanying transcript.
Discussion Notes: Milton Gordon’s Stages of Assimilation
For this project, your research will be guided by a theoretical model developed by the sociologist, Milton Gordon. In the influential book Assimilation in American Life, Gordon distinguishes a variety of initial encounters between racial and ethnic groups and an array of possible assimilation outcomes. He presents three competing images of assimilation—the melting pot, cultural pluralism, and Anglo-conformity. However, he focuses on Anglo-conformity as the overarching descriptive reality in the United States. In Gordon’s view, immigrant groups entering this country have given up much of their cultural heritage and conformed substantially to an Anglo-Protestant core culture. America was an English colony until 1776. Consider that all of the major institutions of American life – such as our government, economic system, language, and literature – are historically rooted in British culture.
Gordon distinguishes seven stages of assimilation. For this project, I want you to focus on the first four:
Cultural Assimilation: change of cultural patterns to those of the core society. Consider areas like language, musical and dietary preferences, religious practices, and social values. Remember the video on Italian immigrants. The first generation anchored a family-centered life. This has declined as subsequent generations adopt American values of individualism. In the video, “My American Girls” (see below), the second-generation Ortiz daughters who grew up in Brooklyn are more culturally assimilated than the parents who came from the Dominican Republic as adults and long to return. The oldest daughter is the most culturally assimilated, aspiring to a professional career and living a life outside the Dominican barrio. Like many of her college classmates, she is living with her boyfriend in an apartment off-campus. The adoption of mainstream American values accompanies a concern about being “too Dominican” on the level of culture and identification with the ethnic group. For a consideration of one of the more subtle markers of cultural assimilation, speech, see “You Tawkin’ to Me?”, Erik Olsen and Sam Roberts, NYT (11.19.20). In this short clip, Lauren Lo Giudice of Howard Beach, Queens wants to lose her Queens accent which reflects her status in a lower-class, ethnic minority group culture: https://www.nytimes.com/video/nyregion/1248069311927/you-talkin-to-me.html
Structural Assimilation: This issue refers to the positioning of the individual/group in the society or “social structure”. In your case study, note the distinction between primary and secondary groups. Primary groups are organized around our most intimate needs such as families and friends; this includes a marriage with the dominant group. Secondary groups are more loosely tied together, compartmentalized rather than more encompassing, and involving only part of who we are; examples include schools and workplaces, neighborhoods, and voluntary associations like sports teams. To continue with the example of Italians, the immigrant family expected members to live in the same neighborhood and visiting was frequent. Subsequent generations have been more likely to move away from the kinship group and out of the ethnic neighborhood. With more formal education, they are also more likely to work outside the ethnic economy. The greater social assimilation of the oldest Ortiz daughter is marked by an elite education (when we meet her, she is graduating from Columbia University – one of the elite colleges in the country that opens up a path to elite occupations – and has an ethnically diverse friendship group. In her early twenties, she has put distance between herself and her Dominican family and neighborhood not to mention the D.R. (she doesn’t visit the family there at Christmastime). The younger daughters, who are second generation, are Americanized but they are more influenced by the Dominican barrio, or ethnic neighborhood, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The youngest, in particular, is formatively influenced by an ethnic street culture that has become problematic for the family.
Structural assimilation is correlated with upward mobility in the class system. Ethnic minorities are typically, by definition, concentrated in the lower classes. Their status is marked by discrimination and a lack of “capitals” or resources. Their relationship with major social institutions like the courts, policing, the labor market, formal education, and health care leaves them at a disadvantage. In your case study, pay attention to generational change, specifically in the status of subsequent generations in relation to these major institutions. Monica, for example, is much better positioned than her parents relative to formal education and the labor market. With upward mobility, individuals/groups are at least more likely to realize institutionalized privileges (e.g., better education and healthcare) and less likely to be identified with a minority ethnicity.
Moving up to the middle class (i.e., a position in the class structure) is construed as a measure of assimilation to the extent that it represents a “typical” American lifestyle. If you recall episode 3 of “Race: The Power of Illusion”, moving to the suburbs signaled the assimilation of European ethnic groups after World War Two, with the suburbs framed as the new landscape of the American middle class; there is a dimension of cultural assimilation here as well, centered on good schools for children and commodity consumption oriented to home ownership (e.g., kitchen appliances and backyard grills) and leisure (e.g., golf and backyard swimming pools).
