Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

E Pluribus Unum: The Assimilation Paradigm Revisited

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

E Pluribus Unum: The Assimilation Paradigm Revisited

Article excerpt

Assimilation theory has not lost its utility for the study of immigration to the United States.--Richard Alba

IS THERE UNITY in diversity? Will the central core of civil culture hold? Or does the road to multiculturalism lead to exaggerated pluralism, hyper-pluralism, and even "street-fighting pluralism"? Will America become another former disintegrating megastate such as the Soviet Union, or even in its more benign form, a language-divided Switzerland?

A tentative response to that issue was provided by James Olson, who argues that "At any given point in American history the society seems quite diverse, apparently confirming the opinions of cultural pluralists about the continuing vitality of racial, religious, nationality, and linguistic differences. Despite appearances, however, the processes of modernization, acculturation, and assimilation have been inexorable, constantly working to transform minority values and loyalties and bring them in line with those of the large society" (335).

More recently a concept called Trans-Nationalism has emerged to challenge the classical three-generation assimilation model, a model that has proved a powerful explanatory tool in accounting for America's nationhood. The trans-national model rests heavily on the first generation and only partly on the second generation experience, and therein may be its fatal flaw. Only when these newcomer groups have experienced the full three-generation time span in the U.S. can the classical model be judged for these non-European immigrants.

The recent study by Padma Rangaswamy explicates the trans-national model. He argues that the 1965 immigration law significantly altered origins of newcomers from Europe to primarily Latin lands and Asia, with potentially far-reaching consequences. Accompanying that, the 1990 family reunification law has increased the number of newcomers to about a million a year, and is in effect a quota controlled not by governmental policy but by individuals and groups of immigrants, who will decide how many or how few of their kinfolk to bring to America. The ethnic refreshing that comes with the arrival of younger children and brothers and sisters brought in by aging parents will slow the assimilation process argue trans-national proponents. The inflow of large numbers is potentially continuous and non-ending, and thus Euro-American assimilation which was speeded up by the ending of mass migration in 1924, has no counterpart with the new Asian and Latin-American migrations.

Thus the model's exponents assert that the classical three-generation assimilation model derived from the European immigration epic is not applicable to Asian Indians, many with their high incomes and educations, extensive family connections, easy air travel back and forth to India: they will not assimilate in the classical sense but remain at the core Indians living in a high-paying American diaspora. Asian Indians, Rangaswamy concludes, "will not merge into American society or assimilate in the conventional sense any more than they have done in other parts of the world. They will retain their right to identify with different aspects of Indian or American culture, thus creating a unique Indian-American, trans-national culture of their own" (xix).

What are some of implications of trans-nationalism? Will the non-assimilated trans-national import bone-deep and age-old animosities such as Hindu-Muslim style conflict, Serbo-Croatian brawling, or a semi-permanent Middle-Eastern-style holy war? Will the road to multiculturalism lead to the end of the American experiment in assimilation? Is "street-fighting pluralism" the joker in the multicultural deck of cards? No one knows for certain. Our prognosticators peer through a glass darkly. Even so our best guide to the future is the past and the immediate past. We go forward in history like a person rowing a boat--he/she looks backward while rowing forward. With that metaphor let's row forward by looking backward through the (historic) lens of E Pluribus Unum: the Latin phrase that means one from many and which has been for the past three centuries a reasonable description of the making of a nation through a set of shared values that are generally called American. …

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