Cultural assimilation is interpenetration and fusion of ethnic minorities into the dominant culture. In case of classical assimilation, immigrants and members of ethnic group are expected to come to resemble the majority group in terms of norms, values and behavior. Assimilation, known also as incorporation, appears in societies where the majority group does not tolerate different ethnic or racial identities. As a result of assimilation, ethnic characteristics of the minority can disappear. This phenomenon is the opposite of multiculturalism, which respects and promotes diversity in society.
American sociologist Milton Gordon has found out that there are three models of assimilation in the United States: Anglo conformity, the melting pot and cultural pluralism. Anglo conformity designates the case where the minority group has to accept the norms and values of the dominant group as superior. The term melting pot describes a society in which different ethnic groups form a new cultural identity. The metaphor comes from the eponymous play by Israel Zangwill, which became a hit on Broadway in 1908. In the case of cultural pluralism, described also with the metaphor the salad bowl, ethic and immigrant groups retain their cultural identity.
Forms of assimilation include behavioral assimilation, known as acculturation, and structural or socioeconomic assimilation. Acculturation occurs when a member of the ethnic minority adopts the cultural norms and values of the dominant group. Instances of acculturation include learning the language of the host country or acquiring citizenship. Hence, immigrants discard their own traditions and beliefs and embrace the culture and identity of their new country.
Structural or socioeconomic assimilation, on the other hand, depicts cases where minority representatives are integrated into social, political, economic and cultural circles of the country. Through this kind of assimilation, they can attain higher status, they have access to good pay, prestigious occupation and they enjoy the benefits available to the mainstream groups.
Researchers debate why certain groups are more prone to cultural assimilation, while other communities remain largely unassimilated. Studies show that racial differences can play a key role. For example, white immigrants who arrived to the United States in the 19th century were able to integrate in US society. Meanwhile, this process was much more difficult for non-whites, which included the efforts for Americanization of Native Americans. In the 19th and early 20th century the dominant majority in the United States regarded Irish and Italian immigrants as inferior. Gradually, they integrated into the host country and the majority started to regard them as white. Sociologists now try to predict whether 20th century immigrants from Asia and Latin America will be able to integrate in a similar way.
The economic conditions in the host country also have a say in the assimilation process. The economic upturn offers a number of opportunities to newcomers, whereas economic difficulties can slow down the process of assimilation.
The third factor in assimilation is class difference. Well educated, skillful and multilingual minority representatives can more easily find their place in the host country.
At a family level, research gives evidence for the connection between the child's relationship with his or her parents and his or her ethnic and minority identity. In case of a stable child-parent relationship, the child is more eager to adopt the parent's identity, and therefore he or she will not easily integrate in the host country.
Assimilation has been a major issue for the United States, because of the diversity of early settlers and the subsequent large immigration waves. Four out of five colonialists belonged to the dominant group, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, also known as WASPS. Over the centuries, the white communities formed a somewhat unified society. Non-white residents and new immigrants however still differ from the majority group. For the past decades, the number of population of non-European ancestry has grown considerably. This is attributed to the fact that certain immigrant and ethnic groups have a higher birth rate than whites. The change in reality has required changes in education, history and identity concepts.
Institutions also play a lead role in assimilation policies. For example, in 1946 Jewish organizations convinced the New York City Council to impose tax sanctions on higher education institutions which discriminate students on the basis of race and religion.