Identificational Assimilation: Identification is perhaps the most critical aspect of ethnicity because it affects all of others. It involves a consciousness that attaches importance to a particular entity, in this ethnicity. To this extent, you are asking how whether and how much individuals see or present themselves as ethnic, on the one hand, and American on the other. Monica Ortiz, the oldest of the sisters who recently graduated from Columbia University, makes it plain in a conversation with an Americanized Dominican friend that she does not make being Dominican salient part of how she sees herself and how she presents herself to others (i.e., she doesn’t have to listen to Dominican music and prefers to drink tea rather than strong Dominican coffee). From a transactional perspective (see Cornell Hartmann, Nagel), identification with ethnicity is a decision that is impacted by opportunities offered by the larger society. The video “Race: The Power of an Illusion” documents how Blacks and other “nonwhite” populations were historically not identified as “American”. At the same time, note the possibility of “new ethnicities” that stop short of full assimilation. While Monica plays down being Dominican she identifies as “Black” and “Latina”.
Marital Assimilation: Mate selection is not random. Individuals marry people who may be personal strangers but who are not cultural strangers. This is the case even when marriage is based on love and like (i.e., erotic friendship). That means that marriage partners are filtered by nationality, religion, and especially race (intersecting with social class). This is determined not only by shared culture but placement in the social structure. Race, religion, and nationality influences whether and to what extent individuals are positioned to engage one another as prospective mates.
Further Thoughts on the “Stages” of Assimilation
Gordon stresses that, although interrelated, stages of assimilation are distinct and may take place at different rates. The concept of “stages” means that cultural assimilation tends to precede structural, also known as social, assimilation. It makes sense, then, that if you speak English and can play basketball, you can be friends with the American kids in your neighborhood or school. This can occur while your parents and grandparents are not as assimilated, culturally and socially. Within any generation, assimilation can be partial; it is even possible to have a substantial culture with limited social assimilation. For example, you can speak only English and play only American sports but you do not do these things with Americans. As far as social assimilation is concerned, Americans may be in your secondary but not primary groups. For a consideration of partial assimilation reflecting racial segregation see Amina Dunn, “Younger, College-Educated Black Americans Are Most Likely to Feel the Need to ‘Code-Switch’”, Pew Research Center (accessed 7.16.20). https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/24/younger-college-educated-black-americans-are-most-likely-to-feel-need-to-code-switch/
For a personal account of not fitting in racially see Auguste, Evan. “Choosing Sides; The Struggle to Exist as a Multi-Ethnic American” (on my QCC web page).
Gordon’s model emphasizes generational changes within immigrant groups over time. Substantial acculturation (cultural assimilation) to the Anglo-Protestant culture has often been completed by the second or third generation for more recent European immigrant groups. The partially acculturated first generation formed protective communities and associations, but the children of those immigrants were considerably more exposed to Anglo-conformity pressures in the mass media and in schools.
Into the present, ethnic group differences have cultural as well structural basis, especially for non-whites. Richard Alba suggests that a new ethnic group “is forming—one based on a vague ancestry from anywhere on the European continent.” In other words, such distinct ethnic identities as English American and Irish American are gradually giving way to identification as “European American that is implicit if not explicitly “white”.
Specific racial assignment and ethnicity have implications for full citizenship (i.e., assimilation) in a society defined as historically European, white, and Christian. See “I’m a Muslim and Arab American. Will I Ever Be an Equal Citizen?”, Laila Lalami, NYT Magazine (9.18.20). https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/17/magazine/im-a-muslim-and-arab-american-will-i-ever-be-an-equal-citizen.html Lalami calls attention to the categories of race and ethnicity that are built into American society which change over time. These categories are reflected in the US Census.
Gordon recognizes that racial prejudice and discrimination have retarded structural assimilation, but he seems to suggest that non-European Americans, including African Americans, particularly those in the middle class, will eventually be absorbed into the dominant culture and society. In regard to blacks, he argues, optimistically, that the United States has “moved decisively down the road toward implementing the implications of the American creed [of equality and justice] for race relations”—as in employment and housing. For a balanced view of social assimilation for white and nonwhite Americans, see “Race: The Power of an Illusion” (Part 3) which we saw at the beginning of the semester. For further insight into residential segregation see:
“Black Homeowners Face Discrimination in Appraisals”, Debra Kamin, NYT (8.27.20) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/25/realestate/blacks-minorities-appraisals-discrimination.html
“How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering”, Gaia Piangiani and Emma Bubola, NYT (8.29.20) https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/24/climate/racism-redlining-cities-global-warming.html
Consider the major social institutions in the United States at the national level in this NYT article by Denise Lu et al. The article focuses on a pattern of racial dominance, specifically the overrepresentation of whites and the underrepresentation of nonwhites, at the top of these institutions – finance, government, the corporate economy, sports, and entertainment, etc. To this extent, race is institutionalized or built into the institutions that shape American life. See “Faces of Power: 80% Are White, Even as U.S. Becomes More Diverse” https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/09/us/powerful-people-race-us.html
While racial identity is not equivalent to culture, there is historical precedence to assume that institutional cultures have been shaped by racial dominance. It is in this sense that law enforcement can be said to be racialized (e.g., to be organized around white privilege).
Racial Inequality has spawned institutional responses from minority groups, in turn. See the article/video below on Historically Black Colleges and Universities which developed to furnish higher education to a population that was historically denied the opportunity on the grounds of racial subordination. African American colleges and universities represent parallel racial worlds. Although there is a comparable academic and campus culture, for example in regard to curriculum requirements and fraternities, however, the article below makes the case that there is something distinctive about the HBCU. See “Welcome to Homecoming!”, Charana Alexander, NYT (10.8.20). https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/07/style/welcome-to-homecoming.html
Social media access does not necessarily signal assimilation. Consider the way African Americans are carving out an ethnic space on LinkedIn. In particular, constructing an ethnic identity referenced to Black activism, specifically the Black Lives Matter movement, is in conflict with the platform’s terms of service agreement. See “Black LinkedIn is Thriving. Does LinkedIn Have a Problem with That?”, Ashanti Martin, NYT (10.8.20). https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/business/black-linkedin.html
Below, you will find extended excerpts from Cornell and Hartmann (2007) for a wider perspective on assimilation:
The Rise of the Original Assimilationist Model
One of the key figures in the reconsideration of biological models of ethnicity and race was an anthropologist at Columbia University named Franz Boas. Boas had the temerity to apply scientific research techniques to the supposedly scientific conclusions of the social Darwinists and effectively demolished them. In showing that there was no systematic correlation between the physiological inheritance of individuals and their intelligence or temperament, he poked a very large hole in the idea that differences in the fortunes of racial or ethnic groups could be explained by biology (Boas 1940; Stocking 1968).
There was more to Boas’s agenda, however. His own statistical and ethnographic studies of immigrants in the United States, various Native American groups, and others convinced Boas that culture was far more involved than biology in explaining how different peoples behaved and why some did better than others economically (Gossett 1963, chap. 16; Stocking 1968). In effect, Boas cleared the way for a series of social scientific works suggesting that differences between ethnic and racial groups were rooted in culture, not biology, and redefining ethnic and racial relations in terms of cultural contacts.
This was a huge change, and it opened up a number of possibilities. Biology was largely static, at least in the short run, but the culture was mutable. If ethnic groups were most importantly cultural groups, not biological groups, then they were mutable as well. Both they and their fortunes might change over time. What had been thought of as rooted in biology and therefore permanent was now seen as rooted in culture and therefore changeable.
The ideas derived from work by Boas and his students had an influence not only in anthropology but in sociology as well. They were particularly influential in the emerging Chicago School of sociology, a body of ideas and thematic concerns taking shape in the 1910s and 1920s under Robert Park, W. I. Thomas, and others at the University of Chicago. Among the interests of the Chicago sociologists, and in particular, Park, was the massive influx of immigrants to the United States. What happened to these immigrant populations? What sorts of adjustments did they make to the society they had entered? What happened to the identities they brought with them? How did the larger society adjust to them? Out of these kinds of inquiries, Park developed his famous race relations cycle: the notion that immigrant groups—and, by implication at least, ethnic or racial populations more generally—typically went through a series of phases as they gradually melted into the larger society. These phases were contact, competition and conflict, accommodation, and, ultimately, assimilation. In this final phase, group members “acquire the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of other persons or groups [in the society], and, by sharing their experience and history, are incorporated with them in a common cultural life” (Park and Burgess 1921:735). The assimilated person “can participate, without encountering prejudice, in the common life, economic and political” (Park 1930:281). The assimilationist model of ethnicity, discussed briefly in Chapter 1, was thus heavily influenced by Park and his colleagues.
There are several key points to be made about these developments. First, they resulted in a view of ethnicity as most fundamentally a cultural phenomenon. Second, against the notion of a biologically rooted ethnic stasis, they posed a socially and culturally rooted ethnic dynamic. Ethnicity, in the new account, was variable and contingent; it could change. Third, they projected a general process of assimilation, a process in which minority identities would eventually disappear. Ethnic and, in the more optimistic versions, even racial groups would be integrated into the majority society’s institutions and culture. The world itself would move away from ethnic and racial particularism and toward a universalist model in which the fortunes of individuals were tied to their merits and to markets (in the liberal democratic vision) or to their place in the system of production (in the socialist one).1
This, in highly condensed and summary form, was the model of ethnicity and race that dominated the first half of the 20th century and then, at midcentury, got into such trouble. A series of events made the limits of assimilationism painfully clear.
The Collapse of Assimilationism
As foreshadowed in Chapter 1, the source of the trouble lay in two major world developments. One was the post-independence experience of the so-called new nations, the former European colonies in Asia and Africa, newly granted their freedom in the great retreat of colonialism in the extended aftermath of World War II. Both for the retreating European powers and for the indigenous, educated, elite groups who dominated the first governments in these new nations, a major objective was to build modern states, overlaid on the boundaries that the colonial powers had established. This effort typically found both its inspiration and its political and civil institutions not in indigenous African or Asian models, but in European-derived ones, either the liberal democracies of Europe and North America or, in some cases, the socialist models of the Soviet Union and China. These imported institutions, however, were often at odds with the political and civil traditions of the former colonial societies that now tried to put them to work.
Furthermore, the boundaries of the new states were themselves artifacts of the colonial era. As the European powers had taken control of vast territories around the world, in many cases they had combined in single administrative units peoples with very different histories, cultures, and languages. Until the period of European domination, many of those peoples had been politically independent of one another, with no tradition of common political action. As the colonial era came to an end, the European powers treated these former colonies as new nations, formally recognizing the states they themselves had created. As Basil Davidson (1992) argued, writing about Africa, the liberation of these colonies “was not a restoration of Africa to Africa’s own history, but the onset of a new period of indirect subjection to the history of Europe” (p. 10). These new states and the political institutions by which they now attempted to govern themselves had roots, but they were shallow ones, grown in the thin soil of colonialism. Nevertheless, “Africa’s own history” refused to go away. In case after case, as the grip of colonial power loosened, ethnic, kinship, regional, and religious ties, both old and new, threatened to demolish the fragile social order left in colonialism’s wake.
But these newly independent states were not the only ones to feel ethnicity’s resurgent power. The other development leading to the collapse of the assimilationist model was the experience of the more industrial parts of the world. By the 1970s, even countries in the world’s most developed regions appeared to be refragmenting and “retribalizing” as ethnic and racial identities reasserted themselves. Intergroup conflicts erupted within populations who ostensibly shared elaborate and long-established civic ties. Perhaps no society offered a better example of this trend than the United States, that self-proclaimed melting pot of populations and cultures. The period from the 1960s into the 1990s was punctuated with ethnic and racial claims and counterclaims and with sometimes dramatic confrontations, particularly along the racial divide that cuts through the heart of American life.
In the late 1950s, a growing protest movement emerged among African Americans struggling against the racial barriers that kept them from the opportunities that other Americans enjoyed. While this movement began as a struggle against racism and for the color-blind, assimilationist ideals that Martin Luther King, Jr., articulated in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech (Hansen 2003), by the mid-1960s a younger generation was resisting the push for assimilation to White cultural norms and was demanding instead recognition and respect as Blacks and, eventually, as African Americans. What began as a distributive politics about housing, jobs, and other resources, arguing that, fundamentally, “we are all the same,” had evolved into a politics of recognition and ethnic assertion, claiming emphatically that “we are different.”
In retrospect, much of this resurgence of ethnicity and race may seem commonsensical. Certainly, the claims that ethnically and racially defined groups around the world have made in recent decades—for land, jobs, restitution, recognition, autonomy, and so on—have often seemed reasonable or at least understandable to observers who have grown up in a multicultural world (Glazer 1997). What made these various manifestations of resurgent group ties so puzzling was the long-held expectation of their imminent, eventual, or ultimate demise. Well-established assimilationist expectations came up against persistent ethnic and racial realities. Both the nation-building of the less developed countries of the world and the nation maintaining of the more developed countries turned out to be frustratingly complex.
Of course, some analysts, particularly those who had been concerned explicitly with race, were less surprised. African Americans, for example, had always been seen as the great exception to the assimilationist model, but that exception had been left largely unaddressed by the model itself (Kasinitz 2004). Now its significance was glaring. In the context of the civil rights and Black Power movements and the upheaval of the old colonial order across the world, the contradictions between theory and reality, between expectation and event, could not have been more obvious or more in need of explanation. What had happened to assimilation?
The Search for Alternatives
These contradictions produced a flurry—occasionally a blizzard—of scholarly activity. As racial and ethnic groups mobilized across the globe, the amount of social scientific information available about them burgeoned. Social scientists churned out monographs, case studies, analytical concepts, typologies, and explanatory models trying to piece together the puzzles of ethnicity and race.
Many of their conclusions were couched in ethnic terms, the unspoken assumption being that race-based identities were fundamentally ethnic. In 1976, for example, William Yancey, Eugene Ericksen, and Richard Juliani (1976) described the ethnic identities apparently produced or fostered by developing industrial societies as “emergent ethnicity,” while Herbert Gans (1979) argued that contemporary third- and fourth-generation groups of European descent in the United States—the contemporary manifestations of the immigrant groups studied by Yancey and colleagues—were carriers of “symbolic ethnicity.” Charles Ragin (1977) and others wrote about “reactive ethnicity” as they tried to account for an ethnic resurgence in the industrial countries of the world, while Stephen Stern and John Cicala (1991) titled their collection of essays on contemporary ethnic life in the United States Creative Ethnicity. Scholars took up the topics of ethnogenesis (Taylor 1979), ethnic competition (Banton 1983; Olzak 1992), ethnic conflict (Horowitz 1985), ethnic mobilization (Nagel and Olzak 1982), ethnic chauvinism (Patterson 1977), the invention of ethnicity (Sollors 1989), and the political construction of ethnicity (Nagel 1986), among other things. Various classification schemes identified ethnic traditionalists, ethnic militants, ethnic manipulators, situational ethics, pseudo-ethnics, and symbolic ethnics (McKay 1982). In the American context alone, David Colburn and George Pozzetta (1994:142) compiled the following list of ethnic designations that have been used in both popular and scholarly discourse: ethnic revival, reawakening, reassertion, resurgence, revolt, revitalization, renaissance, rediscovery, and backlash, and the new pluralism, the new ethnicity, reactive (or reactionary) ethnicity, ethnic chauvinism, and the invention of ethnicity. We could add many more.
Each of these terms carried a certain set of assumptions and judgments regarding the nature of ethnically or racially based identities and of relations between ethnic or racial groups (Colburn and Pozzetta 1994). Some analysts believed that such identities never went away; others argued that they were entirely new. For some, ethnicity was malleable or even negotiable; for others, it was resilient and unchanging. By some accounts, ethnic identities and connections provided a refuge for persons alienated by modern society or struggling with the costs of social inequality; by others, they constituted a resource to be used as a basis of proactive mobilization, linking people together and firing their passions on behalf of a common interest or cause. Some treated ethnicity as a social form with a logic of its own; others treated it as a social category or set of categories that individuals could use, manipulate, transfigure, or work with according to their own logic and by their own lights. Some saw ethnic identities as self-consciously chosen by those who carry them—others, as so deeply embedded as to be beyond choice or even consciousness.
From one perspective, material interests drive identity. Ethnic and racial identities are utilitarian: They come to the forefront of social life when there are payoffs attached to them and when people think that they can gain something politically or economically by organizing and acting on ethnic or racial terms. From a second perspective, shared cultural practices drive identity. Ethnic identities are not tools for the pursuit of gains, but products of the distinctive ways that people live, act, speak, eat, worship, and celebrate. It is our behavior, not our agenda, that binds us together. From yet a third perspective, what drives identity are the cognitive schemes by which people think about, understand, and negotiate the world around them. Ethnic identities are embedded in the shared conceptual models of the world and of the self that people learn—from parents, from peers, from experience—and then use to organize their actions and account for what happens to them and to the world at large. Regardless of what drives these identities, some people celebrate ethnicity as a haven in a heartless world or as the fountainhead of human diversity that should be cherished and preserved. To them, it is the key to a better future. Others see ethnicity as a threatening and ultimately destructive force whose emphasis on human differences and group entitlements already bears responsibility for a remarkable share of avoidable human tragedy.
This conceptual richness and confusion have drawn on an equally rich and diverse empirical base. As ethnicity and race have captured more and more attention, no part of the world has been ignored. Scholars of ethnicity and race have wandered through a good deal of recent history and around the globe, from Oceania (Linnekin and Poyer 1990) to Chechnya (Tishkov 2004), from Italian and Latino communities in the city of Tampa, Florida (Mormino and Pozzetta 1987), to the Lebanese community in Senegal (Leichtman 2005), from the copper mining region of Zambia (Epstein 1978) to the Sikhs of India (Tatla 2005), from Texas and Wisconsin (Bobo and Tuan 2006; Foley 2004) to Ecuador (Whitten 1976). It is difficult sometimes to see how all of these concepts, categories, and cases fit together or just what solution they provide to the puzzles of ethnicity and race. In the aggregate, they describe an enormous degree of variation in ethnic and racial phenomena, but do they explain that variation? They also point to the continuing power of ethnicity and race, but do they account for that power?
The Split Response to Assimilationism
The problem was not so much escaping the assimilationist model—the last major work situated explicitly within the original assimilationist tradition was Milton Gordon’s Assimilation in American Life (1964)—as reaching a consensus on what should follow it. The widening gap between assimilationist theory and ethnic and racial realities produced two seemingly contradictory scholarly responses. One, which came to be known as primordialism, suggested that the fundamental, intractable power of ethnic and racial group identities had derailed the assimilation train. The other response, which came to be known as circumstantialism or instrumentalism, claimed the opposite: that the very malleability and flexibility of ethnic and racial identities were to blame—the fact that they were so easily affected by changes in circumstances and could be used for so many purposes. The first response said these identities and group ties survive because they are fixed, basic to human life, and forever “given” by the facts of birth. The second response said they survive because they are fluid, superficial, and changeable, products of the circumstances of the moment, and therefore useful. One said they survive because they are rooted in the blood—and the other, because they are rooted in circumstances or interests.
Much scholarly discussion has seen these two approaches as mutually exclusive, even diametrically opposed, and in many ways they are, but they also have strengths and weaknesses that are in some ways complementary. In the remainder of this chapter, we explore these two paradigms, investigating what they have to offer to the puzzles of ethnicity and race and what they leave unanswered.
Beginning in the 1990s, however, a number of scholars in the United States and elsewhere initiated a systematic reappraisal of assimilationism and of the assumptions embedded in it (for example, Brubaker 2001; Joppke and Morawska 2003; Kazal 1995; Kivisto 2004; Portes 1995; Portes and Rumbaut 2001). Informed by circumstantial insights, such scholars jettisoned the assumptions either that assimilation is inevitable or that it is unidirectional toward some undifferentiated socioeconomic and cultural mainstream. They focused instead on the conditions—economic, political, and cultural—that shape how migrants and other minority populations are incorporated into the social order. They paid particular attention to the so-called second generation. These children of migrants, it turns out, do not typically follow a single path, but instead move along diverse trajectories reflecting both their class and racial backgrounds and the racial and economic structures of receiving societies. This new, divergent pattern of incorporation is known as segmented assimilation (Portes and Zhou 1993).
The United States offers an illustration. Changes in the U.S. economic structure have reduced the availability of the low-skilled manufacturing jobs that earlier waves of immigrants depended on for a foothold in the labor market. At the same time, many newer immigrants, particularly those from Mexico and the Caribbean, are darker in color than the various Europeans who dominated those earlier waves and are entering a society still sharply stratified by race. Under these circumstances, migrant opportunities are limited, and the trajectories migrants follow diverge.
Migrants with resources—those, for example, from middle-class backgrounds or with higher skills or educational credentials—may be able to overcome the disadvantages inherent in their situations and either maintain or improve their economic status or at least open doors for their children. What’s more—and in direct contrast with traditional assimilationist assumptions—resource-rich migrants in enclaves that maintain (rather than relinquish) distinctive ethnic institutions and identities often adapt very well to their new surroundings, drawing support from family members, networks of fellow ethnics, and the resources these have to offer. Whereas the older assimilationism measured success in part by degrees of integration into nonethnic organizations, networks, and cultural practices and saw ethnic communities as an occasional drag on upward mobility, these newer models see ethnic communities as potential resources for mobility and success.
For lower-class or lower-skilled migrants, on the other hand, the upward path is likely to be far more difficult. Furthermore, thanks to residential and class segregation and the racism that still shapes the American opportunity structure, the children of these migrants are more likely to be engaged with the cultures of urban African American and Hispanic youth that reject the dominant, White society and the educational tracks that earlier immigrants pursued (Gans 1992; Kasinitz 2004; Rumbaut 1997; Waters 1999). For example, some West Indian immigrants and their children, as Waters (1999) point out, “assimilate not just as Americans but as black Americans” (p. 195), being incorporated eventually into the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic structure. In such cases, assimilation may even entail downward mobility.
Such patterns are emerging elsewhere, too. The persistence of ethnic and racial differences and of divergent patterns of incorporation are evident among the French-born children of North African immigrants in France, for example, and among German-born Turkish immigrants in Germany. Not only have such patterns complicated the tasks of socioeconomic integration, but they have also forced these countries—and others with similar situations—to rethink the boundaries of citizenship and the cultural bases of national belonging (Alba 2005; Alba and Silberman 2002; Brubaker 2001; Favell 1998). While the U.S. experience may be illustrative, it is hardly exceptional.
Whether such modified assimilationist models will hold up remains to be seen. Waldinger and Feliciano (2004) have recently suggested, for example, that the children of Mexican immigrants to the United States are doing better than the segmented assimilation model predicts, and Alba (1995) argued that traditional assimilation remains a “quiet tide” for many groups, albeit one characterized more by structural integration than by the adoption of mainstream cultural norms (see also Alba and Nee 2003, and Boyd and Grieco 1998 on second-generation migrants in Canada). While this neoassimilationist lens has challenged some older assumptions and revealed a high degree of variation in processes of migrant adjustment, its own certainties have yet to emerge (Kivisto 2003). It even raises the question of whether assimilation as a concept has outlived its usefulness. If assimilation embraces so many divergent paths, to what, exactly, does it refer? Instead of trying to describe these various trajectories as different versions of assimilation, perhaps we should abandon the term and talk instead about the various ways that ethnic and racial groups are incorporated into existing economic, political, and cultural systems, often modifying them in the process (cf. Alexander 2001; Hartmann and Gerteis 2005; Kivisto 2003).2
Assimilation is not absolute, something that is all or nothing. It can be a matter of proportion and degree; it can be compartmentalized, even situational. See this excerpt from a Pew Research study that finds a pattern of “code-switching” among Black Americans:
Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely than their white counterparts to say they at least sometimes feel the need to change the way they express themselves when they are around people with different racial and ethnic backgrounds – a phenomenon sometimes called “code-switching.” And black college graduates, particularly those under 50, are especially likely to feel this is necessary.
Overall, four-in-ten black and Hispanic adults and a third of whites say they often or sometimes feel the need to change the way they talk around others of different races and ethnicities, according to a survey conducted earlier this year by Pew Research Center.
In addition to educational differences, age plays a role when it comes to code-switching among black Americans. Younger black adults are more likely than their older counterparts to report feeling the need to switch how they express themselves when they are among people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
A Strategy to Not Assimilate
The Amish are an example of an ethnic group that has no intentions to assimilate. An ethnic group with an urban, rather than a rural, strategy is the ultra-orthodox Jews. See “City of Joel” (2019, Kanopy) for an ethnic group that is determined NOT to assimilate. It examines the local conflict between the ultra-orthodox Jewish, Satmar sect in Monroe, New York. The group numbers some 22,000 at present. Originally based in Boro Park, Brooklyn they moved en masse to Monroe to afford the space to grow, literally reproducing at rates far higher than American fertility rates – itself a measure of cultural difference – and sustain institutions that keep them separate from the surrounding community. The film focuses on tensions over the vote that would allow the sect to annex more land for Hasidic institutions.
The sociological distinctiveness of orthodox Jewish communities was underscored in the regulation of the Covid pandemic. Higher rates of infection can be read as the absence of social and cultural assimilation, in particular, the unwillingness of the ethnic community to disappear. See “When Covid Flared Again in Orthodox Jewish New York”, Ginia Bellafante, NYT (10.5.20). https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/05/nyregion/orthodox-jewish-nyc-coronavirus.html
The article excerpted below interprets 20202 Presidential election results to infer the possibility that racialized ethnic minorities may, nevertheless, identify with whiteness by voting for Trump and the Republicans – although, following Cornell and Hartmann, it remains to be seen whether these claims to whiteness will be validated by wider social acceptance.
Democrats may be seeing a slippage in support from some minority communities. And in the case of Hispanics in particular, some of that movement is a result of a form of identity politics, as they more and more see themselves as identifying with the white majority. And since nearly six in 10 whites voted Republican in 2020, it should follow that as minorities move toward what we might think of as a mainstream white Americanism, some will become more Republican.
According to my calculations, the data also reveals that the share of nonwhite voters identifying as Democratic reached 75 percent in 2008 when Mr. Obama was elected. In 2019, the most recent year of this data, just 51 percent of nonwhites identified as Democratic.
The 2018 and 2019 numbers come from a smaller sample than the National Election Survey election-year data, but even if we dismiss 2019 as a blip, it is noteworthy that the Democratic share has fallen in every survey since 2008. It is becoming more difficult to write this off as simply a return to the pre-Obama status quo.
Many minorities who no longer identify as Democrats have become independents rather than Republicans — much like their white Catholic predecessors initially did — but this means their loyalties are increasingly up for grabs on Election Day.
In order to understand what may be occurring, it is useful to examine which kind of minority voter leans Republican. For Hispanics and Asian Americans, this raises the question of assimilation. If these newer groups follow the path laid by earlier generations of Italians and Jews, they will come to identify themselves more and more as white rather than as minorities. The political scientists Álvaro Corral and David Leal show that Latinos whose families had been in America for three generations were more likely to vote for Mr. Trump in 2016. My analysis of Pew survey data from 2018 reveals that there is a big gap between the immigrant Hispanic generation and the third generation (representing a child of a U.S.-born Hispanic). Almost 80 percent of the immigrant Hispanic generation voted Democratic, whereas the third generation figure was about 60 percent.
Mr. Trump’s more defensive, cultural brand of nationalism — and occasionally racist comments — were once thought to be a deal-breaker for minority voters. However, these messages can resonate with minorities. In addition, according to my analysis, Hispanics who are American-born and native English speakers are more likely to believe others see them as white. Hispanics and Asians who say their American identity is “extremely important” to them also feel warmer toward white Americans.
Hispanics who predominantly speak English are more secure about their position in American society. When asked in 2018 whether Mr. Trump’s election gave them “serious concerns” about their place in America or whether they were confident they belonged, these Hispanics were 22 points more confident than those who predominantly speak Spanish.
For African-Americans, data from a Qualtrics survey I conducted shows that voters with the weakest attachment to their Black identity had a higher propensity to vote for Mr. Trump, and these voters were more likely to live in ZIP codes with a smaller Black population. While just 16 percent of African-Americans in our sample said their Black identity was not especially important to them, the political scientist Tasha Philpot writes that attendance at a Black church is often linked to a stronger Black identity, and thus to higher Democratic identification. And if Black voters moved away from what Ismail White, a political scientist at Duke, calls “social networks within the Black community,” that might limit the power of the community to enforce a Democratic-voting norm.
Joe Biden’s coalition, which is less dependent on minority votes, could insulate the Democrats from the political risks of any minority movement away from the left. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump’s better-than-expected performance in 2020 suggests a Republican coalition of secure minorities and anxious whites may be a match for the “emerging Democratic majority” of anxious minorities and secure whites.
“How Stable Is the Democratic Coalition?”, Eric Kauffman, NYT (2.16.21)
Alba, Richard, “The Likely Persistence of a White Majority”, American Prospect (1.11.16).
Akitunde, Anthonia. “Buying Black, Rebooted”. NYT (12.26.19). Also see a hyperlink to “Dreams Deferred: How Enriching the 1 Percent Widens the Racial Wealth Divide”, Institute for Policy Studies (2019).
Fukui, Masako. “’ I Smell You…’: Ethnic Smells and Olfactory Assimilation”, https://masakofukui.com/ (accessed 2.20.20).
Green, Emma, “How America is Transforming Islam”, The Atlantic, 12.31.17.
Jilani, Seema. “My Daughter Passes for White”, NYT (2.28.20).
Lacy, Karyn. “How to Prove You’re Middle Class”, NYT (1.22.20).
Lee, Felicia. “A Real Postracial America”. NYT (8.12.14).
Leiber, Ron and Tara Bernard. “The Stark Racial Inequity of Personal Finances in America”, NYT (6.9.20).
Shapiro, Eliza. “’I Love My Skin!’ Black Parents Find Alternative to Integration”, NYT (1.8.19).
Shapiro, Eliza. “New York’s Most Selective Public High School Has 895 Spots. Black Students Got 7.”, NYT (3.19.19).
Video: “Segregation Now”, (NYT video, posted 4/16/14); “Italian Americans: Our Contributions” (Youtube); “The House We Live In”/Frank Sinatra (Youtube).